Coffee, Confusion and Jim Morrison: The Forgotten History of Hip Coffee Houses and Beatnik Poets in the Nation's Capital
Mark Opsasnick

The Beat Generation emerged in the 1950s as a bohemian-fueled movement of visionary literary heroes, passionate poets and colorful, off-beat characters whose very lives were driven by an emotional quest for experience and an insatiable thirst for spontaneous poetry, unrestrained sex, bebop jazz, marijuana (which they called “tea”), impulsive travel and esoteric philosophy. Two main camps of the Beat Generation emerged in the United States as their presence permeated mainstream American culture: a New York contingency comprised of such luminaries as Jack Kerouac, John Clellon Holmes, William Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg, and Herbert Huncke; and a West Coast faction whose ranks included Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, and Lew Welch. The creative power of these literary pioneers inspired devoted followings of like-minded writers and artists in hip coffee houses across the nation, with a particularly intense scene materializing in Washington, DC, where a venue known as “Coffee ‘n’ Confusion” became the focal point for the city’s “beatnik” contingency and is noted today for having been the site of the very first public performance of rock and roll legend Jim Morrison, who as a teenager gave an original poetry recital on the dank coffee house’s cramped, makeshift stage.

Bill Walker and Ruth Murray Walker
(and unknown third party in sunglasses) at Coffee 'n' Confusion.
Photo provided by Brandel France de Bravo.

The term “Beat Generation” was first coined by Jack Kerouac during a conversation he had with fellow writer John Clellon Holmes in 1948, using those words to describe the writers and poets that comprised his developing literary circle in New York City. While it was Kerouac himself who initially used the term “beat” in his debut novel The Town and the City in 1950 (in which he alluded to a woman named Liz wandering “beat” around New York City), it was Holmes who completed the exercise and wrote extensively of the Beat Generation – a collection of writers, artists, drug-users, hustlers, thieves, and down-and-out philosophers – in his 1952 New York-based novel Go. (In this thinly-disguised autobiographical account, Homes wrote of himself as “Paul Hobbes,” Jack Kerouac appeared as main character “Gene Pasternak,” and Allen Ginsberg was brought to life as “David Stofsky.”) Holmes later authored an essay entitled “This is the Beat Generation” which appeared in the New York Times Magazine on November 16, 1952 and attempted to define the very essence of the young people of the movement. He wrote that those of the Beat Generation harbored more than just weariness, but carried raw feelings of being used and endured a nakedness of mind and soul. Jack Kerouac countered in interviews by explaining that “beat” really meant “beatific” or “sacred,” and many interpreted his works as exercises in capturing the holiness of the downtrodden.

While Jack Kerouac’s first novel The Town and the City was not widely read, his second effort in 1957, On the Road, was credited for announcing, in effect, a new consciousness. It was a major event in the annals of Beat Generation literature and fostered a special magic with its undirected raw energy, prose-poetry, and larger-than-life protagonists “Sal Paradise” (Jack Kerouac himself) and “Dean Moriarty” (Neal Cassady – a major prototype hipster figure in both the Beat Generation culture of the 1950s and the hippie movement of the 1960s), who zoomed back-and-forth around the country in search of thrills and experiences. As Beat Generation consciousness expanded during the late 1950s, San Francisco Chronicle reporter Herb Caen noted in his April 2, 1958 column (“Pocketful of Notes”) that Look Magazine had hosted a party in a North Beach house for fifty “beatniks” in preparation for a forthcoming article on the subject. It marked the first time the term “beatnik” had ever appeared in print and quickly became the moniker bestowed upon those who ingratiated themselves into the Beat Generation world. The beatnik image was shaped by a wave of books and articles that projected images of shaggy, bearded, beret-topped, bongo-playing, marijuana-smoking men and sullen, straight-haired, black-dressed women.

The beatniks were already firmly established as staples of popular culture when the family of George S. Morrison relocated from Alameda, California to Alexandria, Virginia in January 1959. Morrison, a freshly-promoted Captain in the Navy, had just landed a new assignment at the Pentagon in Arlington and rented a home for his wife and three children in a quiet, upper-middle class neighborhood named Jefferson Park. His son Jim, 15-years old at the time, enrolled at George Washington High School in the middle of his sophomore year, and although he was worlds away from his exalted position as lead vocalist for the Doors and the accompanying rock and roll stardom that would engulf him, he was beginning to explore the possibilities of the bohemian world. Even at that young age he reportedly found the literature and poetry of the Beats mesmerizing, and strongly identified with their uninhibited attitudes, unbridled creativity, and underground lifestyles, as well perhaps with their poetry and spirituality. It is known that during his three-year stay in Alexandria, Morrison’s private library included the novel Go (1952) by John Clellon Holmes, and the Jack Kerouac novels The Town and the City (1950), On the Road (1957), The Dharma Bums (1958), The Subterraneans (1958), and Doctor Sax (1959). He also owned editions of Howl and Other Poems (1956) by Allen Ginsberg, A Coney Island of the Mind (1958) by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gasoline (1958) by Gregory Corso, and Naked Lunch (1959) by William Burroughs.

Jim Morrison was enthralled with the works of the Beat Generation writers and saw them as creators of an entirely new level of consciousness. His championing of these unique writers and poets was not lost on his high school companions, who were immensely impressed with his devotion to this daring new style of literature. Alexandria neighbor and friend Jim Merrill was one who noted Morrison’s enthusiasm for the Beats: “Morrison had a library that was unbelievable and when we talked about books Jim would start talking about the Beats, guys like Kerouac and Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti, who wrote A Coney Island of the Mind, which he actually gave me a copy of. Jim was already a big Kerouac fan by the time he got to Alexandria and these books were really a major influence on his outlook on life. Morrison was down that road and gone when he was 16 years old.”

It should be noted that bohemians (individuals with literary or artistic interests who live untroubled by middle-class social standards) had an established history in the nation’s capital well before Jim Morrison landed in the area. Many veterans of Washington, DC’s counterculture community maintain to this day that the precursors to the beatniks of the nation’s capital were a somewhat ephemeral and now largely forgotten congregation of remarkable Georgetown artists, writers and poets that had once inhabited a small, refuge-like compound known as “Hamilton Arms.”

Predating the Beat Generation movement by almost two decades, Hamilton Arms came into existence in 1939 when 58-year-old Lieutenant Colonel Milo Hamilton Brinkley purchased a small collection of old ivy-covered houses on 31st Street NW (between M and N Streets) in the heart of historic Georgetown and set about refurbishing the neglected collection of structures and molding them into his own little European-flavored village. Feeling the need for a central meeting place to bring his tenants and the neighborhood folk together, he opened the Hamilton Arms Coffee House that year in the village’s main structure at 1232 31st Street NW (built in 1900, this building had previously housed the C&P Telephone Company’s West Exchange for many years). While Mr. Brinkley rented out the smallish pink, yellow and turquoise Swiss village houses, his wife Emma Conger ran the Hamilton Arms Curiosity Shop, his son-in-law Howard Reid managed the coffee house, and daughter Mary (Molly) Brinkley Reid operated the Pottery and acted as artist-in-residence – she reportedly spent her days painting, designing, and endlessly decorating the property’s various rooms, gardens, and buildings.

Hamilton Arms was basically a series of rental units, but offered living and working space for unique, creative individuals and soon developed into a little bohemian enclave tucked away within the brick-lined streets of residential Georgetown. A walk through the blue iron gate alongside the coffee house revealed a long, covered grape arbor, a myriad of beautifully landscaped gardens, a tile house and kiln, thirty apartment units fashioned from a former slave compound, balconies covered in ivy, and a small rectangular swimming pool guarded by the “Discus Thrower” (a remarkable stone statue of a naked Greek athlete preparing to chuck his sphere). The pool itself, long a village trademark, was the scene of now-famous night-long parties before officials from the city’s Health Department, citing the lack of a badly-needed filter system, ordered the pool off-limits. An article in the Washington Post of May 18, 1953 (“Hamilton Arms Folk Lose Swimming Hole in their Garden by City Condemnation Rule” by Warren Unna) called the Hamilton Arms village “the Georgetown miniature of La Rive Gauche, Greenwich Village and San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill.” A resident named Chefik Haddad, former military attaché for Iraq, was quoted in the article as describing the village as, “Something between a campus and a village. People are not less conventional here, but what you might call conventional in a different way.”

What really made Hamilton Arms unique were the groups of incredible people that set up camp on the grounds of the village. A cast of indefinable characters predating the beatniks made the Hamilton Arms Coffee House their carefree playground. They began infiltrating the grounds – appearing from nowhere for friendly visits in the quaint apartment rooms and throwing wine parties that lasted for days and nights and wound throughout the gardens of the courtyard. Several years after the Health Department raid, Lieutenant Colonel Brinkley reminisced to local journalists about the once-commonplace midnight raids made by unknown revelers on the notorious swimming pool. More telling, however, was a piece on the heyday of the Hamilton Arms that appeared in the Washington Post on March 11, 1978 (“Georgetown’s Eccentric Landmark” by Jane Ann Spotts) that stated, “Residents swear that Georgetown’s first ‘pot party’ took place there in the late 50s, along with several other recreational firsts.”

Ultimately, the Hamilton Arms Coffee House closed its doors on Saturday, May 25, 1957, as the Brinkleys felt they could not keep the business alive without selling liquor, a practice forbidden at the time due to the presence of the Fifth Church of Christian Science two doors away. However, the apartments remained occupied and all that creative psychic energy within its courtyard somehow filtered through the wrought-iron fences and departed in search of new lands. (As a side note, Hamilton Arms continued on as a small offbeat residential community until the spring of 1978, at which time the property was sold and the buildings renovated for an influx of various private businesses. Today the compound goes by the official name of “Hamilton Court” and the building that once housed the Hamilton Arms Coffee House is now the home of OTJ Architects.)

Approximately two years after the closing of the Hamilton Arms Coffee House, the more adventurous spirits of Washington, DC’s growing bohemian community found a new sanctuary in a small, eclectic establishment known as Coffee ‘n’ Confusion. During the spring of 1959 the Beats emerged in Washington, DC, embracing the writings of Jack Kerouac, John Clellon Holmes, and Allen Ginsberg, and searching for places where they could congregate and share their love of art, jazz, and poetry. They frequented a select number of gathering spots that accepted their ranks: Harrigan’s Restaurant on the waterfront in Southwest Washington, where local artists displayed their paintings on the walls and held court every night in the unusual beer garden that overlooked the Potomac River; Julie’s Café on M Street in Georgetown, where a low-key neighborhood watering hole slowly converted into a hip beatnik meeting place; and Bohemian Caverns, a legendary jazz basement where a diverse array of music fans could lounge all night. However, it was the introduction of Coffee ‘n’ Confusion that galvanized the burgeoning contingency of beatniks that had suddenly materialized amidst clouds of marijuana smoke and inspired voices of poetry and free expression.

Coffee ‘n’ Confusion was the creation of William Addison Walker, a remarkable bearded poet from Pinehurst, North Carolina who went by the name “Bill” and arrived in Washington during the late 1950s just as Beat consciousness was on the rise. He married a local girl from the better part of town named Ruth Murray (a 1958 Vassar graduate; today she goes by the name Ruth France), enrolled at George Washington University to study creative writing, and rented a house at 809 22nd Street NW (which eventually became home for a horde of beatnik allies). Walker was 24 years old when he and his wife opened the first version of Coffee ‘n’ Confusion on April 1, 1959 at 912 New Hampshire Avenue NW, a storefront which had previously housed a small grocery store called the Neighborhood Market.

Ruth France remembered how she and the beatnik icon came together: “He was very charismatic, he really was. I used to say he had all kinds of personality and absolutely no character, which was true. He was a Beat poet and very bright and very creative and also a bit of a bastard because he could get very aggressive and combative and he also drank to excess. I had lived quite a sheltered life and was working here in Washington at Brentano’s Books and he would come in and I had never met anyone like him, so eventually I married him. My parents had him investigated and they were just horrified at what they found. For one thing he told me he was 35 years old when we first met and in reality he was only 24. I was very upset when I found out about that.”

Coffee ‘n’ Confusion was based on the coffee houses of New York City’s Greenwich Village and during its first week of operation served approximately 100 patrons per night, an impressive feat considering they advertised solely through word-of-mouth contacts in the local bohemian community. The little club offered coffee, tea, poetry readings, debates, bongos, folk songs, checkers, and chess for its colorful clientele of students, poets, and musicians. Although Coffee ‘n’ Confusion hadn’t been open long enough to draw serious heat from the local police, Assistant Corporation Counsel Louis P. Robbins happened along and found the coffee house in violation of numerous zoning laws. He ordered the business closed on Tuesday, April 7, 1959 and a wave of publicity followed the club’s shutdown.

Bill Walker searched the city for a new location for his business and eventually found a suitable spot in the basement of the Zantzinger Building at 945 K Street NW (a murky space which had previously housed a series of short-lived restaurants). The Zantzinger Building, a two-story, brick Victorian mansion (with wood detail, arched windows, framed balconies, and a half-attic on top) had been constructed in 1884 and had actually served as a private residence in the Mount Vernon Square neighborhood until real estate mogul Otway Berryman Zantzinger, Sr. came along and purchased the building in 1925. The property was immediately rezoned and later that year the new owner relocated his private real estate business, the O.B. Zantzinger Company, from 912 10th Street NW to his new K Street headquarters. It was an interesting section of Downtown, as just around the corner was the seedy 9th Street Bowery and its used book shops, arcades, peep shows, liquor stores, and run-down restaurants.

The Walkers’ new and improved version of Coffee ‘n’ Confusion operated seven days a week from 8:00pm to 4:00am, requested a token donation at the door, and did not serve alcohol. An auspicious grand opening was staged on the night of Saturday, June 6, 1959 that advertised a poetry contest between some local heroes (the “Washington Poets”) and a squadron of Beats from New York City. Bill Walker addressed the crowd throughout the evening as manager Dick Dabney and other hip poets like Bill Jackson read original works (titles of these creations ranged from “The Charlie Starkweather Blues” to “The Stream of Not-So Consciousness”). By the early morning hours Walker was being hailed by his customers as a folk hero in the making, the leader of a new generation committed to self-expression and artistic freedom. Walker – shaggy-haired, goateed and bleary-eyed – relished his role as King Hipster and in the days following the impressive debut of his coffee house told local reporters he didn’t really like the term “beatnik” and objected to the way that people in America were slaves to routine. He said he hoped his protest would give other people guts and help them organize their own protests. Exactly what he was protesting, though, was never really made clear.

As Coffee ‘n’ Confusion simmered as a beatnik hot spot, it found itself under intense scrutiny from local law enforcement authorities who seemed anxious to pounce on the club’s patrons the moment they emerged from the smoky den and attempted to navigate their way down K Street. After a six-month undercover police investigation, the Narcotics Squad of the District Police, armed with search warrants based on material gathered by rookie policeman Private Jose L. Estrada (who had posed as a drug-buying beatnik), staged sweeping raids on both Coffee ‘n’ Confusion and Java Jungle (a similar coffee house that had opened in August 1959 at 2119 Pennsylvania Avenue NW) on the morning of Friday, April 1, 1960. Twelve local beatniks were arrested on drug charges, including 24-year-old Java Jungle owner John F. Stevens and 26-six-year-old Dick Dabney, who had formerly been a manager of Coffee ‘n’ Confusion. Both were accused of unlawful transfer of marijuana (Stevens pled guilty and was eventually placed on probation, while Dabney was acquitted on grounds of entrapment). The bust sent waves of paranoia through the beatnik scene and was particularly devastating to Java Jungle, as the coffee house never reopened its doors after the unexpected raid.

Bill Walker, reeling after the police intervention, worried that his business would wane as the beatniks were targeted as major players in local marijuana distribution rings. Before the month was out, 27-year-old Angelo Alvino, a no-nonsense entrepreneur who owned the renowned jazz nightclub Bohemian Caverns and had been a fixture on Washington’s music scene for many years, made him an offer and came away with 50% ownership of Coffee ‘n’ Confusion. Alvino wasted little time in augmenting the nights of poetry at the coffee house with wild late-night jam sessions that brought together some of the city’s top musicians. Coffee ‘n’ Confusion soldiered on under the new part-owner and continued to pull in an eclectic crowd of artists, poets, beatniks and those who defied categorization.

It was said that Angelo Alvino had kept a watchful eye over the patrons of his two nightclubs and had somehow made the acquaintance of one of his teen-aged regulars at Coffee ‘n’ Confusion – a reserved young man named Jim who in later years would turn out to be a famous rock and roll singer. Alvino, whom I managed to interview in 2005 at the Charles County Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in LaPlata, MD, told me he clearly remembered the teenager who was so enamored with his establishments: “I knew Jim, but this was long before he was a singer and became famous. He would come into Coffee ‘n’ Confusion for the poetry readings and he knew Bill Walker and would talk with both of us about the poetry. He was a teenager from Virginia and it was unusual for someone that young to keep coming back, but he wasn’t a troublemaker or anything; he was a good kid and he just came in every now and then and he’d always bring a friend or two with him. He came into Coffee ‘n’ Confusion and I had Bohemian Caverns at the same time and he started going up there to listen to the jazz music.”

Alvino revealed that a number of local musicians pointed out to him in the late 1960s that a local fellow named Morrison had gone on to achieve fame and fortune with a rock and roll band called the Doors. When he saw the jacket of the band’s first record album, he immediately recognized one of the members as a long-haired version of the teenager he had known only as “Jim.” (Unfortunately, Angelo Alvino passed away in February 2008 after a prolonged illness.)

Several of Jim Morrison’s friends from George Washington High School confirmed that Coffee ‘n’ Confusion had been one of his favorite haunts. Former classmate John Huetter recalled: “Coffee ‘n’ Confusion – I wasn’t that crazy about it, but Jim liked it because they had poetry readings and stuff like that and that supposedly was the attraction. Jim read there once that I remember and I’m not sure if I was envious or if my reaction was, ‘Oh no, my God, sit down!’ As a matter of fact, at GW, Jim was not a part of the socially ‘in-crowd’ and he had a reputation from going there because the guys on the football team would come around and ask me, ‘Are you a friend of the beatnik or what?’”

Evidently, Jim Morrison was slow to get involved in the festivities at Coffee ‘n’ Confusion and initially seemed to prefer observing what transpired around him. I queried Jim Merrill about his behavior at the coffee house and he replied: “He could be strange. You know, some nights Jim could be invisible. He could just be there and he wouldn’t show off or do anything crazy. Then some nights he’d catcall and make fun. At Coffee ‘n’ Confusion, when we were there together, he basically stayed on good behavior and we would pretty much just sit there and listen to the beatniks recite their poetry.”

At some point, most likely during the spring of 1960 towards the end of his junior year of high school, Jim Morrison actually got up onstage and performed at least one poetry recital at Coffee ‘n’ Confusion, a monumental event that marked the very first time he ever performed in public and shared his written work with a captive audience. While the actual poem he read that evening has never been conclusively identified, it has been speculated by some in attendance that evening that a version of “Horse Latitudes” may have been the selection. This public recital was testament to how important Morrison felt the coffee house was and how strongly its patrons and their behavior influenced him. Coffee ‘n’ Confusion was not only the very first place where he ever saw poets in action; it provided the cramped stage where he cut his teeth as a performing artist.

Maggie Phillips had heard in the hallways of George Washington High that Jim Morrison was going to be reciting at Coffee ‘n’ Confusion and she remembered making the journey to the basement club on K Street with a close friend to see Jim in action for the first time: “I remember people talking in school about Jim’s poetry and it was really looked upon at the time as something different. Helen Willey, who’s married now and is a federal judge in Hawaii, went to GW with me and the two of us went over to Coffee ‘n’ Confusion one time because we heard Jim was going to do a poetry reading there. We couldn’t tell our parents, so I went to Helen’s house and we took a bus into the city. When we got to the place we had to go downstairs into the basement of this building and I remember it was like a cave and it was really dark and they had little round tables in there and I remember these shaggy-looking people would get up on this little stage and recite their poetry. We went in and sat down and you can picture how out-of-place we were – we were like these little, rosy-cheeked, teen-aged good girls and we were surrounded by these weird people!”

Maggie provided her memories of Morrison’s performance: “We went into the coffee house and we saw Jim Morrison there and I don’t remember who he was with, but his turn came and he got up and did his reading. What I remember is that it was one of his original poems because I seem to remember it had something to do with horses and when he finished I remember him saying ‘By Jim Morrison.’ When he finished his reading, instead of applauding, everybody started beating their spoons on the tables and I remember thinking, ‘These people are way weird!’ When we were leaving to take the bus back home Helen turned to me and told me she wanted to become a beatnik and I told her I didn’t want to because I didn’t look good with my hair parted in the middle. To this day I remember that, and while I didn’t become a beatnik, I did get to see and hear Jim Morrison recite poetry!”

After Jim Morrison’s epic poetry recital at Coffee ‘n’ Confusion, he went on to graduate from George Washington High School in June 1961 and then left Alexandria at the end of that summer to attend St. Petersburg Junior College in Florida (he would later attend Florida State University and eventually earned a bachelor of arts in theater arts from UCLA in June 1965). Morrison, it should be noted, never actually sang with a rock and roll band during his teen years in Alexandria. However, it is obvious that as a high school student he was forming an identity around art and it was his love of poetry and literature that fostered his later interest in writing song lyrics. When the Doors formed in Venice Beach, CA in September 1965, he undoubtedly drew upon his unique experiences at Coffee ‘n’ Confusion as inspiration to express himself as a performing artist. Jim Morrison went on to become one of rock and roll’s greatest superstars, only to have his life cut short at age 27 under very mysterious circumstances. He was discovered dead in a bathtub in Paris, France by his girlfriend Pamela Courson on Saturday, July 3, 1971. His body was examined that afternoon by Dr. Max Vassille, who reported that Morrison’s body showed no signs of trauma and proclaimed he had died of natural causes due to heart failure. However, it must be noted that no autopsy was ever performed and to this day no one knows how Jim Morrison really died.

As for Bill Walker, the years following his reign as Washington’s top beatnik were difficult to say the least. Ruth France unfolded the story of his tragic demise: “We had given up Coffee ‘n’ Confusion in October 1960 because while the club was always filled with people, there was no money coming in. We split up and later when our divorce was final Bill was living in Paris and he had been arrested for smuggling guns into Spain and spent time in jail in Madrid. He had a girlfriend there and they got married and they came back to New York and Bill eventually wound up in Bellevue Hospital Center for a while and they told him he could never drink again because he had suffered severe liver damage. He came down to see me in Washington and I will never forget it, it was so incredibly sad because his whole personality was gone. He just was not the same person when he wasn’t drinking.” According to his daughter Brandel France de Bravo, William Addison “Bill” Walker died sometime around June 1974.

The Beatnik scene in Washington was certainly at its most intense from the inception of Coffee ‘n’ Confusion in the spring of 1959 until the massive marijuana bust of April 1, 1960 that set back both Bill Walker’s unique coffee house and its copycat ally Java Jungle. Several spirited entrepreneurs around the city, with their eyes now squarely focused on the precarious situation surrounding Coffee ‘n’ Confusion and keenly aware that the heat of the local law enforcement authorities was firmly directed at the highly visible beatnik leader Bill Walker, tentatively acted upon plans to open similar coffee house establishments in hopes of attracting some of the beatnik clientele that was now growing wary of their old hangouts.

Georgetown became home of the Cauldron, a beatnik playground that opened for business in May 1960 by Irwin Baron. Situated in the basement of 3263 M Street NW, this adventurous coffee house took over the underground space formerly occupied by Ward’s Used Furniture Store, and featured spontaneous entertainment, live jazz and folk music, primitive dance exhibitions, and classic movies. Unfortunately, the beatniks were a bit slow to respond, perhaps because of the country music culture that prevailed on M Street at the time, and the Cauldron didn’t bubble for long. The owner changed the club’s name to the Lamplighter on November 1st of that year and was out of business less than three weeks later, its demise unnoticed. Before the month was out Melo’s Italian Restaurant had taken over the top floor of the building and the Cauldron’s basement dwelling had been remodeled and reopened as Melo’s Subcommittee Room, a small-scale cabaret-theatre. In early 1963 Melo’s closed and the basement was transformed into the French Quarter, a jazz club that switched over to rock and roll with the arrival of the British Invasion and thrived as a Georgetown hot spot until 1968 (many local hippies will remember this site hosting a head shop called the Bird Cage during the 1970s). Today 3263 M Street NW houses an Italian Restaurant called Lazio.

Northeast of Georgetown in a seemingly different world known as Adams Morgan (an eclectic neighborhood that in recent years has cultivated an overwhelming Hispanic presence), Potter’s House was opened in June 1960 at the former site of the Embassy Lunch Restaurant at 1658 Columbia Road NW (a bit east of 18th Street NW) by the nondenominational Church of the Saviour under the guidance of Rev. Newton Gordon Cosby. Acting upon his belief that Christianity must always be open to “new structures,” Rev. Cosby designed Potter’s House as “a quiet place where thoughtful people of any belief can relax, hear music, look at art, and talk.” Coffee, simple fare, poetry readings, live folk music, and displays and shows by local artists marked the club as unique in a section of town which at the time was mainly known for it’s other two main nightclubs, the Showboat Lounge (2477 18th Street NW), which for years featured now-legendary jazz guitarist Charlie Byrd, and the Underground (1401 Columbia Road NW), which during most of 1961 offered the great jazz guitarist Bill Harris. The Potter’s House differed from other beatnik hangouts in that its atmosphere was a bit more subdued and it closed at midnight on Fridays and Saturdays, a departure from the dusk-to-dawn hours that other local coffee houses adhered to. Remarkably, Potter’s House remains open at its original location to this very day.

Several years after the inception of Potter’s House, Adams Morgan welcomed another coffee house called Ontario Place, which replaced the Ontario Market at 1811 Ontario Place NW in May 1963 and stayed in business until June 1965. Ontario Place was widely known for offering Delta blues guitarist-balladeer Mississippi John Hurt and gained a reputation among Washington musicians as one of the hippest places in town after Bob Dylan stopped by for a visit, an event later chronicled in the book Positively Main Street (1972) by Toby Thompson. Ontario Place made a lasting mark in local music history, but faded far too quickly from the scene (the building that once housed this coffee house was recently torn down and a private residence is being constructed on its former site).

Another major beatnik establishment to appear on the scene was the Unicorn, which emerged on the fringes of Dupont Circle at 1710 17th Street NW long before that area had established its reputation as a refuge for counterculture devotees. (The composition of the neighborhood would change drastically after the infamous June 1963 incident involving 23-year-old Eddie Hicks, a troubadour who had been arrested for vagrancy while sitting on the grassy lawn adjacent to the Circle and playing his guitar for the small crowd that had gathered around him – his arrest would trigger a series of demonstrations around the Circle’s fountain that would define the area as a gathering spot for bohemians, leftists, nonconformists and revolutionaries that exists to the present day.) While the pulse of the neighborhood had long circulated through such eclectic Dupont Circle bars as the Flame, Charlie’s Café Lounge, the Ben Bow, and the Brickskeller, the Unicorn quietly joined their ranks in January 1961 and offered folk music and a bohemian atmosphere for those who shied away from the hustle and bustle of Connecticut Avenue.

Six months after its opening the Unicorn was purchased by a neighborhood resident named Elliot Ryan, who would later become a significant figure in Washington, DC’s rock and roll scene as creator and publisher of Unicorn Times, an excellent publication that initially had its offices adjacent to Dupont Circle at 1721 21st Street NW and covered the music scene in the nation’s capital from 1973 to 1986. Ryan was originally from New York, had graduated from Michigan State University, and after a two-year stint in the army settled down in Washington, DC in May 1960. He took over the Unicorn with the idea of making it a live music coffee house and installed a Wednesday night “hootenanny” where a bevy of folk singers gathered and sung for the masses. Jazz musicians were featured on Monday nights and on weekends he booked such folk artists as Tim Cameron, Allen Damron, Mario Illo, John Everhart, Robbie Basho, Pete LaFarge, and Eric Darling (of the Weavers). Local guitarists like John Fahey and Max Ochs regularly showed up for impromptu performances and the popular Joan Baez even stopped in one night to sing onstage with the resident folkies.

The Unicorn also staged art shows and Sunday afternoon movies, everything from Charlie Chaplin flicks to art films and foreign works to more popular titles like “The Room Upstairs” and “The Ruse.” Fifty different kinds of tea and coffee were on the menu and patrons could play chess or sift through racks of newspapers and magazines. Citing financial reasons, Elliot Ryan eventually closed the Unicorn in the spring of 1964 and today the former site of this unique coffee house hosts the Admiral Dupont, a six-story condominium building marked 1700 17th Street NW (just north of 17th and R Streets NW).

As Washington’s original beatnik gathering spot and poetry performance space, Coffee ‘n’ Confusion lived off its reputation and remained in operation until April 1963, at which point Angelo Alvino closed up shop to devote his full attention to Bohemian Caverns. The local beatniks continued to use 945 K Street as home base, as the building’s basement went on to host such coffee houses as the Open Way (July 1963 to March 1964), the Crow’s Toe (April 1964 to December 1964), and a succession of similar establishments throughout the latter part of the decade including the Lute and Lyre, Portochinko’s Palace, and the Blue Sparrow.

As the 1960s wore on the beatniks dwindled in number in Washington, DC and were eventually all but replaced by scores of long-haired hippies that mobilized a new cultural revolution driven by hard rock and roll, rampant drug use, and fanatical opposition to the Vietnam War and conservative values. As cultural staples, folk music gave way to the Beatles and the British Invasion which, in turn, inspired a wave of psychedelia that infected both musical and social trends. As the authentic beatniks disappeared and the Summer of Love loomed on the horizon, the hippies descended upon Dupont Circle, dispensing LSD and offering visions of peace and tranquility to the young sycophants that hovered all around.

Purple Haze aside, the empty and crumbling Zantzinger Building at 10th and K Streets NW eventually outlived its usefulness and was torn down in October 1969. The former site of Coffee ‘n’ Confusion then served for the next 38 years as an asphalt parking lot for the Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church. The lot was recently excavated and is currently a fenced-off construction site that will soon host a multi-story office glass-and-concrete complex. Sadly, no markers, monuments or plaques commemorate the former location of the basement lair that launched Washington, DC’s Beat Generation and served as the very first stage for a rock and roll legend.

Capitol Rock:

Video of Mark Opsasnick commenting on this article at the Kensington Row Bookshop on September 18, 2008, posted on the The Coffee Cup:


Mark Opsasnik was born in Washington, DC, raised in nearby Prince George’s County, MD, and earned a Bachelor of Arts in urban studies from the University of Maryland in 1984. His lifelong interests in unexplained phenomena, popular culture, and rock and roll music have resulted in seven books including Capitol Rock, which documents the history of rock and roll music in the nation’s capital from 1951 to 1976, and The Lizard King Was Here: The Life and Times of Jim Morrison in Alexandria, Virginia, which examines a greatly overlooked period in the life of one of rock and roll’s greatest superstars.


Published in Volume 9, Number 3, Summer 2008.