dark wood, dim lights, and cigarette smoke...

Where old DC drank

Washington was once a city of corner bars. The hotels had the big ballrooms for those who wanted to dance to a band, but who could afford to drink there? The nightclub district around 14th and K Streets was for tourists or the big night out. Certainly there were the jazz clubs on U Street NW, the only integrated bars in the city, as well as innumerable cabarets, bottle clubs, and rent parties in private homes. But through the mid-1950s, an evening out drinking likely meant a dim room with a dark wood bar where the taps spouted DC's own Senate Beer and the drinker could recognize almost every face in the backbar mirror above the ranks of bottles. If you wanted a mixed drink, you had to be seated at a table and you couldn't have even a Senate if you were standing. On weekends you had to drink up early. Last call on Saturday and Sunday was midnight, when the house confiscated unfinished drinks, unless perhaps you purchased an empty Coke bottle from your waiter.

From the mid-Thirties to the mid-Fifties, the blue collar commercial strip on H Street NE had a bar or two in virtually every block. Just east of North Capitol Street were the small bars that catered to the shift changes at the Government Printing Office or the train crews from Union Station. H Street NE's more easterly blocks were lined with thriving stores which catered to both white and African-American customers, although many of its bars and restaurants were segregated at least by custom. Around 8th Street NE were nightclubs which offered dancing and entertainment, and "grills" that offered food and mixed drinks as well as beer to the neighborhood crowd. A row of taverns and restarants also radiated from "The Hub", as the complicated intersection of H Street, 15th Street, Florida Avenue, and Bladensburg Road NE was widely known.

Click the Senate bottle above to return to the Victorian Secrets Homepage

Click the matchbook cover below for "Live! From Club Kavakos"

Although the graphics on its handsome matchcovers are appealingly archiac, the Camden Tavern did not open until after Prohibition. During the restless forced idleness of the Depression years, when sandlot sports drew large crowds and extensive newspaper coverage, the taverns baseball team took on such local powerhouses as neighborhood arch-rival Kavakos Grille. A May, 1935, Washington Post article reported that former Senator greats Sam Rice and Joe Judge would don Camden Tavern uniforms for a battle on the elipse with Majestic Radio. Although Rice and Judge were both over 40, each had worn a major league uniform in 1934. And in bowling, the Camden Tavern's squad of "maple-spillers" regularly won league titles at Northeast Temple lanes near the corner of 13th and H Streets NE.

Times in the neighborhood began getting harder in the 1940s, when the tavern was burgled several times. In 1948, a fleeing young man was shot and critically wounded after a police patrol encountered him behind the tavern at 2:30 AM on a Sunday morning. In 1954, another young man, reportedly out on bond after a "street theft" arrest, was shot and seriously wounded as the climax to an argument inside the tavern. And even Washington's most established local institutions were finding postwar times inhospitable. The matchcover's offer of "Schlitz Beer on draught" was one more toll of the death bell for Senate and the Heurich Brewery, which the national brands drove out of business in 1956.

The Camden itself barely survived the Heurich Brewery. The mid-1950s were Washington's peak years of suburban flight, and by 1960 the Camden had given way to a Saint Vincent De Paul Thrift Store. But its handsome building still sits at a jaunty angle to the corner of 13th and H Streets NE with fishscale shingles and sword-like spire intact.