Crossroads of America: Hotels at 15th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW

It’s now open parkland, but through much of Washington’s early history the southeast corner of 15th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW was a prime resting spot for visitors to the nation’s capital. The corner in question is at the very western end of the grand, wide stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue that leads from the Capitol to the Treasury Department grounds. Staying here put you in the center of things, close to the commercial centers along F Street and Pennsylvania Avenue as well as the White House, Lafayette Square, and government buildings.

This view of Pennsylvania Avenue from the Treasury grounds shows the hotel property on the right hand side, at the corner of 15th and Pennsylvania.


In June 1814, Mrs. Barbara Suter moved her hotel (really, boardinghouse) business from the Rhodes Tavern, two blocks north, to the elongated Federal-style townhouse then located on this corner. Two months later the British army arrived, bent on vengeance for the burning of Toronto by the Americans.

As recounted by Anthony Pitch in The Burning of Washington (1998), it was late in the evening of August 24, 1814, that General Robert Ross, commander of British land forces, stopped at Mrs. Suter’s boardinghouse and announced that he had “come, madam, to sup with you.” The frightened Mrs. Suter tried to steer him to another hotel, but he said he preferred her house because of the view it had of the public buildings. He said he’d be back with his officers and then set off the short distance to wreak havoc on the White House. After torching both the White House and the Treasury building, Ross returned with his men to Mrs. Suter’s, which indeed would have had a great view of the fires consuming both of these buildings. Admiral George Cockburn, the overall commander of British forces, joined them there, riding through the low front door on his mule. While dining, the soldiers talked about what to do next, including what to burn next, and Ross asked Mrs. Suter whether the Bank of the Metropolis was a private or public bank. In fact, the bank in question had bought the Rhodes tavern building from Mrs. Suter just two months previously when she moved out. Mrs. Suter said she thought it was a private bank, and perhaps her opinion helped save the building from destruction (instead, it would be destroyed 170 years later by a callous developer—but that’s another story). Pitch notes that there is no record of whether Mrs. Suter was recompensed in any way when the soldiers left her house after eating their fill.

Suter's townhouse was still standing when this photograph was taken, although it is mostly out of view on the right.

Suter’s townhouse remained standing, along with its Federal-style neighbors, for many years. In the 1870s, Pennsylvania Avenue (as well as many other downtown streets) was graded and paved, and the surface of the street was raised six feet in this area, leaving these buildings looking like they were growing out of a hole. The strategic location meant that some kind of commercial development was inevitable. The historic boardinghouse was razed and replaced by a larger building that opened for business as the Hotel Randall in April 1889.

The Hotel Randall had a rather short career, lasting only until 1895. Despite some apparently lavish improvements, such as building an “iron bridge” in 1894 connecting the dining room of the hotel with the lobby of the vaudeville theater next door, the hotel was seized by U.S. marshals for unpaid debts, and the furniture and fixtures sold off. It soon reopened as the Hotel Regent.


The Regent suffered a fire in its boiler room in 1905 that sent thick smoke through the building. Although no one seems to have been hurt and damage was minor, the Washington Times milked it for all it was worth, and then some:

Panic-stricken guests of the Regent Hotel, awakened from their slumbers by the clanging of fire apparatus bells, or dense volumes of smoke rolling into their apartments, ran helter-skelter through the lobby of the hostelry about 3:45 this morning with armfuls of clothing and boxes containing jewelry. Many of them rushed into the streets wearing only bath robes, pajamas, or kimonos…. Great confusion was witnessed on all sides at the entrance of the hotel. Men walked around with undershorts and trousers on and in their bare feet. They carried their shoes and other clothing in their hands. Women, hugging large bundles of clothes walked around with their hair falling down over their shoulders and a wild, vacant stare in their eyes. Many of them were highly excited and pulled and hauled and shouted at their relatives to run to a place of safety… (The Washington Times, May 9, 1905)

Despite such dramas, the hotel did very well. “The Regent is considered to be one of the best pieces of hotel property in the city,” the Washington Post noted the same year as the fire. It was especially popular with theater professionals, being close to several important venues, including the National. The hotel changed ownership a few times, ending up in the hands of Col. O. G. Staples, who also owned the National Hotel and the Riggs House. Col. Staples was reported in 1907 to have grand plans to raze the Regent and replace it with a large new hotel to compete with the Willard (1901, 1904) and Raleigh (1898, 1905, 1911) on the other side of the Avenue. But it was not to be; the Regent was still on the “wrong” side of Pennsylvania Avenue. The blocks directly south of Pennsylvania Avenue, extending to Ohio Avenue (known as Hooker’s Division) and from thence to the Mall (known as Murder Bay), had had a bad reputation since the Civil War for their assortment of tawdry, ramshackle buildings, many of them saloons or houses of prostitution. In 1902, the McMillan Commission had come out with its sweeping plans to remake the Mall in an Imperial Roman fantasy of wide open spaces and large, intimidating neoclassical buildings. One of the commission’s recommendations was that the entire triangle of land between Pennsylvania Avenue and the Mall, from 15th Street to 6th Street, be bought up, cleared of existing structures, and devoted to government buildings. This meant that the Hotel Regent and all of its neighbors were doomed.

As early as 1904, the Washington Post conceded that a “tacit understanding” had been reached that this transformation would take place; it was merely a question of when and how. The same article noted that the block containing the Hotel Regent was the most valuable in the entire triangle, with land and property worth more than $600,000. Congress approved legislation to either buy the properties directly from their owners or seize them through condemnation proceedings, and the lengthy process of government takeover began in 1908. Naturally, the owners of the Regent and the other commercial establishments along the Avenue insisted their properties were worth far more than the government was willing to pay, and condemnation became inevitable.

By 1911, it was called the Grand Hotel (Author's collection).


At some point, the hotel was rechristened the New Oxford Hotel, a title it would keep until 1930. Perhaps the hotel was renamed after it was taken over by the government in expectation that it would be torn down. The New Oxford Hotel postcard seen here states on the back that it is “the only hotel property owned by the United States Government.” The property was finally cleared for parkland in 1930 after it was determined that the Commerce Department building didn’t need to extend all the way up to Pennsylvania Avenue. During World War II temporary buildings were erected here for the Office of War Information, but those were removed in 1955. The space was dedicated as a park to World War I General John J. Pershing in September 1960, although it remained an empty grassy lot for years. Finally, along with the adjacent development of Freedom Plaza in 1981, Pershing Park was landscaped and gained its present appearance.

Comments

  1. Rhodes Tavern was owned by Virginia Congressman John George Jackson from March 1810 to June 1814. Mrs. Barbara Suter ran the boarding house for him. Jackson sold it to the group that established the Bank of Metropolis and later Riggs Bank.

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    Replies
    1. You're welcome. John George Jackson was my gggg grandfather and Dolley Madison's brother-in-law.

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  2. I can't believe you have the original buildings that came before the larger hotels and businesses. Really something. Imagine f they survived today!

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  3. Thanks for your great work here. Lots of details to absorb in these shots; would like to have seen the show at "Chase's Polite Vaudeville"...

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