A Closer Look: Washington's Notorious Rum Row, circa 1880

At first glance, this circa 1880 view of E Street NW between 13th and 14th Streets seems like any other old-time street scene. A jumble of 19th century storefronts crowd a busy street. Yet in the decades after the Civil War, this block, affectionately known as "Rum Row" for its many saloons, was one of Washington's liveliest and most notorious. Possibly a dozen or more pedestrians can be seen as "ghosts," grouped in pairs or lounging in doorways, reduced to fleeting blurs by the photograph's slow exposure time. Though still going strong at the time of this photo, the decadent culture of Rum Row would eventually be stamped out by righteous city officials in the name of progress—just as the infamous "Strip" on nearby 14th Street would similarly be eradicated 100 years later.

Author's collection. Click to enlarge.

Originally a line of federal town houses, Rum Row changed character dramatically during the Civil War, when soldiers swarmed the streets of Washington looking for cheap entertainment. The row's previously respectable homes and commercial establishments were gradually replaced with saloons and gambling joints, which remained for decades to come. The row's central location made it the rendezvous for all elements of society. “On the row a man met and mingled with the elite, the bon-ton, the busy man-about-town, the Bohemian, the poet laureate, the soldier of fortune, and everything but the bootlegger, a type that at that date had not come into existence,” wrote The Washington Post in 1921.

The full stereoview (author's collection).

The Imperial Hotel

The largest building in our view is the Imperial Hotel, a typical five-story Victorian structure that was completed in 1869, incorporating a previous building that had served as the Army Paymaster General's offices during the Civil War. Originally called the Jenness House, it was operated by Job Jenness (1839-1872) and his son, experienced hoteliers from New Hampshire. "Another new hotel was opened last night with great eclat, and situated as it is in a populous location, controlled by thorough and practical hotel men, and fitted up with taste, skill and neatness, its success is certainly assured," wrote The Daily National Republican on December 10, 1869.

The hotel featured fashionably rich, dark furnishings. The first floor was tiled in marble with heavy black walnut furniture in the lobby. The reading room featured marble-top tables and "handsomely carved settees, covered with fancy cloth." Dominating the bar-room was a large walnut bar paneled in Hungarian ash as well as a tall mirrored sideboard, cigar stand, raw oyster counter, and "eating counter." The bar-room was also fitted out with a gong connected to a booth at the National Theatre next door. Whenever a performance was about to begin, the gong would alert theatre-goers lounging at the bar. Two side-by-side entrances opened on to E Street; inside the one on the right, a staircase led to the second floor, which featured ladies' parlors, a bridal suite, and other rooms designed for women. The upstairs parlors were carpeted in velvet. Gilt trim in the rooms contrasted with green wall paper and furniture.

The Jennesses ended up running the hotel for only a few years. In January 1872, James Sykes, a local entrepreneur who previously managed the Willard Hotel, took over the Jenness House and rechristened it the Imperial Hotel. Then, by the mid 1880s it had been sold again to Jack Harris (1853-1918), a former clerk at the Willard, who renamed it the Harris House.

An 1872 advertisement that appeared in The Daily National Republican.

Many an actor and actress stayed at the hotel while appearing next door at the National Theatre. Yet, as the years went by and it changed hands many more times, the hotel gradually lost its fashionable allure. The neighboring saloons and gambling houses certainly didn't help. Police raids repeatedly swept through Rum Row in the late 1870s, but the gamblers were usually tipped off in advance and didn't get caught. Then one night in February 1881, a coordinated surprise raid was simultaneously launched on five suspected gambling houses, resulting in the arrests of the proprietors and numerous patrons, including "many members of Congress," as the Post reported. All sorts of fancy mahogany faro tables, various roulette wheels, stacks of poker chips, and other gambling paraphernalia were also confiscated. The luxurious furnishings were all broken up for kindling wood, and the police counted the raid as a notable success. A week later, however, charges against were dropped against at least two of the gambling houses, and all of them were soon back in business.

In 1885, a poolroom was opened in the Imperial Hotel's former barroom, after the billiard parlor next door was destroyed in a fire. "The place became the headquarters for all the young bloods in town, and was the rendezvous for the race-track followers and sports," The Washington Post reported in 1905. In fact, the poolroom was a bit too successful and drew the attention of the city's anti-gambling reformers. In 1889, a new ordnance was enacted prohibiting poolrooms within city limits, forcing the hotel's poolroom to shut down.

The saloon of the Hotel Lawrence as it appeared in 1898 (Source: George Rothwell Brown, Washington, A Not Too Serious History).

In the early 1890s, Samuel Gassenheimer (1859-1930), a native Washingtonian, bought the old hotel and renamed it the Hotel Lawrence, after his son. "A dingy old place it was when it bore that name, shabbily down at the heels, like so many of the characters who haunted the neighborhood," wrote George Rothwell Brown in his "not too serious" history of Washington. "It was generally patronized by actors, and gamblers, and burlesque queens, and chorus girls, and sporting men about town. Sunday school superintendents did not stop there," Brown observed. Finally, in 1905, the building was demolished. Media tycoon Frank Munsey purchased the property and tore down the hotel to make room for the soaring 12-story Renaissance Revival headquarters of his Washington Times newspaper (see our previous post).

The National Theatre

Adjacent to the Imperial Hotel on the east side of the photo stands the National Theatre, one of Washington's oldest commercial establishments, operating more or less continuously since 1835. The building seen here was the third on this site; the current one is the sixth. Theaters in the 19th century were notorious firetraps, and the National was plagued by blazes that destroyed much of the structure over and over but fortunately never took any human lives.

The first National Theatre, a columned Greek Revival structure, was built in 1835 with the support of financier William W. Corcoran (1798-1888), who would later be a benefactor for many other Washington institutions. This theater caught fire during a performance in March 1845. Everyone was able to safely escape, but "the Theatre was burnt entirely out, leaving the bare walls alone standing," according to the Daily National Intelligencer. A temporary new auditorium was hastily built using the walls of the old building in anticipation of the arrival of the Swedish Nightingale, Jenny Lind, in December of that year. Lind sang rapturously for two sold-out performances. Then a second entirely new theater was constructed in 1852. It lasted less than five years, catching fire dramatically in January 1857 as stagehands were arranging scenery for a New York production. This time, the mayor ordered the complete demolition of the ruins of the burnt-out building, and the site remained empty for the next five years.

In 1862, as the city bustled with wartime activity, a third National Theatre was constructed, appearing from the street much like the structure in our photo. It was leased to Leonard Grover of New York, who opened it in April with various performances by well-known New York actors and actresses. President Lincoln, an inveterate theatre-goer, considered Leonard Grover a friend and frequently attended performances at Grover's National. He had been planning to attend Grover's with his son Tad on the night of April 14, 1865, but was persuaded by Mrs. Lincoln to go to Ford's Theatre instead. Tad ended up attending the show at the National alone; he was waiting in the lobby to be picked up by his parents' carriage when he learned what had happened that night to his father.

The theater burned again in January 1873. This time the blaze was largely toward the rear of the building, where the auditorium was located, leaving the façade mostly intact. Despite the severe economic downturn of 1873, the theater was quickly rebuilt and gained the appearance it has in our photo. The theater's lobby is on the ground floor, with retail space at either side. On the second floor above the lobby are the Miller and Jones billiard rooms, another mainstay of Rum Row. George Milton "Mitt" Jones (1846-1902), a native Washingtonian and expert billiard player, ran the establishment with his partner John Miller. In their billiard rooms over the National Theatre, "some of the biggest matches in the country were pulled off," according to the Post.

This building was destroyed in the fourth major fire to hit the National, which took place in February 1885. The blaze began around 2 am in the back of the building, working its way forward. The billiard parlor was closed, but Mitt Jones and his friends were still there. Jones was able to escape, grabbing his cash box on the way out. According to The Evening Star, the night sky was "brilliantly illuminated and the streets for squares around were almost as bright as day," after the flames burst through the auditorium roof. "As far as scenic effects are concerned the fire was one of the most dramatic that has occurred here for years," the Star observed.

The 1885 National Theatre building is seen in this photograph from about 1918 (Source: Library of Congress).

When the National was next rebuilt, it was a much grander structure with a five-story Italianate façade. Designed by architect Alfred B. Mullett, who also designed the Eisenhower Executive Office Building (which we previously profiled), the new theater was much grander than its previous incarnations. Mullett's building would in turn be replaced by the 1922 structure that stands on the spot today.

Shoomaker and Hertzog

On the near side of the Imperial Hotel in the circa 1880 photo stands the firm of Shoomaker and Hertzog, one of the best known of Washington's early saloons. It was founded by Maj. William Shoomaker (1833-1883) and his partner Capt. Otto Herzog shortly before the Civil War and continued in business for nearly 60 years. Shoomaker and Hertzog were former officers of the German Army and knew a lot about logistics and supplies. Hertzog was a short, burly man with striking blue eyes and a bushy blond beard. The dashing Shoomaker, or "Shoo" as everybody called him, was the "handsomest man and the gamest gambler in the country," according to an 1895 Post article.  Both volunteered their services for the Union Army during the Civil War. At some point during the war or immediately thereafter, they opened their liquor business on the ground floor of Grover's National Theater. The liquor store and saloon became nationally famous for its fine imported burgundies and Kentucky whiskies, and the colorful Shoo was its public face. A certain John Hall ran a gambling joint directly above the saloon, and "it was a common thing for [Shoo] to lose a couple of thousand against Hall's game in the morning and win it back in the afternoon," according to the Post. Shoo would hit the faro tables with the likes of John Usher, owner of the nearby White House saloon, another favorite watering hole of theater folk and war-weary hard drinkers alike.

A June 1974 advertisement that appeared in The National Republican.

By the early 1870s, Shoomaker and Hertzog moved out of the National Theater space to the more spacious quarters on the other side of the Imperial Hotel, as seen in our photo. The old building they took over, said to be the original structure on that site, quickly became celebrated for its rattiness. Dingy, unkempt watering holes were a peculiar affectation that appealed to many men of this era who sought refuge from the primness and decorative excess of proper Victorian establishments. Shoomaker's was among the dingiest. George Rothwell Brown has described the saloon in detail:
Outwardly there was nothing attractive about the place, still it attracted everybody who ever fell under its spell. To begin with, the building...was musty with age, a most dilapidated looking shell, long a stranger to paint, but on terms of close intimacy with dust and cobwebs. The whole front part was filled with hampers, and wine cases, and crates of liquors, and one passed into the back, which was in the rear, through a lane of boxes piled to the rafters.... The old-fashioned gas fixtures, black with soot and dirt, were festooned with cobwebs, which were never disturbed... On the opposite side of the room, where the ceiling was even lower still, were a half dozen plain oak tables, while the center was taken up by a huge table...and by an enormous coal stove which stood in the middle of the floor and shed its warmth impartially in every direction.
A 1914 postcard from Shoomaker's (author's collection).

Shoomaker bought out Hertzog shortly after our photo was taken, and the business would for decades be known simply as Shoomaker's. After Shoomaker’s death in 1883, the saloon was bought by Col. Joseph Rickey (1842-1903) and was operated by August Noack, who handled business matters, and "Uncle George" Williamson (1849-1915), who ran the saloon. Williamson was instrumental in greatly extending the notoriety and popularity of Shoomaker's.

Shoo’s is perhaps best remembered today as the place where the gin rickey was invented one hot summer day in the 1880s. Williamson named the simple combination of gin (or bourbon), lime juice, seltzer water, and ice after his patron, Col. Rickey. The cool, refreshing drink was a perfect antidote for Washington's oppressive summer weather, and the prominence of Shoomaker's undoubtedly was a significant factor in the drink subsequently gaining broad popularity.

A letter from business manager August Noack to the Pleasant Valley Wine Company in New York (author's collection).
The text reads:

         Washington, D.C. June 9th, 1900
Pleasant Valley Wine Co                
                 New York               

                  The writer submits for your
charitable consideration a matter   
in which he is personally interested
and will kindly ask your worthy     
assistance in same.                          
   Thanking you in advance and
assuring you of my appreciation    
                            I remain
                                  Yours very Truly
                                  August W. Noack

When Frank Munsey bought and tore down the adjacent Lawrence Hotel in 1905, he also purchased the Shoomaker's building, allowing the saloon to continue operating there on a lease. By this time the days of the old Rum Row's saloons and gambling dens was fast coming to an end. It was clear the time would come when Munsey would want to expand his tall office building to the west and take over the Shoomaker's location. But he was not the only threat that Shoo's faced. The rise of both the powerful Anti-Saloon League as well as public concern about cleanliness and food safety were also conspiring to doom places like Shoo's.

Rum Row circa 1910. The tall Munsey Building has replaced the Lawrence Hotel, and the 1885 National Theater building stands on the right. Shoomaker's is the red-brown building to the left of the Munsey Building. The Washington Post is in the Romanesque Revival building on the left, constructed in 1893. (Author's collection.)

Nevertheless, The Washington Times, now located next door, crowed in 1906 that "There is no hostelry in the United States that is so well known as Shoomaker's on Pennsylvania avenue, where the Shoomaker Rye flows, and there is no place in the wide, wide world that is just like it." The article went on to one of the reasons for the fame of Cobweb Hall, as it was called, was "the excellent quality of the rare old wines, in their cobweb-covered bottles." Those famous cobwebs came under attack in 1910, when the D.C. health officer ruled that cobwebs would no longer be tolerated in restaurants and saloons. Shoo's and several other old-time establishments—like Hancock's a few blocks away—defied the regulation, but their days were numbered.

Meanwhile, Frank Munsey waged a court battle to evict Shoo's in 1909, but the feisty little saloon won the right to continue its lease until 1915. After being kicked out that year, the saloon moved to another old storefront on the other (eastern) side of the National Theater, where it meticulously recreated its quaint old-timey look, even purchasing extra spiders to spin new cobwebs.

After the Munsey building expanded to take over the saloon's original location in 1915, Shoo's moved to this spot near the eastern end of Rum Row. (Source: Library of Congress).

The end finally came in March 1918, when Prohibition struck a death blow to Shoo's. The ban on the sale of alcohol in public places went into effect in November 1917, and Shoomaker's closed just four months later, with little ceremony, the day before St. Patrick's Day. The saloon's last patrons were allowed to take mementos as they departed. The Post reported that "Less than a dozen men constituted the last straggling line that filed out of the place. Each bore some musty memento or dusty relic of the occasion—a picture or photograph, an almost illegible clipping crumbling with age, a medal or souvenir of some convention or other, a beribboned cane, a soiled flag or pennant of some sort, a glass, a bottle or something antique that harked back to years ago when jollity and hilarity were rampant under the spur of spiritous sentiment."

A contemporary view of the same spot seen in the circa 1880 stereoview (photo by the author). 

The old Rum Row was now gone. The Washington Post, Munsey, and National Theatre buildings filled most of the block, with a few small shops and restaurants persisting around them into the 1960s. The Post building was torn down in 1954, and the Munsey Building came down in 1980. The entire block west of the National Theatre is now occupied by the J.W. Marriott Hotel.

* * * * *

Parts of this article previously appeared in other articles on Streets of Washington and in my book, Lost Washington, D.C. (2011). Other sources included George Rothwell Brown, Washington, A Not Too Serious History (1930); James M. Goode, Capital Losses (2003); Douglas Bennett Lee, Roger L. Meersman, and Donn B. Murphy, Stage for a Nation: The National Theatre, 1500 Years (1985); Garrett Peck, Capital Beer: A Heady History of Brewing in Washington, D.C. (2014); and numerous newspaper articles.

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