In 1859, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine reported, “We doubt there is a building in the world more chaste and architecturally perfect than the General Post Office.” While the old post office is still an architectural marvel, it isn’t quite as chaste since the Kimpton Hotel Monaco Washington DC arrived.
The Greek Revival building was constructed in 1839 by Robert Mills, the architect who designed the Washington Monument. The building is a stately example of classical architecture, with grand columns, plaster friezes, and circular stairways. In 2002, Kimpton brought its colorful style into the historic space, honoring the past and brightening up its future.
The General Manager, Greg Leinweber, tells us “When you arrive at the hotel, you step into one of Washington DC’s true historic icons. While the design may look bold and modern, it was put together to highlight the historical aspects and architecture of the building.”
And there are countless historical aspects to highlight. From its days as the General Post Office to its tenure as the United States International Trade Commission Building, the building has certainly earned its landmark status. How it became a hotel, however, is an even more interesting story. Here’s a look back at one of Washington DC’s most storied buildings.
This story is nearly as old as the city itself. In July 1790, Congress passed the Residence Act, which allowed the construction of a new capital on the Potomac River. George Washington was tapped to choose the exact location. Maryland and Virginia donated land, creating a ten-mile by ten-mile square. Construction on the new city began.
To start, the government built the Capitol Building and the White House. It would be decades before Congress invested more money in government buildings – the country was still in its infancy, after all – but a city popped up nonetheless.
Set between the Capitol and the White House, the site where the Kimpton Hotel Monaco now stands was the very center of Washington. The neighborhood was home to theaters, markets, hotels, and high-end residences. The exact site of the Kimpton – at 7th, 8th, E and F Street – was once home to the elegant Blodgett’s Hotel.
Built in 1795, Blodgett’s Hotel was the largest privately owned building in Washington (though, of course, there wasn’t much there to begin with). Samuel Blodgett was a merchant who gained his wealth through his trade with the East India Company. He was enthusiastic about Washington’s prospects as the nation’s capital. To raise funds for the venture, he planned an elaborate lottery scheme. The prize would be Blodgett’s Hotel. Unfortunately for Blodgett, the lottery was a failure. He lost his fortune and landed in debtor’s prison, but the building remained.
A Post Office and a Congress Hall
The government purchased Blodgett’s Hotel in 1810 to house the Post Office Department and the City Post Office. During the War of 1812, when the British invaded Washington, Sir George Cockburn ordered his troops to destroy all public buildings in the capital. Remarkably, the post office survived. Some reports give credit to smooth talking by the manager of the neighboring Patent Office. Others chalk it up to luck.
As the post office was one of the few government buildings still standing in 1814, the building acted as the Hall of Congress until they had a replacement. Unfortunately, the old Blodgett’s Hotel would meet a fiery end, after all. The building burned in an accidental fire in 1836. Its new path would soon begin.
The Monuments Men
More than 40 years after the construction of the Capitol and the White House, the government finally took an interest in building up Washington. In the 1830s and 1840s, they decided to build the Treasury Building, the Patent Office and the General Post Office. The General Post Office was built on the lot where Blodgett’s once stood.
The first architect to take on the project was Robert Mills, who would become famous for designing the Washington Monument (which began construction in 1848). His work on the General Post Office was influenced by Italian Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio. He featured plaster friezes, domed alcoves, circular stairways, and vaulted corridors. Remarkably, it was the first building in Washington to have an entirely marble exterior. The building was completed in 1842.
It wasn’t long before the post office outgrew the space. Work began on a new wing in 1855. The architect in charge of the project was Thomas Ustick Walter, famous for designing the dome of the Capitol building. The new wing faces the former US Patent Office, which was also designed by Robert Mills. Today, the Patent Office houses the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. Thomas Ustick Walter resigned from the project in 1865 and passed the baton to his apprentice, Edward Clark. Clark completed the building in 1866.
There were delays during construction. Most notably, the project was paused during the Civil War. Union troops used the basement to store munitions, while the post office continued to operate on the upper floors. During this time, the Postmaster General began offering home mail delivery by horse and carriage. Mail was sent out via a carriageway on 8th Street. Today, the old entrance still runs between the street and hotel restaurant’s courtyard.
Inside the old alley are three sculptures designed by Thomas Crawford, the artist behind the Freedom figure atop the dome of the Capitol. One of his pieces is the arch keystone, which represents the face of Fidelity. The others are bas-reliefs of winged figures. One represents steam, while the other symbolizes electricity.
The General Post Office moved to a new location in 1897, opening the building to a series of new residents. These included the General Land Office, the Bureau of Education and an early central power plant.
In 1917, when the United States entered World War I, the old post office was used as a headquarters for the National Selective Service Board. At the end of the war, General John J. Pershing, Commander in Chief of the American Expeditionary Forces, used the space to prepare his final reports on the war.
Starting in 1921, the building became known as the United States International Trade Commission Building, also known as the Tariff Building. In 1971, during the ITC’s tenure, the building was named a National Historic Landmark.
Despite the landmark status, the building was falling into disrepair. In the 1980s, the Washington Post reported that there was a leaking roof, loose windows and falling plaster. Allegedly, the General Services Administration (GSA) was planning to hand the building over to the Smithsonian Institution rather than deal with the expensive repairs that were required.
The Smithsonian did have plans to use the building as a museum. They hoped to use the Patent Office for permanent exhibitions and use the General Post Office for the temporary exhibitions. However, the GSA expected the Smithsonian to pay market price for the building and they just couldn’t afford it.
When the ITC finally left in 1988, the building sat empty while the Smithsonian tried to drum up the funds to renovate. In the end, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan came up with a solution. He convinced the Smithsonian to lease the building for a period of several decades in the hopes that they could turn the building into a museum in the future. A competition was held by the GSA and, of course, Kimpton was the victor.
A Sweeping Renovation
According to the General Manager, Greg Leinweber, “Our building had lived a long life within Washington DC prior to becoming a boutique hotel. The building had been vacant for years when Kimpton took over the project, and it was in need of some serious TLC to restore and adapt it to what it is today.”
As the building is a National Historic Landmark, Kimpton was unable to make structural changes. As such, the top priority was to maintain the building’s historical significance while bringing in modern comforts and a contemporary style.
To that aim, there was extensive cleaning and repairing of the stone on the exterior. Skylights that were removed in the past were replicated. The original wood and cast iron windows were restored. As for the interior, all room and hallway configurations were maintained, as well as the marble floors, circular stairways and plaster detailing. The bathrooms installed are removable modules so that the building can be returned to its original state, if necessary. The headboards are not attached to the walls. In all, the renovation cost $34 million.
A Vision in the Courtyard
Renovations weren’t without incident. During this time, a construction worker claimed to witness a beautiful woman at the entrance to the courtyard. He was caught off guard by her clothing – she was dressed in Civil War-era attire. He watched her stare out into the street as if she were waiting for someone. Suddenly, she disappeared.
The construction worker set out to research his vision. He found that during the Civil War, before home mail delivery existed, it was common for women to wait in the courtyard for the mail. They hoped the mail would contain messages from their husbands, sons and brothers. Some believe the construction worker saw a ghost of one of these anxious women.
The hotel has another eerie tale, too. The story goes that the hotel’s Paris Ballroom – which was formerly a library for the Postmaster General – was used as a surgical room during the Civil War. Guests and hotel staff are said to have heard whispers in the ballroom that sound like doctors in surgery. Others have claimed to see nurses walking quickly down the hotel’s hallways.
A New Hotel
In 2002, the hotel opened to much fanfare. A story in the Washington Post said, “The Monaco project is an exemplary, unambiguous reminder of what creative preservation can do for a building, and potentially, for a city.” At the time, Thomas LaTour, chairman of the Kimpton group, said that while almost all of Kimpton’s hotels are in historic structures, “’I don’t have any other drop-dead buildings.”
With the hotel, Kimpton opened its award-winning Poste Moderne Brasserie. Poste would become hugely popular on the Washington scene. In fact, Michelle Obama celebrated her 50th birthday at Poste.
In 2016, the hotel freshened up with another renovation. San Francisco-based design firm Paletteur aimed to honor the city’s classical architecture and historical roots, while keeping the style contemporary. A new restaurant called Dirty Habit replaced Poste.
As Greg Leinweber told Storied Hotels, the design of the hotel is “a nod to the Neoclassical architecture and the hotel’s robust history.” All the rooms feature a five-foot-wide architectural medallion of a lion’s head, that represents strength, power and nobility. The emblems honor the many friezes throughout the city’s government buildings.
All rooms also feature a bust of Thomas Jefferson, who was a friend of Robert Mills, the original architect. The wallpaper is designed from filigrees from Washington’s Union Station. The obelisks that surround the fireplace are a nod to Mills’ Washington Monument. The list goes on.
Leinweber told us, “There are so many historic destinations within the nation’s capital, but I would say what sets Kimpton Hotel Monaco Washington DC apart is our playfully creative design elements that mix so well with the hotel’s historic nature that make us different. People can find something new and intriguing around every corner.”
These might be the bright green Murano glass chandeliers, the hitching posts inside Dirty Habit restaurant or the sculptures in the courtyard. “There’s a sense of discovery throughout the property that our guests love.”
If you’re lucky, a staff member might even show you around. Leinweber says, “For groups and meetings, or the occasional hotel guest, we can provide a walking tour of the building pointing out many of the historical details they might not otherwise notice.”
Your eye might be drawn to Kimpton’s bold colors and fun patterns, but take a closer look and you might be staring at a piece of Washington’s history.