In 1948, a leg of President Truman’s piano fell through floor of the White House. As it could have easily been the leg of President Truman, the White House was deemed uninhabitable. The First Family was packed up and moved into Blair House – or the President’s Guest House – just across Pennsylvania Avenue.
The Blair House is a row of 19th-century townhomes used as a residence for visiting dignitaries, presidents-elect and other guests. While the living arrangement worked well for the Truman family, there was a problem: the Blair House lacks space for entertaining. That’s where the St. Regis Washington, D.C. came in. Or, to be more precise, that’s where the Carlton Hotel came in.
The St. Regis Washington, D.C. opened as the Carlton Hotel in 1926. Located just two blocks from the White House, the hotel aimed to offer “the best in good living” to an elite clientele, according to a 1927 issue of “The Book of Washington.” It was a Beaux Arts masterpiece in an enviable location. The hotel attracted Hollywood and Washington elite alike.
The Carlton Hotel DC / Courtesy DC Preservation League
In fact, when the Carlton Hotel opened on October 1, 1926, President Calvin Coolidge cut the ceremonial ribbon. In that moment, a long-lasting bond with the White House was forged. Presidents stayed at the hotel, to be sure, but they came by the Carlton for other purposes. High-ranking politicians used the hotel to entertain and hold important meetings. Franklin D. Roosevelt often came for dinner with his Cabinet. Ronald Reagan got his hair cut at the Carlton.
But the story of the St. Regis Washington, D.C. begins far earlier than that. Before St. Regis, before the Presidents and before the White House was nearly condemned, the story starts with a young man hiding on a ship sailing for Australia.
A Stowaway and a Sultan’s Architect
Harry Wardman never meant to be in the United States in the first place. Wardman was born in 1872 in Bradford, England to a family textile workers. As a teenager, he snuck onto a ship sailing to Australia and tried to make it there as a stowaway. Instead, fate stepped in and he was caught. Wardman was left ashore in New York to fend for himself. It was 1889.
He worked in various jobs until he found an apprenticeship to a carpenter. He aspired to learn the construction business. He got married, had a daughter and was sadly widowed shortly thereafter. In 1902, after his wife passed, he decided to move to Washington. He got a job as a carpenter and learned how to build staircases. With his knowledge, he started building townhouses. He found he had a knack for it, to say the least.
In the 1920s and 1930s, Wardman built over 5,000 houses and 400 apartment buildings. Many of his homes are still standing today, including the famous Chastleton and Highland buildings, and are praised for their strong construction and high-quality building materials. According to reports at the time, when Wardman died in 1938, one of every ten Washingtonians lived in a home that Wardman built.
Of course, Wardman also built hotels. In 1918, Wardman built his first hotel: the Woodley Park Hotel. The Woodley Park Hotel was large and successful, with a grand total of 1,200 rooms. Much of it was demolished in 1977 to build a more modern property. However, the tower portion of the hotel, called the Wardman Tower, was saved. It was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1984. The building is now the Marriott Wardman Park.
Successful as the Woodley Park Hotel was, his next project was meant to be different. Harry Wardman wanted the Carlton Hotel to be his crowning achievement. He designed the hotel with Armenian-American architect Mihran Mesrobian. Mesrobian trained at the Academy of Fine Arts in Constantinople and was very highly respected in his field. In fact, he was the palace architect to Mehmed V, the last Ottoman Sultan.
After completing the sultan’s palace, Mesrobian took a job with Wardman. The pair was a natural fit. The Carlton Hotel would be Mesrobian’s first complete commercial design in D.C., and it would earn him the American Institute of Architects’ National Award for Excellence.
After the Carlton Hotel opened in 1926, Wardman and Mesrobian collaborated again to build the Hay-Adams Hotel. Another of the city’s most iconic addresses, the hotel would rival the Carlton in both prestige and panache. Both hotels hosted Hollywood and Washington elite. The two were often mentioned in the society pages of the Washington Post. After the Hay-Adams opened in 1928, Wardman went on to build the British Embassy – a remarkable feat for a UK runaway.
A Beaux Arts Beauty
Wardman hoped to build a luxury hotel that would rank among the finest luxury hotels in Europe. His aim was to build a hotel for those who demanded “the best in good living.” With the help of Mesrobian, they designed a hotel that would surpass all others in style and luxury.
A wrought-iron gate was imported from a villa in Tuscany. A pink Carrera marble fountain was sent for. There were enormous chandeliers, marble-topped tables and hand-carved furniture from Italy. There were baby grand pianos in suites, telephones in the bathrooms and a tapestry and chairs from Blenheim Palace, Winston Churchill’s birthplace.
Today, the hotel is considered a fine example of the Ecole des Beaux Arts-influenced buildings were introduced to Washington after World War I. While the hotel has undergone many renovations, the original interior and facade are much the same. The rooms have been enlarged, so there are now only 193 instead of 250, but the sense of grandeur remains the same.
The hotel is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is also included as a contributing property to the Sixteenth Street Historic District.
The Hotel Changes Hands
Like many businessmen, Wardman lost much of his fortune in 1929. He was forced to sell the Carlton Hotel in 1930. It changed hands once again in 1953, when it was sold to Sheraton Hotels and named the Sheraton-Carlton Hotel. The hotel closed for renovations in 1987 and reopened in 1988 as the Carlton Hotel again. In 1999, the hotel was renamed the St. Regis Washington, D.C.
Truman’s White House
President Harry S. Truman / Wikicommons
Before St. Regis, the Carlton Hotel could have been considered an extension of the White House. In 1948, the Truman administration discovered that the White House was crumbling beneath them. Actually, it was sinking. Floorboards were rotting and supporting beams were badly compromised. In some parts, the ceiling had dropped 18 inches.
Over the next three years, the White House would undergo a massive renovation. The renovations were controversial and wildly expensive, but there was no denying it: the building was in peril. The house would be gutted, rebuilt, modernized and expanded. This renovation introduced a number of famous additions, including the sweeping staircase that allows for an impressive entrance.
It was an election year, and President Truman didn’t want the crumbling building to become an unflattering metaphor for the state of his administration. The First Family moved to the Blair House, but they needed to keep up appearances. Grand state affairs needed to be held, and they needed a place to hold them. Thankfully, the Carlton Hotel was just a few blocks away, and it was very grand, indeed.
In 1948, the Carlton began hosting nearly all of President Truman’s official functions. Dinners were held in The Carlton Room, a formal dining room that runs parallel to K Street. But proceedings weren’t always so smooth. Protocol required the President to arrive prior to his guests. As his guests arrived through the lobby, President Truman had to enter the dining room through a window on K Street. In addition to formal affairs, meetings of the “Truman Committee” and other meetings were held at the Carlton as well.
Roosevelt’s White House
Truman wasn’t the only president who spent time at the Carlton. Franklin Roosevelt’s Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, did most of his entertaining at the Carlton, hosting dinners in the hotel’s private dining room. Hull held official state dinners here, as well.
Cabinet members would often come for dinner, sometimes joined by Roosevelt himself. To make the Carlton even more hospitable to such functions, the hotel purchased sterling silver and gold-plated service for 100 table settings, just like they have at the White House.
Cordell Hull liked the hotel so much he officially moved in. He lived in the only unit with a private kitchen, where he entertained for eleven years. After Hull left his position, the State Department continued to hold events at the Carlton. Bernard Baruch, economic consultant to Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Roosevelt, also kept his Washington office inside the hotel.
Hollywood Comes to the Carlton Hotel
Presidents aside, Hollywood stars were regulars, too. The hotel has hosted the likes of Katherine Hepburn, Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor and Cher. Cowboy Gene Autry broadcast his radio show from the Carlton. Even more famously, Howard Hughes had a suite at the Carlton during World War II. When he wasn’t staying there, he allowed uniformed military servicemen to stay in his room for free.
The Iconic St. Regis Bar
St. Regis hotels around the world are renowned for their iconic bars. This heritage began at the St. Regis New York, with the legendary King Cole Bar. The bar is famous for two things: its striking mural of Old King Cole, for whom the bar is named, and its signature Bloody Mary. The Bloody Mary was invented at Harry’s Bar in Paris, but the St. Regis refined it and spread it across the country. The King Cole Bar named their version the “Red Snapper.” To this day, every St. Regis Bar has its own signature Bloody Mary.
The St. Regis Bar in Washington, D.C. is no different. Their signature cocktail is the Capitol Mary, inspired by the Chesapeake Bay. The cocktail is made with gin and seasoned with the region’s signature spice, Old Bay, an essential element of a classic Maryland crab feast.
The St. Regis Bar has the old-world feel of a classic English club, but it’s actually quite new. The bar was revamped by the Rockwell Group in 2013 with warm leather armchairs, wooden herringbone floors and refurbished wood-paneled walls. Antique mirrors decorate the walls. It’s hard to imagine a more perfect setting for hobnobbing with the Washington elite.
For lovers of Art Deco architecture, there was once an even more iconic bar inside the Carlton. The Art Deco Society of Washington recently discovered that in 1934, a hidden bar was built in the hotel. The Art Deco bar was so unique that it concealed the bartender except for his hands, so patrons could watch their cocktails being mixed. The bar and lounge was set inside the Carlton Club and Garden.
As a 1934 issue of Fortune magazine reports, “The small and exquisite Carlton Club has the smartest bar, as well as a series of rooms famous as birthplaces of New Deal legislation. You will note that, since the District of Columbia won’t let you see the bartender, drinks appear through a revolving servidor, like those at the automat.” Sadly the historic bar was destroyed in a 1958 renovation.
A New Chapter for the St. Regis
In August 2018, Holliday Fenoglio Fowler, L.P. (HFF) announced that they secured $81 million in refinancing for the St. Regis Washington, D.C. Investors say that the funds “will help reinforce the market leading positions of our iconic luxury hotels in New York, Chicago, Miami and Washington, D.C., which form the core of our current U.S. portfolio, to provide an even stronger platform for expansion as we continue to seek more investment opportunities across the U.S.”
With such a large influx of funds, major developments must be on the horizon for the former Carlton Hotel. Until plans are revealed, we’ll have to wait and wonder: what do you get a hotel that already has “the best in good living”