Thomas Jefferson once said “On matters of style, swim with the current, on matters of principle, stand like a rock.” By his own exacting standards, his namesake is a success. The style of The Jefferson style is fresh and contemporary, but its principles – excellent service and dedication to discretion – have held strong for decades.
Today, The Jefferson ranks among the finest hotels in Washington. U.S. News has named The Jefferson the “Best Hotel in DC” for four years running and Conde Nast Traveler lists it as one of the finest hotels in the world. With accolades like this, it’s safe to say that Jefferson would have been proud. (He’s known to have had a taste for the finer things in life.) But it’s been a long road to get here.
A Beaux-Arts Beauty
In 1923, Calvin Coolidge had just been elected president. Howard Carter opened King Tut’s tomb. Lou Gehrig hit his first home run for the Yankees. And in Washington, a new Beaux-Arts apartment building was opening its doors. It was called The Jefferson Apartment.
The elegant apartment was designed in the Beaux-Arts style by famed architect Jules Henri de Sibour. After graduating from the Yale, de Sibour got his start working with Ernest Flagg and Bruce Price in New York. He returned to Paris to study at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts but inherited the firm when Price died in 1903.
To this day, de Sibour is famous for designing a number of Washington’s most lavish private homes, embassies, and hotels. His portfolio includes the Embassy of Uzbekistan, also called the Moore Residence, the Embassy of France and the Embassy of Luxembourg, also known as the Stewart Residence. Just before designing The Jefferson, de Sibour worked on the Hamilton Hotel, which opened in 1922.
The Jefferson Changes Hands
F. H. Smith Corporation, a local real estate developer, began construction on the eight-story apartment building in July 1922. The cost of the 74-unit building was $900,000, or about $13.5 million in today’s currency. The original owner, The Jefferson Corporation, named the building The Jefferson to honor Thomas Jefferson.
In 1930, The Jefferson Corporation went bankrupt and a trial began. During the proceedings, it came out that the F. H. Smith Corporation had secretly allowed its chairman, G. Bryan Pitts, to take over an entire floor of the apartment. In all, he occupied a staggering 17 rooms and five baths. The F. H. Smith Corporation and its chairman were charged with embezzlement and Pitts was sentenced to 23 years in prison. After this debacle, Alfred Robinson Glancy, an executive at General Motors, stepped in to purchase the building.
As the years passed, the building continued to attract the Washington elite for its excellent location and elegant residences. In 1941, as the country was readying for war, part of the building was converted into a short-term residence for military workers. The Jefferson Apartment served as a residence for military personnel throughout World War II.
A Storied Hotel in the Making
In 1955, after more than 30 years as luxury apartments, the building was officially converted to a hotel called The Jefferson DC. It was at this time that the hotel began its transformation into The Jefferson we know today. However, it wasn’t done changing hands yet.
When Alfred Robinson Glancy, the General Motors executive, died in 1959, his heirs took over. By 1963, they had divided the 74 into 150 smaller rooms. On the main floor, they built a popular restaurant and cocktail lounge called “the Elbow Room.” While the hotel wasn’t nearly as luxurious as it would become, it was a popular hub for musicians, artists, and other celebrities. Guests included Helen Hayes – one of only 15 people to have won an Emmy, Tony, and Grammy – and Hollywood actor Tyrone Power.
In 1976, Glancy’s heirs sold the hotel to Edward Bennett Williams for $1.8 million, or nearly $8 million in today’s currency. Edward Bennett Williams was a trial lawyer and owner of several sports teams, including the Baltimore Orioles. Interestingly enough, due to his many connections in Washington, some speculated that he was “Deep Throat,” Bob Woodward’s famous source in the Watergate story. While that wasn’t the case, of course, the rumor alone shows his deep Washington ties.
During his time as owner, Williams was dedicated to raising the standards (and the prices) at The Jefferson. In 1980, he began a major renovation that would take two years. He converted some of the smaller rooms into grand suites and replaced much of the furnishings in the rooms and public spaces with fine antiques.
During this time, he began acquiring fine artwork and historic papers for display at the hotel. According to a spokesperson for The Jefferson, “Edward Bennett Williams obtained a rare collection of Jeffersonian documents featuring Thomas Jefferson’s signature which includes checks to passport authorizations to presidential correspondence.”
Above all, Williams built a reputation for discretion, which attracted many celebrities and politicians. In fact, George H.W. Bush stayed at The Jefferson during his inauguration in 1988. It’s said that he chose his cabinet members during his stay at the hotel.
After Williams died in 1988, his estate sold the hotel to Value Enhancement Fund III, who in turn hired Loews Hotels to manage the property. Finally, in 2005, The Jefferson was purchased by DC CAP Hotelier, a New York-based real estate firm. They still own the property today.
Light Shines on The Jefferson
In 2007, DC CAP Hotelier embarked on a major renovation. The intention was to bring the hotel up to date, of course, but also to make the historical elements shine. During the renovations, the architect, Forrest Perkins Associates, was delighted to find the lobby’s original glass skylight intact. It had been covered for decades. A spokesperson for The Jefferson told Storied Hotels, “It now allows natural light to stream into The Greenhouse,” The light-filled restaurant is used for breakfast, lunch and weekend brunch.
Today, all public spaces feature beautiful antiques, period furnishings and fine art. Even the floors come with a story. A spokesperson tells us that “the wood used on the floors and walls of the Private Cellar was reclaimed from a clothing mill in Lawrence, MA. The mill used to make uniforms for WW I soldiers.”
And yet, The Jefferson never flashes its riches. Instead, the details subtly reveal themselves. You might need to take a second look to see that elegant desk in the foyer really is an antique. Or that the framed document really does bear Thomas Jefferson’s signature.
True Jeffersonian Elegance
The hotel’s nod to its namesake runs deep. The Thomas Jefferson-signed artifacts acquired by Edward Bennett Williams hang throughout the lobby. They line the corridor that leads to the concierge desk.
The property takes care to exemplify what they believe Jefferson would have appreciated in a hotel. According to The Jefferson, these qualities include “intricately thought out design, elegantly appointed suites, the most modern amenities, gastronomic excellence and, of course, exceptional personalized service.”
Thomas Jefferson is known to have said “I cannot live without books.” The hotel library was designed to mirror the famous library in Jefferson’s Monticello estate. The books on the shelves were selected to highlight his many interests and travels.
While history is everywhere, the contemporary guest rooms offer all the creature comforts one could want. The 95 rooms and suites feature deep marble soaking tubs, in-mirror televisions, luxurious linens and state-of-the-art technology. The two specialty suites come with Juliet balconies that look out over Washington. The Martha Jefferson Suite is pretty and pastel, with a romantic canopied bed. The Thomas Jefferson Suite offers views of the Washington Monument and the White House. On the walls, there are six copper engravings of Paris, one of Jefferson’s most beloved places.
Art at The Jefferson
World class art abounds at The Jefferson. Some of the most valuable pieces in the collection can be found in the Jefferson Lounge. The Charles Bird King lithographs of Indians are incredibly important because the original portraits were destroyed in the Smithsonian fire of 1865. Of the 120 originals portraits, The Jefferson has 14 in their collection.
The lobby is graced with a gorgeous diptych that shows a bucolic scene. While the exact origin of the 18th-century panels are unknown, they are believed to come from the Northern Italian or French school of painting.
Suite 807 is decorated with a collection of paintings by Allen Mason and Steve Lance that
Depict Lewis and Clark’s explorations. These contemporary paintings were executed in the style of the “Luminists,” who were known for their dramatic use of light and idealized scenes.
In the bar, Quill, you’ll find a collection of copper engravings by Rigobert Bonne, one of the most important cartographers of the 18th century. These maps show Thomas Jefferson’s wine journeys through France. In addition, smaller maps of the wine regions of France are also on display.
Cuisine Worthy of Monticello
Like at Monticello, the quality of the cuisine is paramount. The hotel’s restaurant, Plume, has garnered one Michelin star as well as Forbes five-star status. A meal at Plume begins with creative amuse-bouches and unfolds to showcase seasonal ingredients in beautiful and creative preparations.
A spokesperson tells Storied Hotels that “The Jefferson’s Michelin restaurant boasts an impressive collection of Madeiras, Thomas Jefferson’s favorite wine and the wine used to toast the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the Louisiana Purchase, with vintages dating back to 1780.”
The decor is also steeped in history. Plume is illuminated by a beautiful chandelier that is believed to be 110 years old.
The spokesperson tells us, “It was originally owned by the Willards of The Willard Hotel. The then-owners of The Jefferson purchased it in the 1960s when The Willard closed.”
For something more casual than Michelin-starred splendor, Quill is a popular spot for players on the Hill to meet for after-work cocktails. On a nice day, the buzzing scene often overflows to the terrace.
The delicious cuisine and discreet atmosphere have made the hotel a popular choice for presidents to entertain. While The Jefferson stays tight-lipped about the comings and goings of their guests, it’s been well documented that The Jefferson was a favorite of President Barack Obama. In fact, Conde Nast Traveler called The Jefferson “President Obama’s No. 1 fund-raising spot in the city,” citing more than 20 stays. Managing Director Philip Wood told Conde Nast that “He always come in the back entrance; we decided we need to rename it the ‘BaRack entrance’ he came so often.”
Obama’s trips to The Jefferson seemed to do the trick. During his reelection campaign, his private lunches at Plume raised $8.5 billion from donors. It wasn’t just financial backers he was trying to woo – President Obama brought Republicans to lunch, too. He treated senators to a meal at Plume on at least one occasion, in the hopes of swaying them in his direction. The food must be special to be up to that task.
As for who stays the night, staff are famously tight-lipped on the matter. However, thanks to the close proximity to the White House, guests often come to stay for events like State Dinners, personal meetings, and the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.
A spokesperson tells us, “Due to guest information being completely private, we are unable to name specific celebrities who may have stayed at the hotel throughout the years. However, I can say that a number of prominent high ranking officials, including US presidents and international diplomats, have made The Jefferson their Washington home during their tenures.”
A quick search of paparazzi photos leads to a long list of celebrities coming and going, but we won’t name names. As shown by its dazzling list of accolades, from Relais & Chateaux status to its Forbes five-star rating, The Jefferson’s dedication to discretion must be working.
Either way, we think Thomas Jefferson would be happy to order a glass of Madeiras, pull a book off the shelf and make himself at home here.