The Hamilton Hotel

The original four-story Hamilton Hotel, designed in the then-fashionable Second Empire style, was constructed on the northeast corner of 14th and K Streets NW in 1877, on the site of an old private boys' school (known, perhaps, as "Rutgres College" or the "Rugby School") and across the street from Franklin Square.


This first Hamilton was a genteel landmark at the end of the 19th century, noted for the easy leather chairs in its lobby and the sophistication of its residents. Many members of Congress stayed there and thus it was reportedly the “scene of much political gossip.” In 1907 the hotel was sold to its long-time manager, Irving O. Ball, for $125,000. The neighborhood at that time was a growing center of social life and commerce.



Plans were announced in 1911 to raze the hotel and replace it with a new eight-story edifice, to be designed by Appleton P. Clark. However, such a building was never constructed. Instead, it would be another eleven years before the 1877 building was razed and replaced.


The current eleven-story, 400-room Hamilton Hotel was designed by noted Washington architect Jules Henri de Sibour, and opened in December 1922. The Indiana limestone-faced structure features late 18th century “neoclassical” design elements, such as the distinctive arched stained glass window over the main entrance. The building was designed so that every room has an outside window, to ensure ample light and air. Furnishings were all custom-made as directed by de Sibour. According to an article in the Washington Post, “months were devoted to selection of the furniture, and china, silverware, table and bed linens were all especially designed and manufactured for the hotel.” In keeping with the high style and reputation that was sought for the building, its manager and top chef were brought in from the Plaza Hotel in New York. The attention to style worked, and the hotel enjoyed great popularity throughout the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. An air conditioning system—remarkable for the time—was installed in July 1935. The hotel hosted one of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s inaugural balls and was a favorite spot for Union officials ever since William Green, head of the American Federation of Labor, lived there in 1930. Hollywood’s singing cowboy Gene Autry performed with his horse, Champion, in the hotel’s Rainbow Room.

Through the years, the building’s ownership changed hands numerous times. Reported to cost $1.5 million to build, the building was purchased by Maddux, Marshall, Moss & Mallory, Inc., in May 1927 from the Chesapeake Hotel Corporation at a price “understood to have been in the neighborhood of $3,000.000.” The new owners had grand plans for the building, including constructing a new ballroom in the basement. Along with the Ambassador Hotel on the opposite corner and the Tower Building adjacent to it, the Hamilton formed part of an intersection valued at $10 million in 1929, a remarkable sum. However, the property did not hold its value well. Its assessed value fell back to $1.4 million in March of 1932, in the depths of the Great Depression. It was sold at auction at that time for just $529,000.


The hotel, along with the Annapolis Hotel, was sold to the Manger Hotel chain in 1950. As the surrounding area declined in the 1950s and 1960s, the Hamilton also suffered. No longer a posh destination, it became a “middle income” hotel, catering to tourists and businessmen. The elegant Rainbow Room became the Purple Tree cocktail lounge. In the 1960s, adult bookstores, strip joints and X-rated theaters began to fill 14th Street, which in earlier decades had been a fashionable entertainment district. Prostitutes worked Franklin Square, no longer a safe place to stroll and enjoy the scenery.

The Purple Tree Lounge


In 1972, with a reported occupancy rate of only about 50 percent, Manger closed the floundering hotel and sold it for $1.2 million to the Salvation Army, which then used it for several years as its Evangeline Hotel for women, which had previously been operated around the corner on L Street in the former Dewey Hotel building. The dicey location, as well as a rule that men were not allowed above the lobby floor, kept the hotel from ever being financially successful in this capacity, and it closed in 1977. The following year the building was sold again, this time to be renovated and converted into commercial office and retail space.

The Hamilton in the 1960s.
The neighborhood began to turn around again in the 1980s, when millions of square feet of new office buildings were constructed nearby. The last of the big 14th Street sex businesses, the Casino Royal—two blocks south—was demolished in 1989. The Hamilton nevertheless struggled as a commercial building and by the early 1990s was empty other than for a small Indian restaurant, a coffee shop, and a passport photo store on its ground floor. A $22 million mortgage on the property eventually ended up with the federal Resolution Trust Corporation. Finally, in 1994 a French hotel firm bought the building for $6 million and renovated it again into a boutique hotel with about 300 suites. An additional two floors were added to the top of the building.

Today the hotel operates as the Hamilton Crowne Plaza, a luxury boutique hotel and one of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s “Historic Hotels of America.” In November 2012, it was designated an historic landmark by the D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board.

The Hamilton as it appears today (photo by the author).

Comments

  1. Glad to see all this history. I lived there in 1975-76 as a college grad when it was "The Evangeline, a residence for young business women" run by the Salvation Army. I worked in a new US Govt building a few blocks away, but it certainly was a VERY "dicey" neighborhood at that time!

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    1. We probably passed one another in the elevator and lobby, as I lived there in the first half of 1975 as well! It really was a "dicey" neighborhood then, to say the least. But I was totally oblivious to it apparently, as I used to go out at night and JOG! Foolish youth, eh? Hope your life paths have taken you to wonderful places!

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    2. I lived there, too, in 1975. Came directly from high school in upstate new york (rural) to the Evangeline. Made lots of friends there, but lost touch. It was a great place to be when you were new to D.C. Worked for the VA on Vermont Avenue.

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  2. My father-in-law worked in the Rainbow Room in 1936. I still have his menus - for the hotel dining room, the bar and the Rainbow Room itself. It's great to actually see some photos of the building!

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    1. How amazing! I am the marketing manager here at the hotel, and I believe that what makes this hotel so special is our rich history. Would you be willing to send us photos of the menus? We would love to be able to share those images with the public! Please feel free to reach out to our Director of Sales and Marketing should you be willing to provide some photos. Her contact information is Patricia.Tang@interstatehotels.com. Thank you!

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  3. I stayed there when I was a 6th grader in May of 1964 when on a trip to DC with my school's safety cadets. From our hotel window, I could see the Capitol building, so beautifully lit at night. It was the experience of a lifetime! I am so relieved it is still standing and now a historic landmark!

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  4. Michael CarricoMay 7, 2015 at 4:54 PM

    I worked at the Securities Building on 15th Street just south of H in the early seventies, and I remember well the dicey aspects of the neighborhood, especially after the sun went down. Admired this building then, in particular the striking entrance. The two story addition is pretty lame, but I'm sure glad it's still there with those two extra floors rather than gone & replaced with yet another bland soulless modern McOffice Building.

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  5. I lived there in January of 1975 when I'd moved from NY to work as a young secretary for the federal government. It was quite a different neighborhood back then (referred to as the "red light district," if I'm not mistaken)! I used to jog just a couple of blocks over to the White House and run around the Elipse. I remember feeling so thrilled to be living a stone's throw from The People's House! I was clueless as to just how dangerous a neighborhood it was back then. Such is the nature of impetuous youth, I suppose. I loved living there. The views from our rooms were spectacular. When I moved back from Hawaii to NY in 2003, I did a tour through a lot of the areas I used to live in various states, and so I stopped to visit. The concierge there was kind enough to take me up to the floor where I once lived so many years before -- when it was run by the rather strict Salvation Army "guardians of the gate" (yes, they studiously enforced the "no men allowed above the lobby" rule)! I thought the concierge's willingness to allow me the time to take that nostalgic trip "down memory lane" was soooo cool of him. He pointed out the historic rotunda area that has been beautifully restored, and was ever so engaging, pointing out the beautiful rooms and he showcased the special touches to the hotel made during its renovation. It is a lovely boutique hotel now, and I would stay there in a heartbeat when next I visit DC.

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  6. In early April 1968, my 11th grade high school class stayed at this hotel during a trip to DC. We were there when riots broke out after Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated. When the riots started, we watched from our windows as looters broke into stores down below and across the street. We had to cut our trip short due to our parents’ concern over our safety. Some in our class claim that this hotel was burned after we left. Can anyone confirm if this was true? I personally hope that this was not true. Nothing in the historical overview above suggests that this happened. Any info on this question would be appreciated. Thank you.

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    1. There is no evidence that the Hamilton Hotel sustained any damage during the riots of 1968. Most of the vandalism on 14th Street was to the north of this location.

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  7. My girlfriend Yvonne and I lived there in 1960. We were recruited from Somerset, PA Highschool. We walked to work and I worked in the State Department.

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