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. Then Azariah Fuller's Irving Hotel, a larger, four-story structure, took its place in 1848 and was later renovated as the Kirkwood House, which became famous as the hotel 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.|
|The site of the Raleigh as it appears today.|