|View of the National Hotel, circa 1910.|
“Apart from the Capitol and the White House, there is no building in this city so historic as this,” remarked the Washington Post in 1930. “For more than half a century the history of the Nation was made there.” Presidents, such as Andrew Jackson, James K. Polk, and Abraham Lincoln, stayed there when it was fashionable through much of the 19th century, and a post-inaugural banquet for Lincoln was held there, as were all the finest mid-19th century Washington banquets. The dining room was renowned for its terrapin dinners and rare old wines.
Henry Clay lived at the National for many years and died in his room (Room 116) in 1852. The room seems to have been kept up as a sort of memorial to him for quite some time afterward. “There is an old-fashioned fireplace in the room, with a soapstone top, and pillars surmounted by brass ornaments, and the old-fashioned andirons and fender are as they were the morning he died. The same paper is on the wall, and on the cracked window panes are written the names of a score of people who probably have long since died, as the dates opposite their names are away back in the ‘40s and ‘50s,” the Washington Post reported in 1886.
During the Civil War, the War Department’s official news censor had his office at the National, since it was close to the telegraph office. Despite his presence, the hotel remained a bastion for Southern sympathizers; John Wilkes Booth stayed there in Room 228 while plotting to assassinate President Lincoln.
Beginning in the early years of the 20th century, the hotel was increasingly unable to compete with newer, grander establishments like the Raleigh and the Willard, both located further west on Pennsylvania Avenue, and later the Hotel Washington and the Mayflower. Further, the hotel never fully recovered from a serious fire in 1921, in which two people were killed, including a telephone operator, Miss Katherine Deane, who had initially escaped the burning building safely but then fatefully returned to her room for something she had forgotten. The building was sold in 1929 to the D.C. government, which had long-range plans to use the site for development of a municipal building. The hotel finally closed in 1931, and shortly afterward the D.C. National Guard began using it as an armory. The building was razed in 1942 and replaced in 1961with the D.C. Employment Security Building, which stood there until around 2000, when the property was cleared again to make way for the Newseum.
The hotel's main dining room, seen in the postcards below, was an enclosed space that may have been in the hotel's courtyard, which once had a garden and fountain.
* * * * *
Update: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Charles Dickens stayed at the National Hotel when visiting Washington in 1842. Dickens actually stayed at Fuller's Hotel at 14th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, NW. Fuller's became Willard's Hotel in 1847.