The Tally-Ho, nee White Peacock, a Classic Washington Tearoom

In the 19th century, restaurants were a male bastion, places established by and for men where they could socialize among themselves—eat, drink, and smoke—without having to worry about behaving properly in mixed company. Women were largely shut out, except for designated rooms separate from the main dining areas where they could eat only if accompanied by a husband or other male chaperon. By the beginning of the 20th century, a radical transformation occurred, leading to a much more casual and welcoming environment. Much of this transformation can be attributed to the aesthetic and social choices of pioneering women who opened tearooms in the 1910s and 1920s, eateries that influenced both the cuisine and the décor of restaurants for decades to come. Tearooms were informal, bohemian places, often designed and operated independently by women and set in old farmhouses, mills, or stables. The tearoom concept emphasized light, alcohol-free, casual eating and socializing in a cozy, home-like setting.

The Tally-Ho Restaurant as seen on a 1950s postcard (author's collection).

One of the more successful tea houses of the era was at 812 17th Street NW, a block south of Farragut Square and near the White House. It was founded as the White Peacock by Betty Sample Williams (1883-1957), a native Washingtonian who had opened the Purple Iris Inn teahouse around 1917 in her farmhouse at 32nd and Rittenhouse Streets NW in Chevy Chase DC. In 1922, Williams hooked up with two artist friends, Blanche Greer and Dorothy Swinburne McNamee, to acquire the old stables behind an historic house at 812 17th Street NW.

The Shellabarger mansion is at the center of this 1919 real estate map excerpt showing the west side of 17th Street between H and I Streets NW. The mansion has a "(31)" on it, and the stables are the building at the rear of the very long lot. Notice the empty garden space alongside the lot (Library of Congress).

The house was the former home of Judge Samuel Shellabarger (1817-1896), an Ohio congressman during the Civil War and Reconstruction eras, who was best known for authoring the Enforcement Act of 1871, designed to combat Ku Klux Klan attacks on African Americans in the south. The Shellabarger mansion was on the earlier homesite of Judge Buckner Thruston (1763-1845), an early Kentucky senator and federal circuit court judge, who had planted a famous locust tree in the yard that lived well into the 20th century. While the house fronted on 17th Street, a long side lot featured an extensive garden stretching back to the substantial stables building on the rear alley. The stables included horse stalls on the ground floor as well as a second-floor hay loft and an attic above it, all accessible by ladders. As originally configured, the two artists used the loft and attic for their studios, while Williams ran the White Peacock on the ground floor. The teahouse opened on Valentine’s Day 1922.

1950s postcard view of the path from 17th Street that led to the stables (author's collection).

Patrons followed the old brick path through the garden back to the former stables, which were painted in the pea-green shades that were very fashionable for tearooms. The tearoom sported accoutrements from the old White House stables, including a saddle said to have been owned by Dolley Madison. Like the nearby Iron Gate Inn, the White Peacock converted its horse stalls into dining booths. Betty Williams drew praise for creating “perhaps the most artistic teahouse in Washington,” according to the Washington Times-Herald, but after a few months she and her artist friends moved on. Williams became a student of interior decorating in Paris, turning the White Peacock over to Miss Kathleen Evans, a friend with past connections to the Wilson administration.

An American Restaurant magazine reviewer wrote in July 1926 of her delight in dining at the White Peacock: “Shortly a maid comes in with a tray of the most delicious things to eat. She hands you a fringed bit of ecru that matches the fringed linen runner on the table. How you revel in the tall glass of Russian tea, iced and spiced with mint and such things, frozen fruit salad, hot biscuits and a parfait! Your check is presented on a seashell!” Patrons liked the feeling of being transported into the rural past even though they were on a downtown block near the White House. By that time, the loft spaces formerly occupied by the artists had been converted for use by the teahouse, and Georgia-born Ruth Portillo was its latest manager.

Matchbook covers from the Tally-Ho (author's collection).

The following year a notice in the Washington Times observed that Mrs. James M. Haley and Mrs. Ralph D. Pendexter had redecorated and were reopening the tearoom as the Tally-Ho Tavern. Within two years, they turned it over to Marie Mount (1888-1957) and her University of Maryland colleague Adele Stamp. Mount was dean of the University of Maryland’s School of Home Economics, and the Tally-Ho Tavern was just one of several teahouses she ran, another being the nearby Iron Gate Inn, which also had been converted from an old stables. In 1929, a fire in the second-floor kitchen of the Tally-Ho damaged that room as well as the second-floor Saddle Room, but prized possessions including as the Dolley Madison saddle, were spared, according to newspaper accounts.

More postcard photos of the Tally-Ho in the 1950s (author's collection).

By 1930, the Tally-Ho was a well-known establishment with many loyal customers. It remained in business for three more decades, acquiring the old Shellabarger mansion itself for additional dining space. Government officials and local celebrities were said to be among the many who frequented the Tally-Ho in its heyday. Then in 1959, the entire property was sold to a developer. The restaurant quietly closed and was razed and replaced by a nondescript office building, which in turn was replaced by another office building in 2008. Weschler’s held an auction in July 1959 to sell “everything that could be moved from the restaurant,” according to an article in the Post. No mention was made of Dolley Madison’s saddle or the other antique White House stable gear that had once graced the tearoom’s walls.

At the time the restaurant closed, its operator was Indiana-born Hubert H. Keller (1881-1963), dubbed the “dean” of Washington restaurateurs. Keller had presided over the Tally-Ho since arriving in Washington in 1930—almost 30 years, far longer than any of his predecessors. On his death in 1963, the Post and the Star both gave Keller full credit for “opening” the Tally-Ho in 1930. The Star even claimed Keller was the one who converted Buckner Thruston’s old stables to create the restaurant. No mention was made of the risk-taking women who had been the real pioneers, creating this and most of Washignton's other historic tearooms.

Front cover of a Tally-Ho menu from 1957. Click to enlarge. (Author's collection).

Tally-Ho menu from 1957. Click to enlarge. (Author's collection).

The back of the 1957 menu. Click to enlarge. (Author's collection).


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