photo by Dawn Nelson

Walter Sheehan

Born in the Bronx in 1929 to Irish immigrant parents, Walter Sheehan attended Catholic schools there and in Colorado before moving to Washington in the 1950s to attend Georgetown University.

Despite earning a Master’s in International Relations at Georgetown, he and his wife Eleanor opened the Barre (modeling) Agency in Northwest Washington, a business they ran for 30 years. Businesses in Georgetown and elsewhere followed, as well as various government contracts. This interview with Mr. Sheehan touches on living in the same Capitol Hill home since 1963, the post-WWII business environment in Washington, the advent of credit cards, integration, and the Capitol Hill housing market through the years.

Read Transcript
Interview Date
August 3, 2020
Dawn Nelson
Betsy Barnett
Elizabeth Lewis

Full Directory

Interview with Walter Sheehan[BMcM1]
Interview Date: August 3, 2020
Interviewer: Dawn Nelson
Transcriber: Betsy Barnett
Editor: Elizabeth Lewis

photo by Dawn Nelson

NELSON: Hi. This is Dawn Nelson. I’m interviewing Walter Sheehan at [his home on Independence Avenue SE]. It’s Monday, August 3rd, 2020. And we’re in the middle of a pandemic [coronavirus disease 2019] so we’re both wearing masks. And, so, the first question I have is how are you handling the pandemic?
SHEEHAN: I have no problems.
SHEEHAN: And, so, that’s good.
NELSON: Right. So, tell me a little bit about when you were born and where you were born.
SHEEHAN: Well, I was born in 1929 and my parents are Irish. They came to the United States right after World War I, after the German U-boats ceased bombing the ships. And I grew up in the Bronx in an Irish neighborhood, thousands of Irish. I went to St. John’s Elementary School and everyone in the school —there was 80 in a class—[had] beautiful comportment. The nuns knew how to control us. And we had 80 in a class! So, I went there to elementary school. And I had a year at Cathedral Seminary, which is a day seminary, and then I transferred to Manhattan College Prep. My uncle—one of my uncles, I had many uncles—was a Christian Brother, so I was able to get in free. And, so, I spent four years there. I worked all those years so I could get to college. I went to the cheapest Jesuit school, which was Regis College out in Denver, Colorado. And I hitchhiked all the way.
SHEEHAN: [Laughs] I had never been out of New York or even out of the Bronx. I went downtown to maybe Macy’s and that was it. I look back on it as an amazing event. I didn’t know where Colorado was, you know. I just thumbed, and they’d say, “Where are you going?” “I’m going to Colorado.” [Both laugh] So, I got there pretty fast. Of course, I didn’t sleep, and I just kept going.
I graduated from Regis with a PhB, Bachelor of Philosophy, and [was] still interested in the church, in the priesthood. But I then went to graduate school at Georgetown and …
NELSON: Here in D C.
SHEEHAN: In DC. And when I graduated from there—of course, there were two years there for being in the military, which was a great experience—I got a master’s in International Relations and I was able to get a job in The NIS Program. Georgetown and Harvard, places like that, had all these projects. This was a National Intelligence Survey, which was my field. And then I got married. My wife [Eleanor], I met her at Georgetown. And there weren’t very many—there were very, very few …
NELSON: Women, yeah.
SHEEHAN: …  women there. So, I dated her after I had a job. I didn’t date when I was [a student] because I wanted to save my money. And then they accepted my wife, my future wife, at the NIS Program, but she was working in a modeling agency and graduate school with marriage … She went back, told them, “I got a new job.” They doubled her salary because she was very good. So, she stayed on and within a couple of years we opened a modeling agency [Barre Agency] about a block away from the place where she worked. And we had it for 30 years.
Three years after we started the business in 1960, in 1963, we were able to buy a house. And we’ve been here in the same house because she had COPD [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease] and she died three years ago. We were married for 60 years, and it’s a great loss. I talk to her all the time. And I tell her to pray for me so I can see her again. [Laughs]
So, it was amazing because, you know, we were children of immigrants. Her mother came from Germany and they were very poor. And in Coraopolis, which is outside of Pittsburgh, her father was unemployed for five years during the Depression. And then he worked himself to death. But, interestingly, he wanted to have a son and he wouldn’t speak to Eleanor. He never spoke to Eleanor.
So, it’s kind of a tragedy. But I never did meet him so I was fortunate.
NELSON: Yeah. Can I back up a bit and ask you a question about—you said your parents came from Ireland, but were you born here?
SHEEHAN: I was born here. They were born in Kerry. They had, you know, a grade school education. My mother was quite intelligent. My father was a wonderful man. I loved my father. But he was getting paid, let’s say, $55 a week. But, of course, in New York we had rent control, so rent was $50. So we could make it. But I always worked. My brother was three years older, went to Dunwoodie [St. Joseph’s Seminary].
Are you a Catholic?
NELSON: No, but I’ve heard of Dunwoodie.
SHEEHAN: Yeah. Dunwoodie Seminary. But he dropped out at the last year. And he did very well. He became a lobbyist.
NELSON: So, when you went across country to Regis College in Colorado, did you have any interesting pickups when they picked you up? Anybody famous or anything? Who did you get rides from?
SHEEHAN: [Laughing] I was too young to really know. I was amazed at how nice people were. And I remember one young woman, I was even attracted to her [laughs], but she was with her daughter, a child. And she drove me quite a distance and she said, “Have a wonderful college at Regis.” She gave me several hours. So she really was very nice. They were all very nice and I was able to make it. So that was something.
NELSON: And the modeling agency, what did you do? Are you talking about models for magazines?
SHEEHAN: We had a modeling agency for 30 years. Of course, that’s basically pre-TV. Back then, TV was just a couple of stations. But we did work with some people who were on TV. But mostly we did modeling jobs at Garfinkel’s and places like that.
NELSON: I’m sorry. Where did you say? Modeling at where?
SHEEHAN: Garfinkel’s.
NELSON: Oh, Garfinkel’s. Oh, yeah, the department store.
SHEEHAN: And all the department stores. And then we connected up with modeling agencies in New York who were coming down to major shows and they would use our models in lesser positions. And we did quite a bit of that because people are always interested in DC sights. So, we did work for the federal government and they would put out some kinds of promotions …
Then we did do one TV show. I can’t remember the name of it, it’s been so long ago. It was a detective series that was sited here in Washington, DC. As a matter of fact, the Korean store up here, they had a number of mysteries revolving around that store. [Indicates in the direction of the corner market at East Capitol and Fifth Streets SE.] [In a later unrecorded conversation he noted that local residents now often refer to that store as “South Korea” and the other Korean-owned store at 421 East Capitol Street SE as “North Korea.”]
But this is back probably in the 60s. And we started out downtown. We had a location at the National Press Building. We were down there for quite some time. And then we went out to White Flint Mall, which was a new mall, beautiful mall [built in 1977 in Montgomery County, Maryland, and closed in 2015]. I had met the manager at the Press Club in the National Press Building. And, you know, you talk about yourselves. He was a lawyer and he was the manager of the mall. He says, you know, “We’re making a new project up on the third floor. It’s called the Georgetown area.” And they made the area look like a street in Georgetown. And he said, “We would like to have some type of a store that we could feature. Would you be willing to go out there?”
Well, this was back about 1968 and we had the riots. And downtown—they’re not destroyed like they are today. So, what we considered a riot was nothing. But you know [in] those early years, 60s, downtown Washington was the center. And, so, we moved to White Flint and we’ve always been successful. It took us three months in the beginning to have a positive cash flow, which was amazing. But, out there, interesting. They were all professionals that came and their children. And we had this one lawyer, very early on, very cheerful, a Jewish fellow, and he had three daughters. When he came in, he enrolled them. And he says, “Well, I’ll give you my credit card.” Well, I didn’t even know what a credit card was.
SHEEHAN: So, I said, “I’ll just put in a down payment and I’ll get …” I was intending to have some credit. So, I got three credit cards quickly. I used to make our payments. I used to turn over the contracts to a company that handled schools and they would send out coupons for ten monthly payments. Now, I would pay them ten percent, which was fine. Then, we have them [customers] if they … And they would continue to do that, but I gave them a 15 percent discount if they used a credit card. And, of course, it’s more convenient for them that way. And where we had over 100 thousand dollars in notes, here we had 100 thousand dollars in cash. And then when we get all this money up front … People were always wondering whether I should be in this, you know. They were in it. And you’d just put it in the bank. So, it was mind boggling, the difference. And, then, friends would …
Back in that period it was a very interesting small business environment, you know. Still, you could call that after World War [II]. Of course, it was after Korea, but that was just an extension. And there were many more small businesses, even in Georgetown. You had people opening design stores. There was a lot of artists. The place was just filled with … I got a lot of … I don’t know how many paintings I have. It’s over 50.
NELSON: Where did you get your models?
SHEEHAN: They would come to school.
SHEEHAN: And there was a program in which they would come for about six months. And they would pay a tuition. And the government was always having some kind of promotions and so we were able to do very well with that. So, we had a very, very busy school.
NELSON: And was it all ages? Or did you focus on …
SHEEHAN: We ended up with people of all ages.
NELSON: How about races?
SHEEHAN: Very interesting. When we were downtown, we were at 14th and H initially, then we went to the [National] Press Building. And there was this Black … there were three … [Sneezes] Excuse me. They were restoring the building and they designed the small place we had. And the man who did the operation was Black. He also had a cab company. Very, very nice man and we got along very well. And he had a girlfriend. He was married also. And she was very nice. She managed his cab company. And, so, at that time we did have—what’s the word? Segregation. And there were several modeling agencies and they all had a certain day just for Blacks. And we were planning—well, actually we were going along with what was going on. We didn’t want to lose money. And she went to one of those classes and she told her boss, “I’d rather be in a white class.” So, I put her in a white class. And after that I had an integrated school.
NELSON: Oh, congratulations.
SHEEHAN: So, we were by far the only ones. But we were such poor people, we didn’t have money. I was working at Georgetown while we opened this place for a couple of years. But we were very happy that we were able to integrate. And it made a difference.
NELSON: Huh. That’s interesting.
SHEEHAN: Very interesting.
NELSON: Yeah. So, you said you moved to this house in 1963.
SHEEHAN: 1963.
NELSON: And you were the first white person on the block. Right?
SHEEHAN: No, it was very interesting. There was one right [white family] across the street and then right after we moved in someone who—John Allen—he worked for a congressman. He opened that house right on the corner of Fifth and Independence. But we were basically [the only white families on the block]. But, the ones across the street, I can’t remember their names … It was a married couple, the man’s father—they were Irish—and he was a newspaperman in Chicago. He was a famous news writer. And he had a company, he had a radio show. I don’t think it was a TV show, I think a radio show. And it featured an Irish bartender who would talk about events with an Irish accent. And, of course, they did very well because of the father. He had some PR [public relations] work for India. They were a very nice couple.
But we were the first. And the [house] next door to me, that was another one that was bought, I don’t know when that was bought, but it was rented out for quite some time. And this was our Black [indecipherable] neighbors. There was always so many kids. And she looked like she was always pregnant, but she was just fat. [Laughs] [Indecipherable] It turned out that, about maybe ten years later, she had a day care center. But they were very …
[In] that period, crime was prevalent on the Hill. And my wife was attacked a couple of times. I remember one time we went to a [indecipherable]. A man who became a friend of ours acted in New York. He came down to Catholic University for graduate work in TV. Or, no, not TV but in stagecraft. And, so, I got a group together, we went out. He was featured in this … What do you call it? Gee, I haven’t been to one in a long time. To a play. And we came back and it was dark. And we were going to go to our house and we were almost right next [to it]. Two Blacks with thick overcoats on walked by and Eleanor said, “I think he has a gun.” So I said, “Run out into the street and scream.” And it took her a while to move, but by the time she got out there—she didn’t say anything, but she got out—the two gunmen stuck the gun in my ribs. Fortunately, I think—it’s kind of stupid today—but I had figured out, you know, they used to kill people so they wouldn’t have any witnesses. So, I just thought of the element of surprise. I would just rush out into the street and they wouldn’t just simply shoot me so quickly. And, fortunately, the green light came and a taxi cab came down and they stopped. So, we didn’t—it was just an experience. It wasn’t a terrible experience. It could have been.
NELSON: Yeah. Well, why did you move to Capitol Hill if there was so much crime?
SHEEHAN: Well, number one, we didn’t realize it was. And, then, number two, three of us, we were all three Irish and we were all going to Georgetown graduate school. And we lived in this house adjacent to the rectory at St. Peter’s. And then we would all go to the Library of Congress to do our studying and doing our research. So, we had an ideal place for graduate work and, of course, you went to school at night. So many people who went to Harvard or Princeton undergraduate wanted to go to Georgetown because they could make better contacts. So, it wasn’t … Washington back then was a sleepy hollow. You did not see a lot of cars.
NELSON: Yeah. So, how do you think the Hill has changed?
SHEEHAN: Completely, completely.
SHEEHAN: One interesting thing was with the sale of property. It would go along—every year, I guess, we’d go up very modestly. But when we had anything of a negative nature in the market, our property would go down. So at that time, you wouldn’t be able to sell a house if you wanted to sell it. It’s only been in the last, I guess, last ten years that property has been going … I can’t believe it. My property was on the market for, back then, the high price of $65,000. And [realtor] Beau Bogan came down to our business. We were on H Street then. And he was trying to convince me and I said, “Well, let’s talk to Eleanor, my wife.” And, of course, he says, “Oh boy, I’ve got a deal.” He went to Eleanor in her office and she didn’t believe him. [Laughs] But we bought it for $40,000. There was no competition. And it was nicely done.
NELSON: Have you done renovations to it since then?
SHEEHAN: We put this on.
NELSON: Where we’re sitting right now.
SHEEHAN: Yes, that’s the only thing we did.
NELSON: And is it just this, would you call it a porch, kind of, or utility room? It’s got your washer and dryer.
SHEEHAN: Yes, it was like a breakfast room for us. Then we got, because we were always busy—I had a couple of other businesses, one next to GW [George Washington University] [a jeans shop] and then another on Wisconsin Avenue just above P Street [Over the Rainbow]. And that was a women’s shop. And then I just developed into an entrepreneur, you know. Somebody who had no background. Why I even went to graduate school, I couldn’t figure out. But I could sit well in business. I look back. I say I should have gone to CCNY (The City College of New York) in New York, a Jewish school. I would have learned all about business a lot better. But Georgetown and Regis were very academic schools.
So, back then, the prices didn’t go up very quickly, though we still have houses to be [renovated]. Like my neighbor, she came from, I guess, Georgia. She went to Georgia Tech. She got a job in the government but she got an emotional breakdown.
NELSON: Got what?
SHEEHAN: She got an emotional breakdown. Within three years. Of course, she came here with her mother. They’re the ones who bought the house, I guess. And no one’s been living in there for probably ten years. She’s a very intelligent woman but her system broke down.
SHEEHAN: They’re always telling John—you probably know him.
SHEEHAN: He fixes things up. He says, “Well, she’s going to come at the end of the year and fix it up.” But he says that every year. So.
And then, like I may as well add, because we were so busy, we had a decorator who fixed up the house inside. And I’m glad we did because we wouldn’t know what to do.
NELSON: Yeah. What did you do on the Hill in terms of socializing? I mean, did you go to some of the bars? Did you go to the Tune Inn or the Hawk ’n Dove or …
SHEEHAN: I am 30 years sober [Laughs] so I know all—I knew the bars. But I didn’t go to them that much because by the time we got home it was 10:00. And even as an alcoholic I was too tired to go out to drink. [Laughs]
NELSON: Yeah. Which bars did you go to though?
SHEEHAN: I can’t remember. Tune Inn.
NELSON: Tune Inn, yeah.
SHEEHAN: And there was another bar there, just a block away. It was a very favorite bar. As a matter of fact it was—I guess it was taken over by the Greek fellow who owns a number of places along the street.
NELSON: The Hawk ’n Dove?
SHEEHAN: It was the Hawk ’n Dove.
SHEEHAN: Yeah. That was a very friendly place. The Tune Inn was a little … it was very aggressive. It was an aggressive place. I remember one time we were walking home by there and two guys came out of the bar. And one hit the other. You heard the sound of “crack.” He really … The guy fell to the floor. I turned around and went home. [Laughs] I don’t think I’ve been in a bar there since. Now I don’t need it at all.
NELSON: Yeah. And how about, like, were there grocery stores on the Hill when you moved in? Or how did you get groceries?
SHEEHAN: You know, I guess—well, you know, there was a Safeway …
NELSON:  On 14th?
SHEEHAN: … right up at Eastern Market.
NELSON: Oh, Eastern Market, yes.
SHEEHAN: So, that’s where we went. It was a small one right in the heart of the Market, right across from the Eastern Market building. So, that was great. But there wasn’t anything up here. The Tune Inn was a restaurant. We loved eating at French restaurants. We were always eating downtown. Downtown was where we usually stayed.
NELSON: Where you lived?
SHEEHAN: Everything, everything. And then, we having gone to Georgetown, there were always parties in Georgetown. So, yeah, we did not … Living here was just coming home and going to bed.
NELSON: Yeah. Did you ever get involved in the politics in the city?
SHEEHAN: I got involved in [Hubert] Humphrey’s politics. I’m a conservative but back then I—we started up working on that. There were a group of us, mainly lawyers and myself, and we got quite a bit of money for him. Then he found out he had cancer, so he dropped out and then [Jimmy] Carter came in. And we did a big fundraiser for Carter, a quarter of a million dollars. Back then it was a lot of money. And we did a certain amount of work. I didn’t like politics because they were always—they were hard, hard people. And, so, we …
NELSON: Pretty much stayed away from it.
SHEEHAN: Stayed away from it. And, of course, I had so little time to do it. But it was a good education for me.
NELSON: Yeah. How about sports? Did you go to any of the—were the Redskins around then? Did you go to those games?
SHEEHAN: I was very athletic in college. I was on the teams. A friend of mine had a season ticket to the Redskins games so he would come by and pick me up, so I saw a lot of Redskins games. But I didn’t have the time. This business just absorbed all my time. And then I also had the two stores.
And then a friend of mine, who’s a lawyer from Harvard, his wife was working for [Mario] Cuomo back then and Cuomo was always in New York. So, his wife obviously did a nice job for him. So, we had the opportunity of getting a grant toward … That’s another thing that’s kind of had a negative impact on me, how money gets poured out from government, you know. We got the [grant]. It was a project. You remember Hechinger Mall [1518 Benning Road NE]?
NELSON: Hechinger Mall, yeah.
SHEEHAN: Well, that was funded by the government. And this was on a project like that, except it was in Puerto Rico. It ended up being—oh, God, what were we doing? God, I’m 91, I don’t remember. It was a shrimp farm and it was funded by the federal government and by Puerto Rico and it did very well. And someone who was working out of the World Bank came up and did proposals for us and he was interested. He says, you know, “I’d like to be a partner with you guys.” And I said, “Well, you’re a very qualified [indecipherable].” I said, “I’ll sell you my shares.” And I was 60 at that time. So, we did that. Then during the Vietnam war, we were still downtown and we had this whole floor before we went to the National Press Building. Let’s see, what do you call that, Western Union Building at 14th and G Streets.
NELSON: Right, that’s right.
SHEEHAN: Yeah, 14th and G. And we took up a—we were always growing, you know, and when we moved from our first location we doubled our space. And then we took up a whole floor. And there was a neighbor, a very nice guy, John Gibbs, who was a linguist. And he said, you know, “I would like …” It was the Korean war, they had a big project on our language, how to teach the soldiers, the [Military Police], and others Vietnamese ... So he says, “You know, I’m not a businessman like you,” which is amusing. So, we put in a contract and we got this million dollar contract. All this I look back on, you know. My immigrant family … so interesting. But that’s what happened after World War II. One of my roommates at Regis lived in Arlington. I never even heard of the name. But, he says, you know … Arlington, he said, was a place that was developed after World War II for the government.
NELSON: Yeah, a lot of …
SHEEHAN: So, it’s been one long experience. And I spend a lot of time thinking back through all of this.
NELSON: Yeah. When did you stop working? I mean did you ever stop working? [Laughs]
SHEEHAN: Yeah. Well, you know, my wife had COPD and we bought a place [in] 1960. Oh, yeah, not right. We started a business in 1960 and then we sold it in 1990 and we bought a place, a condo, a very beautiful condo, down in Naples, Florida. So, we spent, you know, five months down there. So, 1990, we were retired. I’m a person in good health. You know, I ran marathons and also I ran maybe 30 Capitol Hill … [Capitol Hill Classic 10K races]
NELSON: Oh, yeah?
SHEEHAN: Yeah, but that was only, I forget how long. It took less than an hour. I forget. I think it was a quarter marathon. 12-point. I think 12-point. No that’s not—12.1 mile, that’s a half marathon.
NELSON: Yeah, that’s a half marathon.
SHEEHAN: And this was 6.1 [miles] or something like that. So.
NELSON: I think you told me when I first met you that you were a member of St. Joseph’s Church.
SHEEHAN: Yes. I was living with my buddies right next to the [St. Peter’s] rectory, but my wife was in a Christian home on Second Street [NE], right in the next block to St. Joseph’s. So, naturally, we went to St. Joseph’s to get married. And I’ve been connected with them ever since. So, it’s a very active, good church. And now I used to go to mass at 10:30, a big mass. The place would be packed. And, now, because of the [corona]virus, we have very few. But I always go. I used to look around and outside of myself there would be less than five people with gray hair. [Laughs] So, that’s how young they are. They’re in their 20s and 30s, so there is a youthfulness to it.
SHEEHAN: So, it’s nice to see. What church do you go to? Or do you go to church?
NELSON: I don’t go to church. But I was going to ask, you mentioned this Christian home where your wife was living.
SHEEHAN: That’s where she, yeah.
NELSON: Lived. What was that? I mean, was it a home?
SHEEHAN: It’s still there. [He is possibly referring to Thompson-Markwood Hall, founded in 1887 as The Young Woman’s Christian Home at 235 Second Street NE.]
NELSON: A property with rental units for women only? Or …
SHEEHAN: No. It was for women only and you rented an apartment. Very, very nice. It’s still there. But when we got married in 1958 or something like that, we lived out in Virginia, right around Glebe Road. We bought a house here in ’63.
NELSON: Right.
SHEEHAN: So, that was an amazing thing, within, you know, three years to be able to buy a house. But, of course, buying a house for $40,000. The houses across the street, two very petite houses, just recently sold for something under $900,000. And this one is—well, I am not going to sell it. It’ll just go to the Little Sisters of the Poor and to St. Joseph’s.
My father, you know, having a low price job, I bought them a house when they retired but I kept it in my name so they wouldn’t feel obligated to pay the rent, or pay the mortgage.
NELSON: That was a house in New York?
SHEEHAN: Yeah. Nanuet, New York. Rockland County. And then [they] wanted to be—my brother was living down here. And so I bought a house for them out around Glebe Road. Actually, I made out very well on it. I sold it. And then, fortunately also, they qualified to go to … My mother went to her pastor out there and, you know, they were having physical problems. He got us into Little Sisters of the Poor. Ever since I’ve given them a lot of money. And my inheritance was just very simple, 50 percent to St. Joseph’s, 50 percent to Little Sisters of the Poor. And I don’t have to worry about anything. And, hopefully, I’ll be able to stay in here and not have to go to a place. I’d rather die quickly here instead of going to a …
NELSON: A home.
SHEEHAN: An old home. Yeah.
NELSON: Well, I hope you can stay here forever, too. [Interviewee laughs] And I’m so glad I met you the other day when I did.
SHEEHAN: You picked up, was that mulch?
NELSON: Mulch, from your car.
SHEEHAN: I cannot … I used to be very strong, relatively speaking. But even when I’m coming from the grocery store, I park and people want to help me bring in the … So, it’s a very friendly environment.
NELSON: Yeah. And you still drive.
SHEEHAN: I still drive. But I don’t drive outside of the District. I never go out there anyhow.
NELSON: Yeah. Do you drive at night?
SHEEHAN: No, I don’t drive at night. There’s no reason for me to do that. Because I have one what they call lazy eye. It wasn’t connected at birth. And, so, anything over on that side, I don’t have good eyesight. And, so, if you’re going to plow into another lane, you may not see a car over there. So, I have to be cautious. Driving is no problem.
NELSON: Well, great. So, unless you have something else you really want to tell me …
SHEEHAN: No, that’s it.
NELSON: … I think we’ll end the interview.
SHEEHAN: That’s more than enough.
NELSON: Okay. Nice to talk to you.
[BMcM1]This version includes Elizabeth Lewis's edits, plus additional changes made per Dawn Nelson's requests in 11/4/20 email. Added photo to page 1.