The Meridian Hill Hotel For Women, luxury living for Government Girls

The Meridian Hill Hotel for Women, completed in 1942, seems at first glance to be a rather ordinary building. Located at 2601 16th Street NW, the hotel has served for the last 47 years as a Howard University dormitory, but before that it had a starring role as the first building constructed by the federal government during World War II to provide housing for female wartime workers, known as Government Girls.

Meridian Hill Hall as it appears today (photo by the author).
With able-bodied men in short supply, federal agencies turned to women to perform the countless clerical tasks that were needed to support the herculean war effort. According to Cindy Gueli, whose fascinating new book, Lipstick Brigade: The Untold True Story of Washington's World War II Government Girls, chronicles the many trials and travails of these valiant workers, nearly 200,000 came to Washington during World War II. Most were eager to leave behind the wearying straits of the Great Depression and join the excitement in the Nation's Capital as it consumed itself in the war effort. As Gueli says, some were naïve, idealistic, and carefree; others were hard-working and ambitious. Nearly all had at least one thing in common: they faced a daunting challenge in finding a place to stay in a city that had been overcrowded even before the war began. At the war's height, nearly 1,000 newcomers arrived every day. Where would they all live?


During World War I, the government had been slow to build dormitories for workers. One of the largest projects was not finished until 1919, long after the war was over. Because a much faster response was needed, the Defense Homes Corporation (DHC) was chartered in 1940 to build war-related housing wherever the open market could not provide it. In September 1941, three months before Pearl Harbor, the DHC purchased the large undeveloped lot located at 16th and Euclid Streets NW, (just across from Meridian Hill Park) from the French government, which had intended in the 1930s to build a new embassy there but had moved to Kalorama Heights instead. The DHC quickly drew up plans to build a $1.5 million dormitory on the site that it said would house 600 female government workers. Officials promised the hotel would charge rent at "rates within the reach of Government workers."

Built by the New York firm of John W. Harris Associates, the eight-story building was designed by prominent Washington architect Louis Justement (1891-1968). Though of Belgian descent and born in New York City, Justement went to school in Washington (George Washington University) and became an ardent supporter of the city, contributing to hundreds of projects in the D.C. area. A Modernist with a bent for sweeping urban renewal, Justement would later collaborate with fellow architect Chloethiel Woodard Smith on an early plan for the radical redevelopment of Southwest in the 1950s and 60s. By the 1940s he had already completed successful public housing projects in Silver Spring (the Falkland Apartments) and Anacostia (Fort Dupont Houses) and had developed a reputation as an expert on large-scale residential projects.

An early postcard view of the hotel (author's collection).
For the Meridian Hill Hotel, Justement adopted elements of the popular International Style to create a streamlined and futuristic structure. Like the nearby Diplomat Apartments (2420 16th Street NW), completed in 1940, the Meridian Hill Hotel features sleek, horizontal ribbons of windows, a trademark of the International Style. Brown bricks in the piers between the windows contrast vividly with the blond brick of the overall façade to accentuate the window ribbons. The building's stark appearance from a distance contrasts with the subtle decorative flourishes that are evident on close inspection: alternating raised bricks frame the windows, horizontal accent lines are molded into the concrete, and rows of polychrome concrete fleurs-de-lis underline the corner windows. The polychrome decorations are likely the work of John Joseph Earley (1881-1945), a master of the technique who had previously decorated Meridian Hill Park as well as the nearby Shrine of the Sacred Heart.

Corner window showing decorative detail (photo by the author).
The sprawling, 644-room hotel, ultimately designed to accommodate 800 rather than 600 occupants, opened on July 15, 1942. Its new government girl tenants were packed tightly into small apartments with shared bathrooms. Nevertheless, Manager Fordyce C. Minnick was at pains to explain that the Meridian Hill Hotel was a hotel, not just a dormitory. Though government owned, it was privately operated and featured a raft of hotel-like amenities, including a rooftop solarium, swimming pool in the basement, gymnasium, full-service dining room, soda fountain, drugstore, and even a swank beauty salon. Such luxuries were unheard of in the cramped boardinghouses that most government girls had to put up with.

In fact, the almost-ritzy hotel suffered a mini-scandal when it first opened. "Despite the hue and cry, in and outside the Government, for housing to accommodate Washington's mounting army of war workers, the Government is completing with public funds a hotel—a sort of super-exclusive establishment—at Sixteenth and Euclid streets NW, which is so restricted that only a small percentage of women workers will be able to live in it," proclaimed The Evening Star. Rents ranged from $8.25 to $9.50 a week, and applicants had to have an annual income of $1,800. Only a fifth of all female federal workers could meet that requirement. "This hotel will not solve the housing problem here one iota," the District's rent administrator, Robert F. Cogswell, told the Star.

Women who didn't get into the Meridian Hill Hotel often stayed at crowded boardinghouses, such as this one (author's collection).
Government officials responded rather unhelpfully that the Meridian Hill Hotel had always been intended to be a "class" hotel, unlike the barracks-style dormitories being planned for Arlington and other nearby sites. Eleanor Roosevelt quickly weighed in, saying she thought workers with lower salaries should be allowed in if they wanted it. She defended the hotel's amenities, arguing, for example, that the basement swimming pool was "very simple" and a nice thing to have given Washington's weather.

The hotel lobby (Source: Library of Congress).
Unspoken but nevertheless understood by everyone was that, regardless of income, African American women would not be allowed to stay at the Meridian Hill Hotel. Washington in 1942 remained strictly segregated in many far-reaching ways, including housing. The DHC would soon build separate dormitories for African American men (the George W. Carver Hall, at 211 Elm Street NW) and women (the Lucy Diggs Slowe Hall at 1919 Third Street NW), both attractive art moderne structures.

Under pressure from the bad publicity, the Meridian Hill's managers soon lowered their rates, and the hotel filled up quickly with young women who were delighted to be there. "When I got to Washington in May I couldn't find anywhere to stay the first night. I sat up in the bus station all night eating chocolate bars," Jan Hildebrande of Dallas told The Washington Times-Herald. "This place seems like heaven after the other rooms I've had."

A brochure for the hotel, showing the typical arrangement of bedrooms, bathrooms, and showers. Click to enlarge. (Source: Shannon & Luchs Archives, American University Archives, via Cindy Gueli).
Of course, the hotel was far from luxurious in many ways and, despite Manager Minnick's protestations, it was run much like a dormitory. Men were not allowed above the first floor. In addition to shared showers and bathtubs, tenants had to line up in the lobby for a fleeting chance to use one of just two telephones for the entire building. The War Production Board, struggling with a severe shortage in telephone capacity, would not allow any more. By October a phone booth had been installed on each floor, but long lines remained a way of life for the hotel's tenants.

The mostly single government girls quickly settled into their wartime home, which, according to Gueli, was nicknamed "Purity Palace" by locals. When not working long hours in dingy federal offices, the women sunned themselves on the veranda facing Meridian Hill Park, sung around the piano in the pink and green lobby, or met boyfriends in the first-floor lounge. Free wartime concerts in Meridian Hill Park were always popular, and some residents could even hear them through their open windows.

Matchcover from the Meridian Hill Hotel (author's collection).
Dinner in the grand first floor dining room could be had for 65 cents. A typical meal consisted of chicken liver and giblets, potatoes, peas, a hot roll, jam, coffee, and dessert, although other choices were available as well. The dining room and cafeteria were open to the public and were widely considered to be excellent. According to The Washington Post, New York broiled steak was on the menu every day, even when beef was in short supply.

The government soon decided it should get out of the housing business. The war was far from over when it put 18 properties on the market, including the Meridian Hill Hotel, in January 1944. Other properties offered for sale included Carver Hall and Lucy Diggs Slowe Hall, the two dormitories for African Americans, which would eventually be turned over to Howard University. Other projects being sold included Naylor Gardens in Southeast, McLean Gardens in upper Northwest, and the Fairlington development in Virginia.

The Meridian Hill Hotel, which had cost $1,815,000 to build, was the only property in the D.C. area to draw offers high enough for the DHC to consider. It took several years for the DHC to divest itself of its assets, including an initial sale of the Meridian Hill Hotel that fell through. A 1947 re-offer drew 23 bids, and the building was finally sold to a pair of New York investors for $2,750,000. A year later they raised the rent for new tenants by 30 percent.



A post-war brochure for the Meridian Hill Hotel (click images to enlarge. Author's collection).

The post-war years saw a continuation of the hotel's dormitory-like style. The average age of the hotel's residents began to increase as war workers moved on and were replaced with other women. The hotel welcomed transient residents who paid by the day, and became a favorite of airline stewardesses. In 1948, the Hot Shoppes restaurant chain took over the hotel's food service operations, turning the dining room into one of its first cafeterias.

Postcard photo of the hotel in the 1950s (author's collection).
By the 1950s, the hotel's management seems to have felt some pressure to relent on its strict female-only rules, at least in a small way. While individual apartments remained off limits to men, the basement pool had a pioneering male visitor in May 1954, when the hotel's management invited a Washington Post reporter to be the First Man in the Pool (and of course to write it up in the paper, complete with a photo of himself  surrounded by smiling women in bathing suits). It's unclear whether the disused pool became more popular after male guests were allowed.

Women's hotels had been in Washington at least since the Grace Dodge Hotel opened in 1921, but they were in decline by the 1960s. The Meridian Hill Hotel's cramped rooms and shared bathroom facilities made it increasingly unattractive to tenants. At the same time, the neighborhood grew less fashionable and less secure. During the riots following the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in April 1968, extensive looting and burning occurred only a few blocks away on 14th Street. Less than a year later, the hotel went out of business, and the building was sold to Howard University, which reopened it as Meridian Hill Hall and used it for student housing for the next four decades.

As time went by and the building aged, Howard struggled to keep it well maintained. A March 2010 article in the university's student newspaper, The Hilltop, noted problems with rodents and mechanical breakdowns, including a lack of hot water after a gauge failed. "Living in Meridian, I feel like I'm being cheated," one resident told the newspaper's reporter. "I feel like I'm in an abusive relationship and I can't leave."

The building's entrance (photo by the author).
When Wayne I.A. Frederick became president of Howard in 2014, he noted that some of the university's assets, like Meridian Hill Hall, could be redeveloped as a source of much needed income. That same year residents moved to newer dormitories on Howard's main campus, and the bidding process began to renovate the Meridian Hill property. In December 2015, Howard signed a contract with Jair Lynch Real Estate Partners to lease the property for 99 years and convert the building into a luxury rental apartment house. As far as has been announced, Jair Lynch does not seek to tear down the building, which is a protected contributing structure within the Meridian Hill Historic District. It will be interesting to see how Jair Lynch preserves and reinvigorates this remarkable building to serve hopefully many new generations of Washingtonians, both male and female.

* * * * *

I am indebted to Dr. Cindy Gueli as well as the staff of the Washingtoniana Room at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library for their invaluable assistance in researching this article. Sources for this article included David Brinkley, Washington Goes to War (1988); Constance McLaughlin Green, Washington, A History of the Capital, 1800-1950 (1962); Cindy Gueli, Lipstick Brigade: The Untold True Story of Washington's World War II Government Girls (2015); Louis Justement, New Cities For Old (1946); Stephen R. McKevitt, Meridian Hill: A History (2014); John Clagett Proctor, Proctor's Washington (1949); Hasan Uddin-Khan, International Style: Modernist Architecture From 1925-1965 (2009); Meridian Hill Historic District HPRB nomination (2013); Paul K. Williams, Washington, D.C.: The World War II Years (2004); and numerous newspaper and magazine articles.

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Comments

  1. In the early 60's, the Meridian Hill hotel was also used as a dormitory for Georgetown University female students who came from all over the country to attend the university. In the 50's Girl Scout troops from the area used the pool for swimming lessons.

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    1. We lived in the 3055 16th Street Hotel which took up a corner of the block and had an underground tunnel leading to the street. There was an ice skating rink at the end of the tunnel and on the right corner was the Polish government in exile embassy.
      Many diplomats lived in our building and it was once a prestigious hotel. I can't find anything on it & there's a new apartment complex on the site now.
      My Mother was a nurse & was not home a lot and she would give me money to go have dinner and I would walk up these long series of steps and I think it had fountains and I would go eat at the Meridian Hill Hotel Cafeteria. I did that when I was 9 and we moved to Tacoma Park in 1962. We also lived near Posen's Bakery at one time & I used to go to the theater on Georgia Avenue & watch William Castle movies ( with nurses and ambulances ! ) and saw my first Sophia Loren movie there.
      Across the street was the 24 hour newsstand where I would buy the Star and my comic books. Rioters burned it in 1964.

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  2. Enjoyed the article--very interesting!

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  3. I lived in this dorm in 1988-89

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  4. Here is what is on the Jair Lynch website in terms of Meridian Hill: http://jairlynch.com/2601-16th-st/

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  5. Excellent info about my former Home Sweet Home! Thank you!

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  6. I lived here the summer of 1964 and often wondered if the place still existed. Never found it under Meridian Hill Hotel, which is how I remembered it being named. Fond memories of the place. Moved out when I found a roommate and went to live in Arlington. TY so much for this article; I enjoyed the trip through time.

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  7. Such a wonderful piece on the Meridian Hill Hotel! My grandmother often took me there for dinner in the superb dining room during the years from 1946-49. Then she and I, in our dinner dress and white gloves, would enjoy a postprandial stroll through the park. It was an idyllic time in my young life. Thank you so much for helping me revisit and renew those memories!

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  8. I am researching a large white bathroom terry cloth towel that is marked Meridian Hill Hotel through the center of the towel in green letters. It belongs to my mother who spent her high school senior trip in New York and Washington D.C. in 1956. She went to a co-ed high school in St. Louis, MO. I'm curious if this is where she stayed and if the male students stayed here or elsewhere.

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  9. After the war. My mother used to take me to the swimming pool to learn how to swim. I know it was a woman's only hotel, but I remember there was a changing room for men. And I was only the only male in there. I could be wrong. But I don't think they would have let me change in the woman's locker room. Wonderful memories. But I can never understand how they could support apartments above a full size Olympic pool as I remember. Again, the pool was very large. Thanks for the great article. A part of Washington DC at war.

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