The National Hotel

Originally founded in 1827 by John Gadsby (1766-1844), the National Hotel was located on Pennsylvania Avenue at 6th Street, NW. Gadsby, who had run Gadsby's Tavern in Alexandria in the 1790s, came to Washington in 1819 and started out by taking over a tavern and hotel at 19th and I Streets, NW. That place was too small and out of the way, however, so in 1827, he purchased the row of federal townhouses on the northeast corner of Pennsylvania Avenue at 6th Street, NW, known as "Weightman's Row" after owner Roger Chew Weightman, who was mayor of Washington from 1824 to 1826. Gadsby combined Weightman's townhouses to form the new National Hotel, which was more frequently known as Gadsby’s Hotel in its early days (not to be confused with the other Gadsby's Hotel, at 3rd and Pennsylvania Avenue, which opened in 1845 and was run by John Gadsby's son William). The National was a major landmark for much of Washington's early history. Like almost all of Washington's early hotels, it was built incrementally, more an accretion of smaller buildings than a single structure. With various expansions both in width and in height, it reached its greatest development around 1857.

Early engraving of the National Hotel from an 1837 hotel invoice (author's collection).

“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 at the National, 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.

Though one of Washington's most distinguished hotels, the National had its share of scandals, the most notorious being the onset of a mysterious sickness, perhaps dysentery or typhoid fever, that overcame hundreds of guests during the first three months of 1857. The intestinal malady may have killed several dozen victims. President-Elect James Buchanan was staying at the hotel at the time, which led to rampant speculation that radical abolitionists had poisoned the National's water with arsenic in an attempt to assassinate the Southern-leaning president-to-be. While arsenic was used at the hotel to kill rats, there was no evidence that it had gotten into the hotel's drinking water.

Dr. D. H. Storer, a National guest and victim of the strange disease, offered his observations in the National Intelligencer
A dreadful nausea has been, in my case, the very worst and most miserable attendant upon this complaint. I have felt it almost all the time from the first till now. If I were even to-day to take an ounce of beef steak, or that amount of any animal food into my stomach, my experience thus far is that I should suffer for hours from this horrid nausea.
The disease peaked in March, around the time of Buchanan's inauguration when the hotel was crowded, and then soon disappeared. The local authorities investigated and found nothing conclusive. In their report they assured Washingtonians that hotel and the city as a whole were quite healthful and that the sickness must have resulted from a temporary "miasma" emanating from sewage lines. Whatever it was and whatever caused it, it didn't appear again.

It was well known that the hotel was a headquarters for Southerners in Washington. It is perhaps no coincidence that it was here that Solomon Northup, a free-born African American from New York, was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841. After finally regaining his freedom more than a decade later, Northup penned his famous memoir, 12 Years A Slave, which was recently made into an award-winning motion picture.

During the Civil War, the War Department’s official news censor kept his office at the National, since it was close to the city telegraph office, but the Union presence didn't discourage well-to-do Southern sympathizers from taking rooms there as well. The dapper John Wilkes Booth, for example, stayed in Room 228 while plotting to assassinate President Lincoln. The hotel was a favorite with stage performers, being an easy walk from Ford's Theatre.

Early 1900s views of the hotel (author's collection).
Beginning in the early years of the 20th century, the National grew increasingly unable to compete with newer, grander establishments like the nearby 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 a new 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 1961 with 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.



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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.

Comments

  1. came here from flickr...fun stuff to read..keep up the nice work!

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  2. Thanks very much for the support and encouragement.

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  3. I have a menu from this hotel dated June 16th 1845!

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    1. Always wondered what was on the menu in that era...

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  4. Fantastic work, from a new visitor to your site! One observation about the postcards, though: close study shows early automobiles parked in both views. Also, the photos capture pedestrians in mid-stride; the long exposures of 1857 would have heavily blurred them. Those, plus the dress of the women, would place these postcards around 1900.

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  5. PS: Whoops--I should have said "the first two postcards."

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  6. Matt, you're absolutely right. In fact, the postcards are probably closer to 1910. Picture postcards weren't even invented until the 1890s. I had not intended to suggest that the pictures were from 1857, but the sentence sure did sound that way, so I have revised it. Thanks!

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  7. What an excellent piece of history! Too bad it's no longer standing, but thank you for sharing.

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  8. Excellent info - Thanks

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  9. What a stupidity to raze the hotel. It would have been such as landmark now.

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  10. Not a word about the National Hotel Disease that sickened 400 and caused the death of at least twenty people, when President-elect James Buchanan dined there on the eve of his Inauguration, which was always held on March 4, back in 1857. I am searching for the name of the owner of the Hotel at the time of the two outbreaks of this strange epidemic.

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  11. Miss Katherine Deane, the telephone operator who died in this fire was married to my Grandfather at one time

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  12. What no mention of National Hotel Disease? It was a long standing problem at the hotel. It killed Buchanan's nephew and almost Buchanan himself during his inauguration. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Hotel_disease

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    1. Thanks. The article has been updated to include a discussion of the strange sickness that hit the National Hotel during the first three months of 1857.

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  13. Really great blog by the way, I didn't mean to sound so harsh! Keep up the great work!

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  14. My grandparents honeymooned at this hotel in September 1915. I have 2 letters to my grandmother's parents on the hotel stationary.

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  15. HOW STUPID NOT TO PRESERVE THE NATIONAL AS A LANDMARK.THEY COULD HAVE REFURBISHED IT 'S USED BOOTH'S ROOM AS A MUSEUM ROOM.

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  16. Re "National Hotel disease": "the result of frozen pipes spilling fecal matter into the hotel's kitchen and cooking water". James Buchanan, by Jean H. Baker, Times Books, 2004.

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