The Hotel Commodore, reborn as the Phoenix Park
|Early postcard rendering of the hotel (author's collection).|
The Phoenix Park—originally the Commodore—is one of the few hotels around Union Station that survive from the days when almost everyone who visited Washington arrived by train. That magnificent railroad terminal, opened in 1907, once served as the primary transportation gateway to the nation’s capital, welcoming visitors from far and wide. In the decades after it was built, countless thousands of newcomers disembarked from their trains and wandered outside in search of a place to stay. Strategically located a short block away at North Capitol and F Streets NW, the Commodore was an easy choice.
A string of hotels opened here in the 1910s and 1920s, including the Hotel Harris (1909), Continental (1911), Capitol Park, (1914), Grace Dodge Hotel for Women (1921), Pennsylvania (1926); Commodore (1927); Bellevue (1929), and Stratford (1930), all located along or near North Capitol Street. Still more were built across the plaza on the east side of Union Station. These were mostly small or moderately sized establishments of about seven or eight stories and under 400 rooms. Of them, only two—the Commodore (now Phoenix Park) and the Bellevue (now the Hotel George)—continue to operate as hotels.
|The Stratford, around the corner at 25 E Street NW, was designed by the same architect, Frank G. Pierson, and completed in 1935. It is now an office building. (Author's collection).|
The site of the Commodore, so close to Union Station, was eyed for hotel development even before the new train depot was completed. In 1905, the Anheuser-Busch brewing company purchased three adjoining lots on the southwest corner of North Capitol and F Streets NW from the Bakers Co-operative Association for $55,000. The company announced that the property would be used for construction of a “modern, up-to-date” hotel, although specific plans had not been finalized. If the planned hotel had been built as planned, it would have been the first in the Union Station area. However, this didn’t happen. The site remained undeveloped for another 21 years.
The property changed hands, and a group of Washington investors finally announced plans to build a hotel in May 1926. Originally to be called the Milestone, the hostelry would contain 140 guest rooms and cost $750,000. The guest rooms were tiny by today’s standards, but each included a private bath—a feature that was becoming standard around this time. A comfortable lobby, reading room, stores and restaurant filled the ground floor, making it a full-service hotel. The building’s accomplished architect, Frank G. Pierson (1870-1941), would go on to design the nearby Bellevue and Stratford hotels as well as the Library of Congress’s Adams Building.
|Early postcard--with other nearby buildings expunged from view--emphasizes the proximity of the hotel to the Capitol and the Washington Monument (author's collection).|
For the Commodore, Pierson adopted a Georgian Revival style, accenting the building’s functional brick façade with elegant, classically trimmed limestone cladding on the first two floors and large ground-floor display windows. Completed in the spring of 1927, the hotel was christened the Commodore (not the Milestone) and was originally managed by the New York-based Intercity Hotels Corporation.
|Matchbook cover from the 1940s (author's collection).|
In 1932, a room at the Commodore could be had for $2.50 per night. The hotel advertised that each room was furnished with a Simmons bed and Beautyrest mattress, easy chair, reading lamps, and writing desk. Despite the Depression, newcomers to Washington were plentiful at the time, increasing the population of the District of Columbia more in the 1930s than in any other decade since the Civil War. Many of them came to Washington to work on the extensive government programs of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal; some undoubtedly first stayed at the Commodore.
|Excerpt from a 1930s brochure. Click to enlarge (author's collection).|
The hotel’s cocktail lounge, the Cork and Bottle, drew local residents, Capitol Hill staff and out-of-towners alike. Restaurateur Jack Melrose (1904-1965) told the Washington Post in 1937 that the place was “just crowded to the gills.” Melrose also ran the hotel’s Melrose Restaurant, which offered full dinners for $1 in 1944. A menu from that year warns customers that the cocktail lounge’s hours would be limited due to scarcity of liquor—one of many shortages that plagued the country in the 1940s.
|Menu from February 1944. Click to enlarge. (Author's collection).|
The years after World War II—the 1950s and 60s—saw widespread decline in the older parts of downtown Washington, including the Union Station area. As travelers increasingly rode airplanes instead of trains, business dwindled. The problem was compounded by the broader trend of “white flight” to the suburbs; affluent whites increasingly lived, worked, and sought entertainment in the suburbs, deserting downtown restaurants and hotels. Hotel managers, including the Commodore’s, offered specials to lure guests, such as free rooms for children under 14 accompanied by their parents. When a couple from Puerto Rico and their eight children showed up to stay at the Commodore in July 1960, manager J.F. McCormick cheerfully posed for a newspaper photograph to celebrate the family’s bargain accommodations.
Despite the challenges, the Commodore advertised itself as “Washington’s finest small hotel.” The hotel’s fortunes began to turn around in March 1974, when restaurateur Daniel J. “Danny” Coleman, opened the Dubliner, an Irish Pub, in the ground floor restaurant space. Coleman had grown up working in his immigrant Irish father’s pub in Syracuse, New York, and he was determined to bring a similarly authentic Irish pub to DC. The new location was historically fitting; this neighborhood, known as Swampoodle in the 19th century, had been home to poor Irish immigrants, many of whom worked in the nearby Government Printing Office.
Coleman’s pub was one of the first successful watering holes to draw people back to the neighborhood and help revive its fortunes, but the hotel itself had seen better days. When it became available for purchase in 1980, Coleman seized the opportunity to extend the Irish theme to the entire building. Rechristening it the Phoenix Park, after Dublin’s famed 1,760-acre urban park, Coleman and his partners renovated the hotel, increasing room sizes and adding facilities for meetings and parties. The massive renovation, completed in 1982, resulted in a luxurious, boutique hotel that celebrated the Commodore’s architectural heritage while adding a new penthouse floor on top of the historic building as well as many new amenities. The decorative plasterwork, chandelier, and marble floor of the lobby’s lounge area were restored to new elegance, and a grand staircase was added to connect directly with new public space on the second floor, including a new restaurant—the Powerscourt—the city’s only formal Irish eatery.
|The lobby of the Commodore prior to renovation and conversion to the Phoenix Park (author's collection).|
In 1985, the Washington Post proclaimed that the neighborhood around Union Station was poised for a comeback, with many new restaurants, hotels, shops, and office buildings in the pipeline. By the time a dramatically restored Union Station reopened in 1988, the transformation that the Phoenix Park had pioneered was unstoppable. New restaurants were opening, and tall, modern office buildings were replacing many of the older hotels. The rejuvenated Phoenix Park bucked the trend.
The Phoenix Park had become a mecca for politicians and other VIPs seeking luxury accommodations in the relaxed and intimate setting of a boutique hotel close to the Capitol, Union Station, and U.S. Senate office buildings. The 88-room “bastion of Irish hospitality,” as the Post called it, needed more space. In 1995, Coleman and his partners undertook another major renovation of the hotel, this time expanding it significantly by adding a new adjoining tower on the south side of the building, doubling the number of rooms to 149 and adding a new ground-floor ballroom and other meeting spaces. The expansion came just in time for a major initiative, spearheaded by former Senator George Mitchell, to broker a peace deal in Northern Ireland. Irish politicians coming to the U.S. to negotiate an agreement stayed at the Phoenix Park, and the Dubliner served as their primary rendezvous while hammering out what would be known as the Good Friday accords, ratified in 1998.
|The hotel seen in 2010 (photo by the author).|
Having found its niche, the Phoenix Park has continued to prosper and attract distinguished guests in the 21st century. Distinguished guests have included President Bill Clinton, Senator Ted Kennedy, and Speakers of the House Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill and Paul Ryan. O’Neill chose the Phoenix Park as the site of his 80th birthday celebration. Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders both worked on debate preparation at the Phoenix Park when they were candidates for President. And on St. Patrick’s Day in 2012, President Barack Obama dropped in for a surprise visit to the Dubliner, an event now commemorated with a plaque on the pub’s wall. The hotel completed its most recent, $8 million renovation in June 2016, adding a crisp, contemporary design to the hotel’s guest rooms and public spaces. The 2,000-square-foot Phoenix Ballroom was renovated in 2019. Aside from short breaks such as these for construction and renovation, the hotel has been in continuous operation since the Commodore first opened its doors in 1927, making it one of the longest continuously operating hostelries in the city.
* * * * *
Special thanks to the Phoenix Park Hotel, which commissioned this history, and especially to Danny Coleman, owner, and David M. Hill, area general manager.