The Magnificent Raleigh Hotel

Along with the Willard, which is so similar in appearance that many people confuse the two, the Raleigh was one of the largest and grandest hotels in Washington in the first part of the twentieth century. It held a commanding position on Pennsylvania Avenue across from the Old Post Office Building and was famous as a Mecca for patrons of the performing arts. Its loss in 1964 was as devastating culturally as it was architecturally.


The site of the Raleigh had been a hostelry going back at least to 1815, when the Fountain Inn opened there. After that, a city post office was on the site, followed by Azariah Fuller's Irving Hotel, a larger, four-story structure that took its place in 1848. The hotel was later taken over by John and Albert Kirkwood and renovated as the Kirkwood House, which became infamous as the place where Vice President Andrew Johnson was staying on the night of April 14, 1865, and where he was supposed to be assassinated by George Atzerodt. Atzerodt instead got drunk and let Johnson live on to assume the presidency.


In 1875, the Kirkwood was replaced by the Shepherd Centennial Building, an elaborate Second-Empire style structure, which housed the Palais Royal department store for almost two decades. At seven stories, this thoroughly modern and elegant building was renovated in 1893-4, under the auspices of Washington architect Leon E. Dessez, to become the first incarnation of the Raleigh Hotel. A minor scare occurred during construction in September 1894 when two iron columns on the first floor sank about six inches, creating a momentary panic among workers that the whole building might collapse. It did not; the problem columns were replaced and shored up, and the hotel opened for business on time in November. This circa 1906 postcard view shows how the original hotel looked.



The Raleigh was an immediate success and began a rapid program of expansion. In 1897, three additional floors were added. In 1898, New York architect Henry Janeway Hardenbergh (who would also be responsible for the Willard) designed a major addition just to the north of the original building along 12th Street. This looming, twelve-story Beaux-Arts addition, clad in Indiana limestone and “Baltimore high-grade brick,” sent the hotel literally soaring to new heights, with views from the top reaching to Arlington House across the Potomac or out to the Soldiers Home in the upper Northeast section of the city. A notable feature of the new addition was its 10th-floor banquet hall, with its high, vaulted ceiling; decorations in myrtle green and ivory white; recessed, ornate balcony for orchestral use, and specially monogrammed Havilland china (a Boar’s head and tobacco leaves, suggestive of Sir Walter Raleigh). This next postcard shows how the hotel looked with this grand addition on the side street overpowering the original building at the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue.


By 1911, the owners were finally able to gain control of the adjoining lot on Pennsylvania Avenue, giving them room to tear down the original Centennial building and in its place expand Hardenbergh’s addition to create a magnificent, thirteen-story main hotel building directly on the Avenue. Congress was pressed to change the height limit from 130 feet to 160 feet on Pennsylvania Avenue to accommodate this soaring structure. Unlike the Willard with its mansard roof, Hardenbergh’s Raleigh had a flat roof on the corner addition, allowing for a luxurious garden with a spectacular view of the city. An octagonal Beaux Arts dome on the corner, tiers of balconies at the third, eleventh, and twelfth floors, and rusticated details over the entire surface gave the building a grand and imposing appearance, as can be seen in these postcard views, which all seem to make much of the building’s size.



These next cards show examples of the hotel’s interior finery as seen in the décor of its main lobby and dining room.



Paintings commissioned for the lobby included these two by well-known artist Charles Yardley Turner (1850-1919):



The gilded age exuberance of the Raleigh brought prosperity well into the 1920s. The Raleigh was the height of fashion, and powerful Washingtonians such as “Uncle Joe” Cannon, Mark Hanna, and Champ Clark all were known to down gin rickeys and mint juleps at the hotel’s great mahogany bar with its elaborate iron grillwork and brass rail. Finally, however, competition from the more modern and fashionable Mayflower Hotel began to take away some business. All hotels must fight a constant battle to appeal to the tastes of the moment, and by the 1930s, the Raleigh was overdue for a makeover. A first stab at redoing the place was made in 1931, when such things as “elevators of a modern self-stopping and self-leveling type” were installed and the lobby furnishings updated. It was at this time that the venerable old mahogany bar—the last one remaining in a working hotel from the days before Prohibition—was converted into a soda fountain.

The Raleigh in 1935, just before renovations.

The real change—the second life, as it were—for the Raleigh came with the hiring in 1936 of Curt Schiffeler as the hotel’s manager, a highly skilled host who had learned his trade in Lorraine, France. Colonel Schiffeler, as he was known to all, almost single-handedly turned the hotel around. He first arranged for a real makeover of the place, at a cost of $250,000. A streamlined, art moderne look was the new watchword. Wallpaper in hallways was taken down and replaced with a simple light-toned paint scheme. “Semi-indirect” lighting fixtures created a subtler, sleeker look. After the new furnishings were in place, the Evening Star ran a special photogravure section in January 1937, showing off the hotel’s sophisticated new decorations and offering this description:

“…The lobby and front desk are modern in design and treatment. The columns are flesh-tinted mirrors, the ceiling is silver leaf and blue, while the floor is black with white feature striping. The walls are paneled in teakwood from floor to ceiling, and the furniture is modern Chinese Chippendale.”


The pièce-de-résistance of all of Schiffeler’s reinvention was the hotel’s dining room, rechristened the Pall Mall Room, which, upon opening in November 1936, quickly became one of the city’s top night spots. The streamlined room featured soft rose and chromium hues carried out in window draperies, wall banquettes, and columns with gun-metal mirrors and ebony bases. The floor was arranged in three terraces: one level with the dance floor, one arranged with black-and-white tables for dinner parties, and a third for the cocktail lounge. Opening night featured Eddie Elkins and his orchestra, “known to radio audiences the country over” for “sweet, swing and hot tunes,” complemented by the Don Loper and Beth Hayes dance team from Radio City Music Hall.  –Quite a draw!


The hotel became an immensely popular entertainment venue, and not just because of the fashionable décor. Schiffeler had a special genius for attracting artists, especially writers and musicians, and he began naming suites for special guests, such as Thornton Wilder, Eugene Ormandy, Lily Pons, and Sergei Rachmaninoff. Schiffeler made sure there was always something going on at the Raleigh to create an air of excitement. The Pall Mall Room featured theme nights such as “Argentina,” “Old Vienna,” or, beginning in 1938, a special annual “Hunt Dinner,” featuring the best New Hampshire venison in either a grand veneur sauce or a ragout with currant jelly and puree of fresh chestnuts. Although this last event was by invitation only to Washington’s 200 most important guests, it helped add to the Raleigh’s reputation for being exotic and fun.

Schiffeler knew just the right tone to set. He was shrewd enough to invite musically-inclined local debutantes to sing along with the name-brand bands he hired for the Pall Mall Room, thus assuring a loyal and enthusiastic local following. Culturally speaking, Washington was still growing up in the 1940s and 1950s. Provincialism was waning, but a true cosmopolitan sophistication had not yet firmly taken hold. The Evening Star observed in 1969 that “there was about the Raleigh as a cultural center an aging, diffident elegance; a seedy grandeur even.” It was like no other place.

The Raleigh in the 1950s.
Things started to go downhill when Schiffeler resigned in 1954 because of disagreements with the hotel’s new owners, the Massaglia chain, over policies about employees (the payroll had been cut by 40 percent) and service to guests. With Schiffeler gone and his impeccable service eviscerated, the hotel floundered. In early 1962 it was sold to new owners, who at first said they would renovate the hotel once again into a plush high-end destination. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. Instead, the hotel closed in 1963, to be torn down and replaced by an office building. The only excitement at this point was the auction of the hotel’s furnishings, held over three days in December 1963. Everything from bathmats to bed linens was sold off. The owner of the nearby Black Steer Restaurant bought the old mahogany bar and all the other fixtures associated with it for $5,300. Someone else bought the hotel’s barbershop for just $375—but, of course, it wasn’t mahogany. The building itself was torn down in 1964, a year that saw great beginnings as well as this sad ending.

The site of the Raleigh as it appears today.

Comments

  1. Wonderful entry!

    Now, where DID that mahogany bar go to?

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  2. How sad to have lost such a beautiful building.

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  3. So the mahogany bar apparently went to Danker's Black Steer Restaurant (also just known as Danker's) at 1209 E Street, NW, which was only half a block away. --Of course, Jerry's real question is where did it go NEXT? Excellent question!

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    1. I remember going to Danker's back in the 1980's before hitting a show at the Warner. I loved the old poshness of that place, especially the bar, nice to know the whole history behind it. Where that bar went to NEXT (if saved at all) is a good questions, indeed.....

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    2. I was a bartender at Dankers on E Street in 1986 and the bar was copper. At least the bar top was covered in very old copper sheeting and the owners would brag that it was the longest bar in D.C. and among the oldest. Now the rest of the bar and the bar back was dark wood and perhaps mahogany. There was only one bar to my knowledge, I guess they could be the same.

      I worked the slow afternoon/evening shifts, and I would get spillover from the buxom Englishwoman who bartended at lunch for all the FBI agents and tax attorneys in the neighborhood. Dankers didn't serve a martini, it served a small SHAKER with a martini in it along with a chilled glass and garnish, so I would inherit hammered g-men from headquarters who would each tell me how they solved Watergate before anyone else.

      At night, if there was a show at the Warner Theater (which shared the back alley), all the stagehands would come in between set-changes and order drinks that I was supposed to over-pour and undercharge for (they told me this); then the head guy would pay the tab and leave a huge tip for me. If they had just paid/tipped normal it would have been less but who was I to argue.

      I was afternoon bartender for the 1986 baseball post-season, which was one of the greatest of all time, and in an era before cel phones and TVs everywhere. Game 6 of the NLCS was an afternoon game between the Mets and Astros that went 16 innings and the bar got more and more packed with tax attorneys and men as skipped work to see it as it unfolded. I remember the game more than I remember serving drinks, which I probably did a lot of. That day, October 15, 1986, is a truly great memory. I just realized that was 31 years and 1 day ago.

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  4. Have a box of Raleigh Hotel, International Silver utensils with the R monogram.

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  5. John Wm SchiffelerJuly 14, 2011 at 11:08 PM

    I have fond memories from the late 1940s of Uncle Curt and Aunt Mary at the Raleigh Hotel and their home, "Apple Gate" in Chevy Chase. The story of how my father, Carl and his younger brother, Curt left Germany just prior to the First World War, going first to Canada and later to the United States is, like so many immigrant accounts, a fascinating saga. I would be quite interested in learning more from others who, like myself, have a shared interest in this hotel of yesteryear and any memories of my family.

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  6. I have fond memories of the Raleigh. I worked there as the check-out clerk at the front desk. My Uncle Jim owned the barber shop in the Raleigh. I remember a wonderful restaurant there. A waiter would bring me coffee in the morning when I arrived. I arrived very early.

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  7. My father,was the leader of "Russ Cullen and his Orchestra" that played at the Raleigh Hotel in the late 30's and the 40's in the Pall Mall Room.. He told many stories about many different subjects. Also, my mother was "A Cigarette Girl" at the Raleigh Hotel in the late 30's and early 40's. This is where my mother and father met. I wish I knew more about those years and about my dad. I'd love to share stories that I remember about his time there. I do have photos that I think were taken there.

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  8. I just listed a tent type advertising card for your dad's show on Ebay. It is listed under Entertainment Memorabilia and his name. Maybe it is something that you do not already own.

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  9. I found a room key that says "The Raleigh Washington DC, Postage 2 cent" other side is the room # 214. It's a real neat big heavy nickle plated key. Wondering if it's rear or collectible?

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  10. Thanks, for sharing the information, it’s very informative post!










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  11. This is lovely!!! Beautiful piece as usual... I thoroughly enjoyed the pictures, the perspectives, but especially the descriptions and narratives...

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