MS. REBECCA SHEIR
Welcome back to "Metro Connection." I'm Rebecca Sheir and this week we're speaking loud and clear for all to hear with a show about communication. Earlier in the program we met researchers who've been studying how Washingtonians communicate and how those speech patterns and accents reflect our region's history and culture. In this part of the show, we're going to go back in time. In just a bit we'll go digging for ancient fossils and consider what those fossils are trying to communicate about our region's climate.
MS. REBECCA SHEIR
But first, we'll visit a place that once served as a communication hotbed here in D.C., especially when it came to the news. And we'll head over there with a guy who knows a thing or two about D.C.'s news biz. You may have heard him on the show before. His name is Paul Dickson.
MR. PAUL DICKSON
I'm a local writer and my new book is called "Words From The White House," which comes out in January.
Before Paul penned his repertoire of more than a dozen books, he was a print reporter in Washington, sent here by a magazine to cover the space race.
It was like a childhood fantasy. He said, Dickson, go down there and start writing about this attempt we're gonna make to land on the moon. And I'm saying to myself, what?
So Paul's actually spent a fair amount of time around the spot we're visiting today. It's the northeast corner of 14th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest, where nowadays, you'll find a big Marriott Hotel and a little gift shop selling political knick-knacks. But once upon a time, this area had the grand distinction of being D.C.'s very own Newspaper Row.
This was sort of the center of the nation's news gathering. And it really starts in the Civil War. And the key to the whole place is on the corner here was the Western Union office. So in the day before telephones or anything else, all the newspapers clustered here. The New York Times was back in an alley. Sort of where the back of the Marriott lobby is today is where the New York Times -- a big building. It was about a six-story building.
The New York World was here. The Boston Advertiser was another door down. The New York Tribune was here. The Baltimore Sun was here. Just about every paper east of the Mississippi was here during that period. And it really hits its peak during the Spanish-American War. You've got President McKinley running the war from a war-room. He actually has a war-room in the White House. He's the first president to have not only a telegraph, but he's the first president to have a telephone. And he's cleared out one of the rooms and he's put up all these maps and he's actually talking to battle-field commanders, admirals in the fleet, about the war itself.
And McKinley, he would be running from the White House, which is only a block and a half, two blocks away. He'd be running down here and holding sort of impromptu press conferences, telling the reporters from the various papers what he was up to, how the war was going.
So instead of having the press come to him, McKinley would essentially go to the press.
Yes. Also, this is where a lot of the taverns were. The Washington Post office -- we're now about a couple hundred yards down. The Washington Post had this monstrous sort of gothic building, on either side were Gerstenberg's and Shoemaker's, which are two taverns. And a lot of members of Congress would come down in the evening, Senate and House, would come down and drink at these taverns and talk to the reporters from their districts and such, or try to get the reporters -- sort of lobby the reporters, reporters would interview them.
I was going to say, is that kosher?
I guess, but it was how it worked back then. So it was a very vital, active place. And on the corner was the old Abbott Hotel, which was here right up until the 1920s. And finally in 1926 it was ripped down and the National Press Building, which is now here today, was erected in its spot. And they were going to consolidate all the bureaus of the different papers, rather than have all these sprawling two-story buildings, have them all in a building where they could have, you know, central access to communications and such.
But the reason the press club was founded in the first place -- and the first press club was up on F Street above a jewelry store -- was that the infamous or famous, depending on your sensibilities -- taverns that were here, they had to close at midnight. And there were a lot of people working the morning shift and working the overnight shift and they wanted a place to go drink and eat after midnight. So that was the nexus of the press club, was a place to fortify oneself in the middle of the night.
So what brought about the end of Newspaper Row?
The papers modernized. The Post, it moved from this building, uptown, 15th Street. The other papers consolidated in the new press building. It was pretty much done for when the press building opened.
As someone who got his start in the media, you know, reporting on the space race, do you feel at all a nostalgia for a time when something like Newspaper Row existed?
I feel a nostalgia in the sense that there was more of a news community. It was more of a group. Not that they collectively thought one way or another, but it was knowing all these people. I mean, walking up to the press club and seeing Eric Sevareid or seeing Cronkite, or seeing these really important people who would be part of the press corp. Now they're sort of removed from it all by the television tube and the whole thing, but I guess as, you know, sort of somebody who was trained and born as a reporter, probably before I became a writer as such, I was a reporter, I loved it. I loved the swagger, the fun of it, you know, the sawdust on the floor, you know, but I'm a dinosaur, you know.
Well, Paul Dickson, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today.
Thank you, Rebecca.
Paul Dickson is the author of the upcoming book "Words From The Whitehouse." Words and phrases coined or popularized by America's presidents. You can see photographs of Newspaper Row, then and now, on our website metroconnection.org.
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