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These days, the northeast corner of 14th Street Northwest and Pennsylvania Avenue, 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."
Local historian and author Paul Dickson got his start in Washington as a news reporter, and he says Newspaper Row "was sort of the center of the nation's news gathering."
It began during the Civil War, when Western Union opened an office on the corner, "so, in the day before telephones or anything else, all the newspapers clustered here," Dickson says. "The New York Times was back in an alley, sort of where the back of the Marriott lobby is today. 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."
Dickson says Newspaper Row hit its peak during the Spanish-American War. "You've got President McKinley running the war from a war-room," Dickson says. "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."
President McKinley also held very special kinds of press conferences, Dickson says. "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 sort of holding impromptu press conferences, telling the reporters from the various papers what he was up to, how the war was going."
Right by Newspaper Row was a famous corridor known as Rum Row. "This is where a lot of the taverns were," Dickson says. "The Washington Post had this monstrous sort of gothic building, [and] on either side [was] Gerstenberg's and Shoemaker's, which are two taverns. And a lot of members of Congress would come down in the evening and drink at these taverns and talk to the reporters from their districts, or sort of lobby the reporters. It was how it worked back then!"
Dickson says a major moment for Newspaper Row was the construction of the National Press Building, which went up in 1926.
"They were going to consolidate all the bureaus of the different papers," Dickson explains, "Rather than have all these sprawling two-story buildings, [they would] have them all in a building where they could have central access to communications and such."
But the reason the press club was founded in the first place, Dickson says, had nothing to do with communications. It had to do with food and drink. The nearby taverns all closed 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 eat and drink after midnight. So that was the nexus of the press club, was a place to fortify oneself in the middle of the night!"
Newspaper Row eventually began to subside as the newspapers modernized. The Washington Post moved to another building on 15th Street, and the other papers consolidated in the new Press Building. So Newspaper Row "was pretty much done for when the press building opened," Dickon says.
As someone who got his start in the media, reporting on the space race, Paul Dickson says he feels a certain nostalgia for a time when something like Newspaper Row was a major part of D.C. life.
"I feel a nostalgia in the sense that there was more of a news community," he says. "It was more of a group. Not that they collectively thought one way or another, but it was knowing all these people. 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. I guess sort of as somebody who was trained and born as a reporter, I loved it. I loved the swagger, the fun of it."
[Music: "Happy Talk" by Tony Scott & His Quartet from South Pacific Jazz]
Photos: Newspaper Row