The Opulent Arlington Hotel

Quick, what was the swankiest hotel in Washington in the 1880s and 1890s? Was it the Willard? No, the Willard that we know hadn't been built yet, and its predecessor was growing old and outmoded. The National or the Metropolitan? No, they had peaked earlier in the century as well. The best hotel, in many people's view, was the Arlington, located on Vermont Avenue just a block from the White House. The site, between H and I Streets, is where the Department of Veterans Affairs now stands."The fame of the Arlington is only bounded by the circumference of the globe," proclaimed The Evening Star in December 1902. Despite such renown, the Arlington had a relatively brief career and is now almost wholly forgotten.

Arlington Hotel circa 1905 (Author's collection).

The area around and just north of Lafayette Square was the height of fashion in those days. John Hay and Henry Adams built grand mansions side by side on H Street across from the park; the Hay-Adams Hotel now rises there. Next to them on the corner of H and Connecticut Avenue (present site of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce) was William W. Corcoran's even-more-grand Italianate mansion, designed by James Renwick, an elaborate expansion of the house previously on that site, owned by Daniel Webster.

The Department of Veterans Affairs, on the Arlington Hotel site at Vermont Avenue and I Street, NW.

Corcoran (1798-1888) was the one who built the Arlington Hotel some two blocks away in 1869. He was born in Georgetown and made a tremendous fortune in the banking business in partnership with George W. Riggs. Their institution was a pioneer in international banking, having financed the Mexican-American War for the U.S. government in the 1840s through the sale of bonds on the British market. Corcoran was able to retire from the banking business in 1854 to devote his attention to his real estate business and to the many charitable causes he supported. He was one of the country's first great philanthropists.

In 1869, Corcoran decided to replace the mansions he had acquired on Vermont Avenue at I Street with what he first called "Arlington House." Though he had relied on James Renwick for the design of his H Street mansion in 1849 and his public art gallery (now the Renwick Gallery) in 1859, this time he turned to E.G. Lind, who had recently designed the Peabody Institute in Baltimore. Lind chose a restrained but very fashionable Second-Empire look for the Arlington, in pressed red brick with brownstone trim. As James Goode describes it in Capital Losses, the Arlington "was a successful wedding of a severe Anglo-Italianate facade with a curved mansard reminiscent of the New Louvre in Paris."

This stereoview shows how the hotel looked before it was extended to the north in 1889.
The hotel was exclusive and luxurious. Vermont Avenue outside the hotel became the first street in Washington to receive asphalt paving, in hopes of deadening noise and making guests more relaxed. There were no less than five dining rooms on the first floor, to accommodate multiple private parties. The rich and famous, to say nothing of the regal, felt comfortable staying here, in part because of the exclusive location near the White House but also because of the attentiveness of the manager, Theophile E. Roessle. Part of the hotel was comprised of elements of the large, stately mansions that had previously been on the site. For example, connected to the main hotel building on its north end as an annex was the former mansion of British Minister Reverdy Johnson, which became the home away from home for the most privileged of VIPs. In 1872, the Japanese minister arrived with an entourage of 150 and was quartered in the Johnson annex, which was specially decorated with Japanese and American flags and evergreen festoons. The minister wanted his staff to wear western attire, so Roessle arranged to have 150 dress suits tailored within a 24-hour period to meet their needs. The western look "becomes them well," remarked the National Republican.

The dining room of the Arlington Hotel, circa 1892.
Other notable guests included many senators and representatives as well as the great capitalists of the day, including Andrew Carnegie and J. P Morgan, who maintained a permanent suite of rooms specially decorated to his tastes. State visitors included Dom Pedro, the "emperor" of Brazil; President Porfirio Diaz of Mexico; and Queen Kapiolani of Hawaii, who visited President Cleveland in 1887 and received Mrs. Cleveland at her quarters in the Arlington.

A card from the Arlington that lists recommendations for shops and sightseeing on the reverse.
In 1889 the Arlington hosted President-Elect Benjamin Harrison on the eve of his inauguration. Harrison was put up in the same Johnson annex that hosted so many other notable guests. The hotel commissioned future furniture and department-store magnate Julius Lansburgh to elaborately redecorate the rooms. The parlor was laid in a rich Turkish carpet, and the windows were decorated with elegant Aubusson tapestry, Brussels lace curtains, and plush valances. The smoking room featured massive oak chairs covered in olive mohair plush. The dining room continued the heavy oak theme, with chairs upholstered in green leather and a heavy red and olive Wilton carpet. The bedroom featured Louis XVI mahogany furniture and satin damask curtains of scarlet and gold. —All this finery was short-lived, however. Harrison's brief stay was in February;  in May of  that same year, the Johnson Mansion was torn down so that the hotel proper could be expanded to the north. This $165,000 addition was designed by Harvey L. Page, architect of the Palais Royal department store, in a style closely similar to the original hotel. Inside, a new, larger dining room and parlor were created, "furnished in cabinet oak, with paneled ceilings of poplar," according to The Washington Post. A new entrance was established on I Street, leading to an exclusive ladies' promenade inside. The expanded hotel continued to cater successfully to the rich and famous for another two decades.

Postcard view of the expanded Arlington and its "Annex," the former Charles Sumner House (author's collection).
Given its heritage as Washington's premier hostelry, the Arlington's demise in 1912 was striking and wholly unexpected. It began in 1911, when the decision was made to replace the old building with a new one. By that time, the Arlington could no longer keep up with newer hotels like the Willard and the Raleigh on Pennsylvania Avenue. The Arlington's pressed red-brick, Second-Empire style struck contemporary taste-makers as positively hideous. They wanted all the Victorian buildings replaced with Roman temples. Accordingly, prominent hotel architect Frank M. Andrews was hired to design a new, neoclassical building that would once again inspire travelers with awe. "The proposed hotel will be the largest and most elaborate hostelry in the South," The Washington Post promised (back when it was a given that Washington was a Southern town). A new Arlington Hotel Company was formed, supported by many prominent Washington bankers and capitalists, and it bought the old hotel for $1.45 million. The new hotel was to cost another $3 million to build and $1 million to furnish. It would boast the largest hotel ball room ever built on its second floor, a fan-shaped palm court and octagonal tea room on the first floor, and in the basement a Turkish bath with an "immense" swimming pool as well as a rifle range for target practice.

The planned replacement for the Arlington Hotel (Source: Library of Congress)

But problems started to crop up in 1912. Demolition of the old hotel progressed in fits and starts through the summer, due to unreliable financing. The demolition contractor eventually had to sue to get fully paid, but the old building did come down. In October, the Post ran an article under the title "FAMOUS SITE A WRECK," in which it noted that "only a pile of broken bricks remains to mark the site of the historic Arlington Hotel... [A]t the present time the corner stands as one of the most unsightly in the National Capital."

It would remain that way for years to come, as the Arlington Hotel Company found itself unable to come up with the funds it needed to finance its new hotel, which was never built. The death of J.P. Morgan in March 1913 was one of the first problems; he had been a principal investor and was to have floated a large loan for the new building. Then the architect, Frank Andrews, had a falling out with Gen. Thomas Coleman du Pont, a major investor who threatened to leave the project. In the end, the company could not come up with the $1.8 million it needed to secure a loan for the rest of the planned investment. There ensued much legal and financial wrangling, and various plans for alternate approaches to the hotel were put forth, but nobody could get the money they needed. Meanwhile the huge open pit on Vermont Avenue sat abandoned, the shorings turned black, and a thick carpet of weeds thrived at the bottom.

Finally, in classic Washington fashion, the federal government stepped in to finally resolve the thorny problem of the Arlington site. As the U.S. became involved in World War I, there was a pressing need for more office space. Based in part on a commitment from the government to lease space, the owners of the site began constructing a large office building in 1917. The government bought the entire building for $4.2 million before it was even completed, and when it opened in 1918 it became the headquarters of the War Risk Bureau, predecessor of the Department of Veterans Affairs. The VA has remained in the building ever since.

The new Arlington Hotel, the one that actually got built, located north of McPherson Square
Meanwhile, another, more modest Arlington Hotel was eventually constructed a few blocks away—at Vermont Avenue and L Street, NW, just on the other (north) side of McPherson Square. In the 1920s, the hotel was popular for its rooftop nightclub and cafe. That hotel was also taken over by the federal government--to house the New-Deal-era Rural Resettlement Administration in 1935. The building had been designed with a view toward eventually converting it into office space, so the takeover actually represented the culmination of a thoughtful real estate investment—far more adeptly managed than the calamitous attempt to replace the original Arlington.

Comments

  1. Bravo! Informative, interesting and fun to read. Thanks.

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  2. HI, do you know anything about a fountain statue in 1912 designed by sculptor Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney for the New Arlington Hotel (lobby / Promenade?)
    archi.charles@panorama-labaule.com

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