“The whole house would shake.”
All 8,000 square feet of it. The band set up in front of the fireplace in the living room their heavy, vintage tweed amps and stadium-sized speaker cabinets, blocking the built-in bookshelves and mantle that housed family photographs and sets of supermarket encyclopedias. A sea of punk kids, not even a foot away from the band, listened intently, arms crossed, heads moving up and down, almost jumping but not quite until it was impossible to hold it in anymore. From the audience, a view of the band was a lucky sight, except for those who found a spot on the staircase on the opposite wall leading up to the three bedrooms. You couldn’t see, only hear. Slipping outside to the long, narrow porch would provide fresh air, but there was no escape from the ear-ringing music, which was why everyone was at Kansas House in the first place.
Marc Nelson had experienced a Kansas House punk show both as a performer with his band, Most Secret Method, and as part of the audience. The house, a rented 1950s bungalow, stood at the corner of Wilson Boulevard and North Kansas Street in Arlington, Virginia, a middle-class bedroom community typical to federal staffers, offering safer and cheaper options to neighborhoods than those across the river in the District of Columbia. At this moment, North Arlington’s plethora of cheap real estate and schizophrenic zoning laws, which seemed to hark back to when the Metro and Route 66 had appeared roughly ten years prior, were about to make the area ripe for transformation: from single-family picket fences to latte-infused high-rise condominiums. The county that had formerly been a magnet for the middle class was experiencing a polarity shift towards technocrats who made millions working for companies building the Internet. It was about to be The Future, but for the time being, this seemingly forgotten house in this sleepy suburb was home to a Punk Rock revolution.
A show at Kansas House was, in the best sense of it – a hot mess. “Filled to the brim of humans,” Marc remembers. In between bands shredding what little air was circulating through the living room, the gathered community of punk kids would flood out onto Kansas House’s front lawn, then into the street, which was only one block long, running between Wilson and Washington Boulevards. The other buildings on the block comprised a one-story dentist’s office and a brick hall belonging to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, both to the west. The rest was just overgrown grass stretching all the way to Washington Boulevard, with George Mason University’s law school on the other side. The open field did nothing to absorb the loud sounds emanating from the tiny house, although the room had been sound-proofed so that the neighbors who were around wouldn’t complain. At that time in the late-1990s, the only other residents of the street were the Ska band The Pietasters (soon to become The Legwarmers), who rented the house on the north side of the street (and would be unlikely to call the cops, since the next night their own band would be doing the exact same thing), next door to a gas station specializing in Japanese auto-parts, directly across from Kansas House. But the attempt to muffle the noise may have been moot. Marc explains: “Mattresses… I don’t know where the mattresses came from, cause I never saw them anywhere else. Mattresses up in front of the windows. Not like it did any good, cause you could hear the show from the Metro if you were listening close enough.” When a show got going, the floorboards moved in unison with the wall-to-wall punk kids jumping in time with the drummer’s downbeat–“It was amazing what they pulled off there.”
Mary Chen lived at Kansas House from 1997 to 1999, while she worked at America Online and wrote a blog that would eventually land her a job with the Beastie Boys label Grand Royal, editing their online magazine. Having punk bands play regularly in her living room was an exciting experience, but it made for rather exceptional living quarters. “I remember when Q and Not U played, and it was really hot out, and you had to have all the doors closed. I think that’s what sucked the most about it. It would be the summer and you’d have to close all the doors, and it would just get so hot in there.” Mary lived in the upstairs bedroom that overlooked a Hallal meet market, to the south on Wilson Blvd. She recalls: “The condensation on the walls… you could draw on the walls in water and sweat. Even upstairs in my bedroom, the walls and windows were condensed on.” But for the two years of crowded punk shows in her living room — of being a full-time resident in a VFW hall of it’s own right — Mary’s tenure at Kansas House was a special, magical time: “it gave us so much joy and so much community, and it was such a great little… it was like the little red lighthouse in the middle of all those huge condos by the end.”
The Perfect Punk House
Punk shows at group houses are not unique to Arlington or to the legendary DC punk scene, which had been placed on the cultural map due to the national—and even international– success of Ian MacKaye’s label Dischord and his bands Minor Threat and Fugazi. Metropolises across America with any type of fledgling music community could boast several of these types of dwellings. Traditionally, a punk house would be rented by a rotating cast of kooky characters whose names were most likely not on any lease. The rent was cheap enough so that anybody who lived there, at any given time, would not have to depend on a salary to maintain a sustainable lifestyle. This made it totally doable to work a shift job, such as a bartender or waitress or pizza-delivery driver, while still pursuing a music career, leaving ample time to record an album or to tour America in a jalopy van with your band mates.
It was a convenient set up. Most houses in Arlington were free-standing homes built to satisfy the post-War baby boom. Many had basements, and many were teetering between disrepair and renovation, which made them perfect rental properties. According to the 2000 Census, of the 8,436 houses in the Arlington County tract that includes 900 North Kansas Street, more than half were rentals. Comparable housing was available in DC, most notably in the Mount Pleasant and Columbia Heights neighborhoods, but these were thin-walled row houses with occupants on either side. While it was entirely possible to succeed at punk rock while living in the District, negotiating questionable elements could prove to be a little bit trying. Although complaints about loud band practice were peanuts to police who were attempting to crack down on tougher crimes, break-ins and muggings were all too common and did not provide a comfortable atmosphere for the mostly middle-class twenty-somethings beginning to make their way. It was safer and easier on the conscience to find a cheap house south of the river.
As Aaron Lietko writes in his Washington City Paper article “The Orange Line Revolution,” “The ’80s and ’90s were a golden era for the D.C. music and arts community. But many of those artists lived in places like Arlington and Silver Spring. Because they were cheaper. Because you were less likely to get your face punched in. Because you could play loud music all night.” Arlington was the address for a few punk houses. Most notably, Positive Force, an activist collective, rented a house on North Monroe Street (less than a half mile away from Kansas House), which was the location of the very first Riot Grrrl meeting in the summer of 1992. A few blocks south, Mark Robinson was defining indie pop, running his label Teen Beat and making music with his bands Unrest and Air Miami. And about a mile to the east, between the Clarendon metro stop and Route 50, Ian MacKaye was benchmarking Punk at his Dischord House, across the street from one of the many 7-11s in Arlington.
According to Ian MacKaye, “there was a period of time, during the late-80s very early ‘90s where there was maybe a half a dozen punk group houses out there, maybe more.” He recalls: “I moved out of D.C. October 1st, 1981. They asked us to sign a year lease and I crossed out one year and I put six months because there was no way I wanted to stay in Virginia for more than six months. I was trying to get out of my parents’ house. I was trying to get to a place where we could practice.” While Ian wanted to stay on his side of the river, it was nearly impossible, given that DC couldn’t offer any provisions. “At that time, the only detached houses in Washington that we knew of were in Chevy Chase which was too expensive, or in Northeast which was just too sketchy for us, too dangerous. And we weren’t just thinking about ourselves. We wanted to be a place for kids to go, because you gotta remember, at that time, there were no other punk group houses. Everyone just lived at home.” He and his compatriots had a very specific plan: “We really needed a detached house where we could practice, a house that was cheap because we were broke, and a house that was safe because we were punk rock kids in the 80s and it was already bad enough just being that.”
Derek Morton, a native of Arlington, was in search of this very type of situation in the summer of 1995. The best possible scenario would be a house in his hometown, so that he could have an easy commute to his day job at a fledgling Internet service provider, as well as pursue his artistic endeavors. “I don’t really know if Kansas House was Kansas House before I found it. Because it was just a place where people rented, just like any other house, and it wasn’t, I guess, the destination that Kansas became. It was just a place. It was a house to rent that had a basement that my band at the time could practice in.” Derek and three fellow James Madison University graduates found a classified ad for the house, which was still in the family of the original owners.
Kansas House had not been available as a rental property for long. It had been home to a Greek immigrant family and then the site of an antique shop, making that speck of Clarendon more commercial than residential. “That area,” Ian remembers, “was used car lots, actually, and Clarendon was called Little Saigon at the time, all these Vietnamese shops. But if you start to head out Wilson Boulevard, you get to Mario’s Pizza. Which was a really important spot for us. They were open till 3 or 4 in the morning, so we’d all go over there and get pizzas, I remember I was obsessed with their steak and cheese in the early 80s, very greasy.” Mario’s Pizza stands a stone’s throw away from the intersection of Wilson Boulevard and Kansas Street.
“But directly across there was this house that, I think at some point I was just driving by and I noticed it was a thrift store and I decided to go take a look.” The store occupied the house at 900 North Kansas Street. “I remember going in and there was an old woman who ran it. It was two floors and you came in the front door, and she had a counter. It was actually just a desk, to the left and then there was a table, I remember, that had a lot of postcards, antique and vintage post cards. But it went all the way to the back to the sun porch and also you could go upstairs… there were also clothes upstairs.” Ian purchased several things at this thrift store. “I can remember buying a number of things there that really have resonated. I did buy a number of old postcards and old photographs that I quite liked. But I remember buying a rubber cauliflower, which was at Dischord House for many years until Jen Thomas’ pit bull tore it to shreds. I also bought a small metal figurine. It was a metal… it went on a horse or something, but there was no horse, it was just sort of this outstretched figure which I quite liked.” After the thrift store closed, the daughter of the house’s original family turned it into a rental property.
According to Nicole Ardoin, one of the original crew of James Madison University graduates who, along with Derek, lived there, the first rental tenants did not respect the house. “[The landlord] was appalled at the way they treated the place so she wanted to rent it to a family or a (married) couple. She did NOT want it to be a group house and, in fact, I think she actively kicked those guys out because she didn’t like how they had parties and trashed the place.” Nicole was instrumental in securing a lease. She remembers: “I saw the ad in the Sunday classifieds section of the Post… and, even though she had set aside an hour on Sunday morning for people to see the house, I called her early and went to the house before the set time. After seeing the outside of the house, I was super interested so, when I called her, I begged her to give us a try as I told her that I was an art history major in college, LOVED old houses, was into antiques, etc., so she agreed to at least let us come look at it, although she was very, very skeptical and said she really didn’t want to rent it to a group.” Whatever transpired worked—the landlord felt comfortable enough to agree to a lease.
This situation was nearly too good to be true, and it provided the necessary elements for a proper punk house: an empty, singular unit with a somewhat comfortable basement. Derek recalls: “When we moved in, it was all wood floors. There was nothing on the floors and we had that nice fireplace. Completely a clean slate. It was rather clean. The only thing that was sketchy about it was the front porch, when you walked on it, you could feel that the wood was rotting out. You’d kinda sink in a little. So if anything the porch was warping. And you could tell that the back room was starting to fall or sink. It was at an uneven level. So, that was the only thing that seemed kinda sketchy. The basement was dirty, but it was a very clean house when we moved in.”
Additionally, the housemates were rarely bothered by their new landlord, and as long as the rent was paid on time, there was no need for contact. “We would not hear from [the landlord] for months. I don’t really know how that worked. I think we just sent checks to her,” Derek says. This laissez-faire absenteeism provided perhaps the most crucial factor in making it the perfect punk house—freedom. “Maybe this is why Kansas became what it was,” Derek explains. “There wasn’t this formal lease process. So, if someone left, someone would just replace that person. And there wasn’t this– from what I remember– there wasn’t this need to let [the landlord] know what was going on because she didn’t really care. She was just really happy that art was happening or something cool was happening.”
The house was a few blocks from the Virginia Square Metro, providing easy access to the city. This proved lucrative since other houses, perhaps in better condition, did not offer the same cheap rent due to understanding that owners could charge top dollar for the close proximity to public transportation. Derek says, “There’s probably places a couple blocks down that were probably super expensive rent-wise, just because it was such a hub on the Orange Line.” The surrounding amenities were not entirely conducive to high-class living. There was a “Dunkin’ Donuts. You could smell the donuts in the morning. A really sketchy hotel, I think called the Highlander. It was next to the Hallal meat market with its infamous dumpster, which was a breeding ground for a bunch of rats,” Derek says. “It was very convenient to the Giant grocery store.” Essentially, it was a coup. “You could live at Kansas for peanuts basically. It was almost like subsidized housing. It was like a project in the middle of, you know, up and coming Yuppieville.”
The Axis of Arlington
During the mid-1990s, the one and a half miles between the Rosslyn and Clarendon Metro stations was a typical Main Street, USA. The stretch included the Arlington County Courthouse, located off Clarendon Boulevard, the one-way avenue running north opposite Wilson Boulevard’s southern, single-direction trajectory. Along the route there was a post office, a few office buildings and restaurants, a Sears and some car dealerships. Marc Nelson, who grew up in nearby Prince George’s County, Maryland, found this area a bit exotic. “Clarendon looked like an old beach town without a boardwalk,” he says. “All the houses were cottages, and that’s what Kansas felt like, it felt like an old beach house.”
While Kansas House was certainly not beach-front property in this scenario, its convenient proximity– about a half mile south of the Clarendon Metro—made the house accessible to Arlington’s fledgling artistic community. Lary Hoffman, who tended bar at the Galaxy Hut, a watering hole which he would later own, describes the neighborhood: “Between [Kansas House and] the Galaxy Hut it was just a strip of Vietnamese shops and restaurants and cool little funky places. It wasn’t like a nightclub district. All the [record] labels were in Arlington, all the [recording] studios were in Arlington. When you talk about the DC scene in the 90s, a lot of it was in Arlington. Back then it was Kansas House, Galaxy Hut, and some places to get a bite to eat in between.”
A snapshot of Ian MacKaye’s Clarendon of the 1980s was not all that different. “The houses that were there… there weren’t that many by the time I got there, they were just getting knocked down. I think people were selling off because developers were just buying off all the land. So, the Kansas Street House, that whole area was pretty quiet. And a little dumpy, over that way.” A bit undesirable, the Wilson-Clarendon strip was amenable to artists and musicians, who found that in this area, they could afford a sustainable living: cheap rent, cheap food, cheap entertainment, and nobody around to challenge this lifestyle. Lary says, “It was like no man’s land. You could walk out, you could hang out in the middle of the street with a beer and no cars would drive by, it was like, tumbleweeds. And a Sears that people would go smoke a joint in. It was like the Wild West.” In addition to the Galaxy Hut, where many local bands performed to a room packed with their contemporaries, independent record stores provided a place in which the local record labels could peddle their wears.
Ben Adams was part of the team who opened Now Music and Fashion, a record store located across from the Clarendon Metro. ”[Kansas House] was never really a place to me, it was just sort of a house. Until we opened a record store, and then… I almost think of the axis of Galaxy Hut, the record store, and Kansas House. They were almost like the same place for a while.” These businesses co-existed with bars and restaurants, and while the punk kids were certainly not the majority of Arlington’s population, it seemed as though the entire area catered directly to them. Ben says, “That sort of five, six year span from ’97 to 2003, it was totally legit to come to Arlington. And not only was it legit, this was where all the good stuff was happening!”
Under the auspices of Now, Ben attended meetings held by the Clarendon Alliance, the neighborhood’s business organization consisting at the time of the owners of Whitlow’s on Wilson, Mexicali Blues and Faccia Luna—three of the aforementioned cheap-food options. “One day they were talking at one of the meetings and saying, you know, the city, or the county has been telling us that they put those electrical outlets in the park out there and you guys don’t do anything with them. And I was like, well, why don’t we just do concerts out there, then?” Ben got the go ahead and began to use the space to hold concerts that he couldn’t accommodate through his other gig—booking Washington’s legendary Fort Reno summer concert series. “I went to the county and I talked to the police and we gave the neighborhood associations a chance to voice their opinions on it. And the police and the county board basically said, we’d rather just have people hanging out there on a Friday night than nothing.
“I always loved those shows because it was like, the traffic going by on the side and people looking at you all weird. But really, it was just a matter of going to the police and saying, ‘Can I do this?’ And them saying, ’Yeah.’ And we did it for two summers and it was great. But I think that tied in general, bands that played either …at the record store and then a show at either the Galaxy Hut or Iota. But Kansas was a huge part of that because a lot of those bands would come and do that for Kansas. They would play either opening for some other person at an in-store during the day and then play a show at Kansas that night.”
Chris Richards, of the band Q and Not U, lived at Kansas House for a few months between graduating from the George Washington University and touring with his band. Being able to run to a record store proved crucial. “I’ll remember it for the rest of my life. Outcast’s “Bombs Over Bagdad” video came out and premiered on MTV2, and it’s one of my favorite songs in this earthly life, and I saw it and as soon as it came on I jumped up, out of my chair.” Chris became inspired while watching the video. “There’s that scene where Andre 2000 is running and all the kids are behind him… and I don’t know what to do with myself, I was so excited. And the verse goes by, and the chorus comes in and it’s so incredible! And then Big Boi’s verse comes on and it’s so incredible, and then the big finale with the gospel choir and the guitar solo, and the drum patterns start going crazy! And I couldn’t sit down.
“I was so freaked out and I didn’t know what to do with myself, so I started pacing around the room, and then I remembered that Now Music and Fashion [was] about three or four blocks away. And I thought, well maybe they know something about when this album’s gonna come out. We didn’t have Internet, at the time, I didn’t have a laptop or a computer or anything and I had to find out when this album was gonna come out. So, I literally ran three blocks down the street.” Ben Adams, who was manning the store that day, received an excited Chris. “Ben Adams reaches behind and pulls out a twelve inch single they had gotten, a promo. It’s orange vinyl, I still have it till this day. And he says, ’Here ya go, man.’ I think I thanked him profusely for about three minutes and then I ran right back home and I listened to the song about forty times in a row.”
The People and the Punk
“I never attribute too much mysticism to a house.” Ian MacKaye believes it’s a confluence: “I have to say, Kansas Street is an important spot, and I think Dischord is an important spot, but ultimately, it’s not the building. It’s just the people and the punk.” During its fifteen-year span as a major artery in DC Punk’s central nervous system, the Kansas House may be just more of a right place/right time lucky find. “There are attributes to the building and there are circumstances that are specific to Kansas Street,” Ian says, “that it was this house, this lone house on an empty block so you could have music, and it was on a busy street and for whatever reason the Arlington cops didn’t bug out constantly, so who knows?”
Derek Morton recognizes that his own personal need became something of a community necessity: “Without that meeting space and Kansas bringing together people I would not have met otherwise, we had a place to crash and cool people came to hang out.” It was the first of many pieces that came together to be greater than the sum of their art. Ian proclaims, “They were given a canvas and said yeah, if there’s gonna be people there to look at it? I will fucking paint on it! That’s what artists need. They just want somebody to look at their art, or hear their art. And punk rock actually, is like… what do you got? Give us a new idea.”
At Kansas House, that’s exactly what happened.