On 14th St NW, a Beaux-Arts beauty stands out among the shiny office buildings. Architecture aficionados might instantly recognize the design: it’s by Jules Henri de Sibour, one of the most iconic architects in Washington D.C. lore. Today, the building holds the luxurious Hamilton Hotel, but it’s been a long road to get to this point.
The building’s rich history includes presidential stays, inaugural balls and labor union negotiations. It was home to the iconic Rainbow Room, which would become the Purple Tree Lounge, both fixtures on the Washington nightlife scene. And yet, the history has been a tumultuous one. The hotel changed hands many times, with stints as a residence for single women and an office building at times.
The Hamilton, however, was always destined to be a hotel – and a great one at that. A renovation is currently underway to bring the Hamilton to new heights. While the renovations are expected to be comfortable and luxurious, part of what makes the gem shine so brightly is its fascinating history (and that Jules Henri de Sibour architecture). Here’s a look back at the history of the iconic Hamilton Hotel.
From Schoolboys to High Society
The original Hamilton Hotel was built as a private school called the Rugby Academy. The red brick building was built in 1851 on the corner of 14th Street and K Street. At the time, this corner was set in a quiet part of town. The students – who were among the monied set – tended to go onto prestigious institutions like Georgetown College (now Georgetown University) and the Naval Academy.
After a decade-long life as a school, the Rugby Academy was transformed into a hotel called the Rugby House. The population of Washington was rapidly growing and housing was limited. The city was now crowded even when Congress was not in session.
As such, a number of government officials made the Rugby House their home. Two of the most influential residents were Admiral Horatio Bridge and his wife, Charlotte Bridge. Why were these guests so important? The couple liked the hotel so much they bought it. The Bridges expanded the hotel and changed its name from the Rugby House to the Hamilton in honor of Mrs. Hamilton Holly, the daughter of Alexander Hamilton. Mrs. Hamilton was a good friend of Charlotte’s.
During their tenure, the Hamilton became a fashionable boarding house. A February 1878 story about a party at the Hamilton said, “The dancing hall was beautifully decorated with the flags of the different countries, the American, English, French and Russian forming centre pieces on each of the four sides of the room. The floral decorations were elaborate, filling the air with rich perfume, while the three large chandeliers were beautifully festooned with smilax.” It had come a long way from the boarding school days.
A First-Class Family Hotel
In October 1882, William M. Gibson, the steward of the Ebbitt House signed a ten-year lease on the property. The Ebbitt House also housed the Old Ebbitt Grill, the oldest restaurants in Washington. While it has changed locations, the Grill is still among the most famous restaurants in Washington.
Gibson’s plan was to transform the property into a “strictly first-class family hotel.” He repainted, repapered and made repairs. With its fresh new look, the property continued to have success throughout the 1880s. In 1893, the Hamilton was known to be a place where Congressmen reside. Charlotte Bridge purchased the neighboring hotel in 1895 and the Hamilton began to expand. When Charlotte Bridge died in 1907, the longstanding manager, Irving O. Ball, purchased the hotel for $125,000.
De Sibour Takes the Reins
After more than a decade under Ball’s management, a Washington-based businessman named Felix Lake purchased the Hamilton for $450,000. His plan was to demolish the original hotel and build a nine-story office building in its place. Just a month later, however, he sold the hotel to the Hamilton Hotel Corporation. In July 1921, they announced that they would demolish the original building and construct an 11-story hotel by acclaimed architect Jules Henri de Sibour.
De Sibour was born in Paris on December 23, 1872. He graduated from Yale in 1896 and went to work for Ernest Flagg and Bruce Price in New York. After a few years, he decided to return to Paris to study at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. When Bruce Price died, however, de Sibour inherited the firm. He moved to the States to manage the New York and Washington offices and moved to Washington full-time in 1910. Some of his most prominent buildings included the Embassy of Uzbekistan, also called the Moore Residence, the Embassy of France and the Embassy of Luxembourg, also known as the Stewart Residence. His work was characterized by the extensive decoration of the Beaux-Arts style. In 1922, de Sibour designed an apartment that would become the Jefferson Hotel. The building is very similar to the design of the Hamilton Hotel.
In the case of the Hamilton Hotel, de Sibour personally selected all the furnishings. Due to his expensive taste, the Hamilton Hotel Corporation was forced to take out a second million-dollar mortgage to afford the furnishings.
A Grand Reopening
The Hamilton Hotel opened on November 29, 1922. To celebrate, the hotel hosted a “stag dinner” and invited 110 government officials and businessmen. One of the attendees was former Vice President Thomas R. Marshall.
At this time, the going rate for a suite was $3.50 to $5 per night for one person, or $6 per night for two people. The most luxurious suite – a two-bedroom suite, two-bathroom suite with a parlor – cost $18 to $20 per night. In 1924, a seven-course dinner was priced at $1.
In May of 1927, Maddux, Marshall, Moss & Mallory purchased the hotel for approximately $3 million. The company began building a grand ballroom in the basement, said to be “one of the finest in the city.” After just a year, they sold the property to New York and Chicago businessmen.
At the time, Washington had the highest percentage of hotel guests in the entire country. Many government officials just came for a few weeks or months at a time, so they did not require their own apartment.
And business continued to expand. Since the early days of the hotel, the neighborhood had transformed into a major financial center of Washington. According to a 1929 survey by Story & Co., the square of land between 14th Street, K Street, L Street, and Vermont Avenue had increased in value by 889% in the last 20 years. Of course, the golden years were coming to an end. When the stock market crashed on October 29, 1929, many developers were forced to sell their properties.
The Hamilton Hotel, however, managed to pull through. In 1935, they opened the Rainbow Room. The lounge became one of the hottest spots for nightlife in the city. In addition to serving cocktails, they hosted musicians and entertainers. As the story goes, Gene Autry performed with his horse, Champion in the Rainbow Room.
A Headquarters for Union Labor Leaders
Many influential figures stayed in the Hamilton over the years – including Senator Harry Truman – but one of the most colorful guests was William Green. Green served as the President of the American Federation of Labor from 1924 until his death in 1952. As the Hamilton Hotel was just blocks from the American Federation of Labor, Green was a frequent guest at the Hamilton Hotel from about 1929 to 1949.
Many labor leaders preferred staying in hotels in Washington over leasing apartments. Green, for one, kept a home in Coshocton, Ohio in addition to his residence at the Hamilton Hotel. A 1931 report called the hotel the “headquarters for union labor leaders.”
This caused the occasional drama at the hotel. That same report stated that “Union officials want cabs with union drivers. The Diamond Cab drivers are organized. But the Hamilton Hotel has let its concession out to cab companies that hire nonunion drivers. There is constant friction at the door; Diamond cabs trying to get fares, hotel guest trying to get Diamond cabs.”
The Great Depression increased the popularity of labor unions. As FDR came into power, and his New Deal along with it, there were more opportunities for labor unions to partner with the federal government. At around this time, the Hamilton Hotel hosted an Inaugural Ball as well as a Birthday Ball for President Roosevelt
In 1933, President Roosevelt named William Green to the Labor Advisory Council of the National Recovery Administration and to the 1934 National Labor Board. As such, government officials often came to the Hamilton Hotel to meet with union leaders. The trend continued for decades.
In a 1948 testimony before Congress, Herbert Sorrell, leader of the Conference of Studio Unions, said “I live at the Hamilton Hotel. I stay there because that is a 100-percent union hotel. I am told that is the only closed-shop union hotel in Washington, DC. I am a union man and my clothes are union. Everything I buy is union because I think only by paying union can you expect to collect from unions.”
Purple Tree Lounge
In 1950, the Manger Corporation (who also owned the Plaza Hotel in Chicago) purchased the Hamilton Hotel. Shortly after Manger came in, they converted the iconic Rainbow Room into the Purple Tree Lounge. The lounge was so-called for the purple tree set in the center of the room.
The lounge was a copy of the hotspot lounge at the Hotel Vanderbilt in New York City. It soon became an iconic fixture on the DC nightlife scene. In November of 1952, Manger began opening Purple Tree Lounges across their properties. Lounges popped up in Rochester, Indianapolis, St. Petersburg, Cleveland and Savannah.
The Hotel Changes Hands
The hotel scene in DC was changing. Due to an increase in crime in Washington, culminating in the 1968 riots, the hotel industry struggled in urban areas. In 1969, the Manger Corporation sold the Hamilton Hotel to the Hamilton Leasing Corporation for $1,072,906. The company tried to maintain the property as a hotel, but they couldn’t manage to bring back the business. In October 1972, they sold the hotel to the Salvation Army for $1.2 million.
Under the Salvation Army, the hotel became a residence for single women called the Evangeline Hotel. Unfortunately, the venture was short-lived. The general secretary of the Salvation Army, Major J.B. Matthews, explained why he believed the Evangeline failed. “Due to the location and a rule that young men were not allowed above the lobby level, that operation was such that we lost our shirt.” They put the hotel back on the market and is sold for $2 million to a group of investors and developers called Hamilton Associates, Ltd. The group began a $5 million renovation in 1978, turning the space into offices. Once again, the odds were not in their favor. The Hamilton failed as an office building.
However, the Hamilton was destined to be a hotel. In 1993, Paris-based Home Plaza purchased the hotel with the goal or renovating and turning it back into a hotel. During the renovation, they restored the lobby, rooms and the original entrance back to their original glory. The renovation added two floors of meeting rooms and a restaurants, topped by an elegant mansard roof. The hotel reopened in 1996 as the Hamilton Crowne Plaza. It remained under the Crowne Plaza flag until 2017, when it was sold and began operation as an independent hotel.
An Independent Hamilton
Renovations are currently underway, with plans to complete in spring of 2019. The goal is to “capture the unique essence of Washington, D.C. and offer a superior new guest experience.” How is the Hamilton taking this on? With a redesigned bar, new dining concepts, upgraded suites and upscale amenities.
Managing Director Mark J. Driscoll said, “We’re thrilled to transform Hamilton Hotel Washington, D.C. in an effort to offer guests a stay that is authentic, comfortable and luxurious, with superior amenities, a sophisticated culinary scene and high-tech offerings.”
The new lobby has been designed by Atlanta-based firm designONE studio, who plans to blend the Beaux-Arts bones with modern luxury. The interiors are inspired by the refined yet avant-garde taste of influential 1930s American families, like the Rockefellers. The color palette features rich burgundy with yellow accents and fine woods. All of this color is set on top of the classic black and white marble floors.
Driscoll says, “As an independent hotel, we have the ability to create unique, thoughtful experiences, services and offerings that celebrate the distinctive personality of Washington, D.C.” As for the Hamilton, it looks like it’s finally coming into its own.
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