On a warm Spring day in May 1977, Lambda Rising moved around the corner to bigger and brighter premises at 2012 S St NW. DC's gay bookstore and proto-community center had gotten too big for 1724 20th St NW and Earthworks, its parent.
Twentieth Street between R and S streets isn't one of Dupont Circle's more impressive side streets but in the Seventies that short block became central to many gay community institutions. At its heart was the three story townhouse at number 1724. In an age of antiwar activism, liberation fronts for women, gays, African-Americans, farmers and more, the Quicksilver Times called 1724 the "Community Building".
From 1970 through the 1980s, the building at 1724 sheltered a long list of gay, leftist, and arts groups. For the gay community, it was home to Earthworks, Lambda Rising, the Gay Blade (precursor of today's Washington Blade), the Gay Switchboard, the lesbian/feminist review off our backs and one of the earliest gay youth groups.
Among leftist and antiwar political groups, it housed the DC Switchboard, the Defense Committee for the Black Panthers, and the Youth International Party (known as the Yippies). Businesses located there were Alternatives ("an outlet for community products"), Androgyne, Bread and Roses Music, and Amy Horowitz's Roadwork. In arts and education, the Community Building provided space for the Washington Area Free University, the American Society for Theatre Arts, and the Playwright's Theatre (known as "the theatre in a shoe box", with basement seating for 25 people).
Deacon Maccubbin remembers that "we used to joke that the building was only held together by all the wiretaps the FBI had placed there." In those days of J Edgar Hoover and Cointelpro infiltration of the Quicksilver Times and other organizations, this was pretty close to truth.
During the May 1970 antiwar demonstrations in Washington, the DC Switchboard kept its offices open 24 hours a day and ran a first aid station for the protesters. And again, for the 1971 MayDay attempt to shut down the city, DC Switchboard ran an in-house first aid station. Down in the basement was a Free Store run by DC Switchboard where you could take what you needed so long as you left something in return.
Michael Heller and his wife owned 1724. "He was a wonderful landlord, easy to work with, always willing to negotiate and be patient when the rent was late, and honest as the day was long," remembers Deacon. Low rents and tolerance attracted many of the tenants.
Deacon Maccubbin came to 1724 20th St. as a volunteer at the DC Switchboard and the Washington Area Free University. By 1972, he was managing the building. In between, he first took over the small craft and sewing shop called Alternatives from Irene Hunter. Alternatives was one of the distribution points for such underground newspapers as the Quicksilver Times. When Irene declared the shop wasn't worth a hundred dollars, Deacon offered her just that amount, and she sold. He raised the hundred dollars selling underground comix on the streets of Georgetown. "I was a store owner!" he says.
A year later, he got serious about the shop, took a job running the printing and mailroom with Ralph Nader's organization to finance operations, and Earthworks was born. In its 1972 survey of local free community businesses, Quicksilver Times, DC's counter-culture newspaper of the antiwar period, described Earthworks as a business dedicated to supporting local craftspeople.
When Deacon Maccubbin opened Earthworks at 1724 20th St in 1971, it was a headshop. A 1971 notice in the Quicksilver Times encouraged Earthworks customers to say "high" as they came in and get a free packet of rolling papers, Deacon recalls, "Earthworks was a headshop only in its first year or two of business. Then it became a 'fine quality paraphernalia shop'--it was often referred to by others as 'the Bloomingdales of paraphernalia'. In 1991 it ceased being a paraphernalia shop, too, and converted to a fine quality tobacconist ... but of course we still carried those small-bowl pipes, too." In 1992, Earthworks, which had acquired an entire antique oak apothecary shop in the late 1970s, left 20th St and moved to 1365 Connecticut, changing its name to Greybeard's of London.
Earthworks was DC's first openly gay non-bar business. Its corner shelves of gay and lesbian books and magazines were the city's first selection of gay literature and nonfiction. As the book section grew, it became clear that it needed its own space. "By 1973, Earthworks was doing pretty well, and, by 1974, had earned enough extra to provide $3,000 to open Lambda Rising (Craig Howell made a loan of another $1,000, too)," remembers Deacon.
Lambda Rising, the first bookstore for gay men and women in DC, opened across the hall from Earthworks on June 8, 1974. The opening was heralded by press releases, notices in the Gay Blade, and by its proud slogan "celebrating the gay experience". At the time, Deacon was chairing DC's first community wide organization, the Washington Area Gay Community Council, an association of gay and lesbian business and professional people.
Maccubbin declared, "We are proud of the history of gay culture and of the struggle for political and social equality. We want the shop to be a showcase for the wide variety of happy, healthy gay lifestyles found among the quarter of a million gay men and women in the Washington Metropolitan area."
Lambda Rising and Earthworks became a defacto gay community center after the Gay Activist Alliance's community center on 13th St NW closed in the summer of 1973. The notice board, still a feature at Lambda Rising today, became an information center for community events, meetings, protests, and new organizations. In the tradition of its elder sister Earthworks, Lambda Rising sponsored events, hosted meetings, and promoted the community.
The rest of 1724 20th St NW filled up as well. You have only to check the Blade listings of events in the 70s and 80s to see how many organizations and meetings used that address. In 1973, the lesbian/feminist review off our backs moved into 1724. The city directory shows the Gay Switchboard, Androgyne, the Playwrights Theatre, Washington Area Free University, and the American Society of Theatre Arts all sharing the building in 1973 and 1974. In 1975 and 1976, the Gay Blade moved its offices to the Community Building. And in June 1975, 1724 20th St NW was at the forefront of organizing the Pride celebration/street party held in June on 20th St in front of the building. Reviving an event first staged in 1972, Deacon Maccubbin and others created DC's annual metropolitan celebration of our community.
By 1978, the building was again crowded, though Lambda Rising had moved around the corner to another of Heller's buildings at 2012 S St. Bread & Roses Music cooperative had moved into the building, along with the Grass Roots Community, and Stone Age Trading. About the same time, Amy Horowitz, whose Roadwork Inc. company promoted gay and lesbian performers
Early in the 1980s, the staff of off our backs moved out. Stone Age Trading, Earthworks, and Page Bennett Associates had the building to themselves. By 1993, Page Bennett was the only listed occupant.
Today, the townhouse is the consular office of the Embassy of El Salvador, an echo of the building's liberal past. Often overlooked by pedestrians hurrying between Visions Cinema and Dupont Circle, the building that was once at the center of much that was gay and left and liberal, still stands, waiting for exciting times to come again.
Illustrations are courtesy of Mr Deacon Maccubbin and from the Quicksilver Times and the Unicorn Times.