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.|
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).|