The vanished teahouse at Hains Point

At Hains Point, the tip of the teardrop-shaped island known as East Potomac Park, there used to stand a small but stately, white-columned teahouse, facing resolutely south toward the open water of the Potomac. It stood there for 64 years, from 1923 to 1987, one of the best places to escape the oppressive summer heat of the city in the days before air conditioning. Propelled by the fad for tearooms in the early decades of the 20th century, the teahouse would lose its calling by the 1960s.

The tea house at Hains Point in 1946 (Author's collection).

The site of the teahouse, East Potomac Park, is a man-made island creating by dredging the Potomac over the course of the last two decades of the 19th century. Silt had always accumulated in this part of the river, but the clearing of land upriver in the 19th century as well as the construction of bridges connecting Washington with Virginia led to much more extensive silting, and runoff from the fetid city canal made the swampy flats south of the White House positively unhealthy. Beginning in the 1880s, the Army Corps of Engineers, under the direction of Peter C. Hains (1840-1921), carried out a massive dredging project to end the unhealthy conditions and preserve a shipping channel along the Southwest waterfront. Most of the work was completed in the 1880s and 1890s, although the last load of dredged soil wasn't dumped into the new park until 1911. The McMillan Commission, which issued its grand vision for the city's monumental core in 1902, persuaded Congress to ensure that the newly-created land would remain open parkland in perpetuity.

Aerial photograph of East Potomac Park, circa 1935. The columned teahouse is visible near the bottom. A golf course covers much of the park. (Source: Library of Congress).

The 1910s, when the new parkland became available, coincidentally were also a time of rising popularity in tearooms, a new type of restaurant that reflected a sea change in public dining habits. As informal eateries often designed and operated independently by women, tearooms were the perfect model for light, alcohol-free, casual eating and socializing in a rustic, home-like setting—in dramatic contrast to traditional saloons and taverns that were stigmatized as dens of vice.

The tearoom "craze" also coincided with the rise of the automobile. The wealthier families—the ones owning automobiles—would often go out for weekend rides in the country, stopping for refreshments at one of the many tearooms that popped up to meet the new demand. Many tearooms were quaintly decorated and often displayed antiques for sale. Old country farmhouses, taverns, and mills all were converted to teahouses by enterprising women who read guidebooks on how to run them successfully. One of the earliest tearooms in Washington was the one at the old Peirce Mill in Rock Creek Park (previously profiled here), which opened in 1906.

The first Girl Scout teahouse, circa 1920 (Source: Library of Congress).

The first teahouse in Potomac Park was little more than a refreshment stand. The Girl Scouts set it up in the northern end of the park in 1920. Late one day in May 1921, President and Mrs. Warren G. Harding dropped in after attending the Washington Horse Show. According to The Washington Post, "At a little green table under the trees they each sipped a bottle of pop through a straw while hundreds of motorists passed [on a recreational drag called the Speedway] without recognizing them."

The Coolidges pose at the Girl Scout Teahouse in July 1924 (Source: Library of Congress).

The teahouse was very popular, and within a few years plans were drawn up to build a more permanent structure at the tip of Hains Point where restrooms were also needed. The Army Corps of Engineers finished construction of the stately neoclassical pavilion in 1924, and that summer it was visited by President and Mrs. Coolidge. However, despite its success, the Girl Scouts' concession was terminated the following year and given to the newly formed Welfare and Recreation Association of Public Buildings and Grounds, which would eventually become Government Services Incorporated, the Park Service's longtime concessioner.

The teahouse in 1949 (Source: Historic American Buildings Survey).

The teahouse remained popular in warmer months for many years and had its greatest patronage when the Japanese cherry blossoms were out. It was shut down during World War II when authorities worried that leaving it open inappropriately encouraged people to drive their automobiles when gasoline and rubber were short, but it reopened after the war. After a fire in 1949 the teahouse was expanded, and the following year it was renamed the Hains Point Inn. That same year several businessmen wrote letters asking that the teahouse be kept open year round. According to a Park Service history of the teahouse, one writer called the spot "one of the few eating spots in the D.C. area where a harassed businessman can spend a restful, pleasant eating hour convenient to the downtown area with no parking problems." But the concessioner, GSI, insisted the teahouse was not profitable in winter and declined to keep it open year round.

Flooding in March 1936. The teahouse is barely visible near the tip of Hains Point.

The teahouse flooded in 1985. (Source: Historic American Buildings Survey).

Ultimately the teahouse's exquisite location—its best selling point—became its undoing; the perch at the tip of Hains Point was too fragile and too isolated. The last season the building served as a teahouse was 1962. After that the Park Service used it as a visitor's center for a few years, but there was little need for a visitor's center at that spot. Periodic flooding rendered the building unsanitary. After a flood in 1985, the Park Service shut it down permanently. At a meeting with the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation held at the abandoned teahouse in July 1987, the Park Service argued that the historic structure should be torn down for several contradictory reasons. A teahouse was not a good idea, the Park Service claimed, because "park patrons prefer to bring their own picnics." At the same time, a renovated teahouse would draw visitors, and "heavy visitor use makes access difficult due to constant traffic on the two-lane Ohio Drive." More significantly perhaps, the building had simply become a pain to keep up and the Park Service "ha[d] no use for it."

The advisory council agreed to the Park Service proposal, and after the forlorn building was photographed for posterity it was torn down. The opportunity to restore a modest but significant landmark from an earlier era, a rare and unique urban refuge, was lost forever.

The derelict teahouse photographed in 1987 (Source: Historic American Buildings Survey).
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Sources for this article included Jan Whitaker's very entertaining and informative Tea at the Blue Lantern Inn: A Social History of the Tea Room Craze in America (2002), Gary Scott, Historic American Buildings Survey: Girl Scout Teahouse (1987), and numerous newspaper articles.

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  1. I love the 1985 photo of the flood - with the Awakening statue's arm protruding from the water!

  2. I worked there during the summers of 1965-66 at the concession stand in back of the tea house. I was 17 at the time. You can barely see part of the stand on the right side of the structure in the photo above. The concession was owned by Mr. Weston. It was a good summer job.

  3. Reading my father's personal journals and monthly budget book from 1955, I see that he and my mother celebrated Mother's Day at the Hains Point Teahouse. I was born one year and a few days later on a date sometimes shared with Mother's Day. And so this was the case nearly one year ago in 2014, which turned out to also become the day she died. How sad that I can't visit this teahouse myself.


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