The ‘Pen Man’ behind the Pen Women

Our Benefactor, Jim McGrath

By Kathleen Powers-Vermaelen, Publications Chair

NLAPW President Virginia Franklin Campbell presents commendation to Jim McGrath while Jai Shankar, an aide to Jim, looks on.

On Oct. 15, President Virginia Franklin Campbell presented Jim McGrath with a Certificate of Commendation, recognizing his generosity in restoring the League’s 1905 Steinway grand piano. Following this small token of our appreciation, I had the pleasure of interviewing this charming gentleman who has given — and who continues to give — so much to the League.

Mr. McGrath, who has done quite a bit of writing himself, has had a long relationship with NLAPW. Twenty-five years ago, the D.C. Tenants Advocacy Coalition (TENAC) had a scheduling conflict at the Charles Sumner School, a museum/conference center that once served as the first public school for African-American children in the United States. Pen Arts was suggested as a substitute venue by TENAC’s Executive Secretary Mary Latka, a Pen Woman, so the meeting took place in the first-floor parlor. Since then, Mr. McGrath has known every NLAPW president and has taken great interest in the League’s mission.

His offer to help restore the piano in Pen Arts parlor came from witnessing the fascination of Sanjay, the son of his assistant, Jay Shankar. Sanjay’s excitement and experimentation with the keys reminded McGrath of a Chickering upright piano, which he’d learned to play, by ear, in his childhood Boston home.

Repairman at work to restore the grand piano.

Repairman at work to restore the grand piano.

“The piano has been a love affair of mine all my life,” he says. “I love the classical repertoire.”

When President Campbell explained that the piano needed restoration, it didn’t take him long to decide to become a benefactor. He hopes recitals and concerts will take place at Pen Arts, providing it with another source of revenue.

A former analyst at the Library of Congress, Jim McGrath is a co-founder and the current chairman of TENAC, which advocates for tenants’ rights, affordable housing, and aid for the evicted and the homeless in D.C. He’s also served as chairman of the Dupont Circle Festival of Music & Gardens, chairman of the Save Our Sholl’s Cafeteria Committee (SOS), president of the Bay State Tenants Association, and membership chairman of the Residential Action Committee (RAC).

“I feel proud of the number of things I’ve undertaken in this city either to save them or to raise money for them,” he says.

Preservation in D.C. can be challenging. “This is a strange city,” he notes. “It destroys its own children architecturally.”

When the original St. Thomas Church burned down 40 years ago, its remnants became part of a memorial garden — until a developer convinced its current pastor to build condominiums alongside a small church in its place. Sholl’s Cafeteria, which fed the city’s homeless, also closed despite community efforts.

He remains optimistic about Pen Arts, however, having succeeded in preserving the Charles Sumner School.

Pianist Sophia Pileggi stands in front of the restored Steinway piano. Sophia performed at the Pen Arts Building and Art Museum. Click on the image to see a video with highlights from the piano dedication event in October 2016:

“[Pen Arts] qualifies as a museum as well,” he says. “It’s a historical building in a historic district and is designated as a historic landmark.”

As the Phillips Collection in D.C. has persevered with grants and donations, he’s certain that Pen Arts could thrive under similar conditions.

Included in Jim McGrath’s immediate committee to solicit additional support is Jack Evans, council member for D.C.’s Ward 2; Robin Deiner, president of Dupont Circle Citizens Association (DCCA); and Fritzie Cohen, proprietor of the Tabard Inn. DCCA now includes Pen Arts in its Dupont Circle Historic House Tours, and several fundraisers are being planned.

“We’re hopeful that the movers and shakers will come on board and make it happen,” he says. “We’re going to give it a very big push.”

Clearly, we’re fortunate to have such a dedicated and determined advocate as Jim McGrath in the League’s corner.