The Riggs House at 15th and G Streets NW

Here's another eastward view of downtown streets in the early 1900s, a block north of the previously discussed scene at 15th and F in Washington's then-booming financial district, where much construction was taking place or soon to do so. The tall red building in this view is the Home Life Building, built in 1901. The Washington Building took its place in 1927 and remains there today.


We're focusing today on the white building just glimpsed on the right, a hotel called the Riggs House. Now largely forgotten, the Riggs House was a prominent hotel in the last half of the 19th century.
View of the hotel from an old postcard.
The building was originally constructed between 1859 and 1860 by famous banker George W. Riggs (1813-1881), with the intention that it be leased out to be operated as a hotel. However, the first tenant turned out to be the federal government, which signed a ten-year lease for the building at a cost of $18,000 annually. Beginning in 1861, it served as the first home of the Internal Revenue Bureau, which then moved into the Treasury Department building some five years later. The Army Quartermaster General's office then occupied the structure for the remainder of the government's lease.


After the government vacated the building, it may have sat idle for awhile but was renovated and perhaps reconstructed. It finally opened for its original purpose, as a hotel, in 1876. The new Riggs House quickly gained a reputation for both elegant accommodations and excellent cuisine under the leadership of Caleb W. Spofford, who was a friend of Riggs and had previously managed the prestigious Hotel Continental in Philadelphia. The hotel billed itself as the "home of statesmen and rendezvous of bons vivants." Presidents Garfield and Harrison were frequent visitors to the hotel; Garfield liked to play billiards there. Spofford and his wife were also ardent supporters of women's suffrage, and as a result key figures such as Susan B. Anthony, Phoebe Couzins, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton chose to stay at the Riggs House. Whether they were considered bons vivants I could find no record.

The hotel prospered and an addition was built in the rear to accommodate increased patronage. Unfortunately, however, Spofford was not as good at bookkeeping as he was at hospitality, and despite many years of success, he began to run up debts that became insurmountable. In May 1891, after Spofford once again failed to pay his monthly rent, the Riggs heirs seized the hotel and auctioned off its furniture to cover the costs of the overdue rent. This left a fairly clean slate for Col. Orrin G. Staples, already proprietor of the Willard Hotel, to step in and take over.

Staples undertook a thorough renovation before reopening the hotel in October 1891. A Washington Post reporter, given a preview of the remodeled hostelry, had this to say about it: "Cherry, mahogany, rosewood, and beveled plate glass are conspicuous upon entering" the hotel's new saloon. "Crystal and silverware are prominent everywhere. Passing along the corridor toward the eastern extremity of the house, the large reception-room is first encountered. One sees here two immense mirrors extending from the floor to the ceiling and said to be the largest in the world. Luxurious upholstered lounges and chairs adorn this apartment, and a magnificent velvet carpet deadens every foot fall and gives an air of comfort and seclusion to the room..."

"Fronting Fifteenth Street in the corner of the lobby is the livery stand of Earnest Burgdorf. Here can be procured at all hours of the day or night some of the finest turnouts [coaches and horses] to be found in the city, for Mr. Burgdorf is a connoisseur in horse flesh and all pertaining to it...

"There are accommodations for 500 guests in the sleeping apartments.... Beds...have upon them mattresses of the best South American hair. Black walnut and antique oak furniture of the latest design and pattern rest upon carpets of maquette, Wilton, and Axminster, and in each room is a splendid wardrobe or capacious closet...

"There are also seventy-five private bathrooms for the convenience of guests. It is proposed to fit up in the hotel the finest Turkish, Russian, and electric baths in Washington. This room will be kept open to fill a long-felt want in the city...."

This advertisement from 1907 includes a not-entirely-accurate drawing of the building.
Rates in 1892 were from $3 to $4 per night, on the American plan (meaning meals were included). Staples was a shrewd businessman and made sure that the hotel lived up to expectations for luxury and convenience that guests, then as now, demanded. After his first ten-year lease was up in 1901, Staples again had a thorough renovation undertaken to keep the hotel up-to-date.

When Staples' second ten-year lease was up in 1911, it was not renewed, and Staples was forced to vacate. The owners, Riggs' heirs, decided to tear down the old hotel and replace it with a large office building that could bring in greater profits. The new Riggs Building was constructed on the Riggs House site in 1912. Only the facade of that building remains today, sheathing one end of the Metropolitan Square office building, completed in 1986. We'll discuss this building in our next post.

Here's a recent view, at street level, that corresponds to the view in the postcard above.

Comments

  1. those awnings...i've never been a huge fan of them on small residences, but they just look so good here.

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  2. This is without a doubt the best site I've ever seen on Washington, DC. I've lived here for twenty-six years and have been a licensed DC tour guide for the past eight years. Yet I am constantly surprised, entertained, amused and educated by this wonderful site. All of your article are new information to me. Bravo! I thank you for all your work.

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  3. -And thank you for the gracious compliments.

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  4. There is no doubt our fair city used to be so much more beautiful before modernism disfigured it. Thank you for showing us what was, and what could be again if we chose to push through the cynisism and embrace beauty again.

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  5. I purchased a trunk with a Riggs label on it with a picture of the hotel. It also has the name staples on it. It this of any value or are these trunks common?

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  6. Debbie FredericksApril 3, 2013 at 8:39 PM

    My great-grandfather was Adolph Loehl, who was the proprietor of "Loehls" seen in the picture. I was always told he had a tavern a block long..not sure how that was connected by Riggs house..I think they were one in the same. He was a notable figure in DC in the early 1900's.

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    1. Ms. Fredericks:

      I'd love to get in touch with you; I'm a distant cousin, descended from Anna Sabina Christlmiller Loehl's sister Mary Frances Christlmiller McLaughlin. Try m dot ellen dot dahlgren at gmail dot com. Lot of family stories about your grandfather Charlie. Ellen Dahlgren

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  7. I am reading "Destiny of the Republic." A book about President Garfield and the Riggs House is mentioned often. Garfield stayed there the night before his inauguration and his murderer, Charles Guiteau, stayed their the night before the assassination of Garfield. I wanted to get a picture in my head of what the Riggs House looked like. So, glad I found it here, so much more good history to be found. Thank you!

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    1. I too am reading the fascinating book, Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard!

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  8. Because I am a direct descendent of Samuel Riggs, the father of George Washington Riggs, who built the Riggs House and Riggs Bank, a friend of mine gave me a souvenir sterling spoon that she found in an antique store that was used as advertisement for the Riggs House Hotel. It is the sweetest thing! Although I am well-versed in the history of the Bank, I never knew about the Riggs House Hotel Building. Thanks for this posting!!

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