The Omni Shoreham: Washington DC’s Grande Dame Full of Political History and Beatlemania

The Omni Shoreham Hotel has always been different. Sitting on 11 acres of grounds and overlooking Rock Creek Park, the property’s connection to nature is unique in Washington.

As the General Manager, Mark Roche-Garland, told Storied Hotels, “We are the only resort in the nation’s capital. With manicured gardens, outside events spaces and an incredible seasonal outdoor pool; she truly is Washington DC’s “Grande Dame.”

Like many hotels in Washington, the Omni Shoreham Hotel has been a backdrop for political history. But not many hotels can claim the same role in musical history. Why? The Shoreham Hotel hosted the Beatles on their first trip across the pond.

From the Great Depression to today, here’s a look back at the storied past of Washington DC’s “Grande Dame.”

The Great Depression Breeds a Grand Hotel

It was 1929 and Harry M. Bralove was out for a walk. The prolific builder was about to begin construction on a block of apartments when a grander vision came to mind: He would build a grand hotel overlooking Rock Creek Park.

Bralove hired architect Joseph Abel to bring his project to life. The building was to be state-of-the-art, with running ice water, fireproofing, high-speed Westbrook elevators and even an indoor ice rink. They needed 10 million bricks for the exterior, 6,750,000 cubic feet of cement and 10,000 light bulbs. The project would cost $4 million.

Of course, $4 million was a lot of money during Great Depression ($60 million in today’s currency, to be exact). As could be expected, Bralove encountered financial problems. He asked a wealthy man named Henry Doherty to become a minority shareholder. Doherty agreed to the deal and took a large suite at the hotel.

An Ill-Fated Opening

To announce the opening, the Washington Herald published a piece that ran eight pages. The story praised the hotel’s modern features. There was an indoor swimming pool with tropical plants so you could swim all year-round. There were two ballrooms, four tennis courts and a playground for kids. There was a grand Louis XVI dining room that overlooked Rock Creek Park through tall windows. In short, the hotel was a marvel.

A grand opening party was planned for October 30, 1930. The famous bandleader Rudy Vallee was hired to perform at the rate of $9,000. This was a large sum at the time (about $135,000 today). Vallee was at the height of his fame, playing regularly at the Villa Vallee (which would become the Copacabana) and the Brooklyn Paramount Theater. The show was fully sold out.

That night, after his show at the Paramount in New York, Vallee went to Newark Airport to board a small plane. According to a 1990 Washington Post story, he said “This was my third or fourth time in a plane and I wasn’t too shaky about it until we suddenly felt ourselves in the grip of a terrific thunderstorm. Lightning was crackling along the wing tips, the rain dashing itself on the windows, and I, perfectly cold sober, sat in the back wondering why I had ever let myself in for an ordeal of this sort.”

They were forced to land in Camden, New Jersey until the storm cleared. The clock was nearing midnight and the ballroom at the Shoreham was packed. Vallee said that people in Washington were taking bets “as to whether we would actually show up, a great many of the crowd believing that it was a hoax all along and that we’d never been contracted.”

When the band finally arrived at 3:45 am, the crowd was down to 1,000 from its original 5,000. They played a 15-minute set before dashing back to New York for an early-morning rehearsal.

A Good Ghost Story

Henry Doherty, the minority shareholder, and his wife moved into their suite in 1933. The couple was fabulously wealthy and used their fine collection of art, furniture, and Persian rugs to decorate the space. The Dohertys had no children of their own and adopted a daughter named Helen.

The hotel’s executive housekeeper, Juliette Brown, also stayed in the suite and looked after the family. Very early one morning, Juliette woke up feeling ill and picked up the phone to make a call. Unfortunately, the call never went through. One of the engineers noticed the phone was off the hook found Juliette dead in her bed.

Shortly after Juliette’s death, the Dohertys’ daughter Helen died of mysterious circumstances. Rumors circulated that her death was caused by a drug overdose or suicide. To this day, no one knows what brought Helen’s fate.

The couple lived at the hotel until it fell into disrepair. There were holes in the ceiling. Birds flew in the once-lavish rooms. In 1973, the place was nearly condemned.

After the Dohertys moved out, strange things started happening in the hotel. Guests in the rooms near the suite noticed televisions and lights turning on at 4:00 am, which was said to be the time of Juliette’s death. Some would report feeling a breeze as if someone had just run past. Housekeepers would find that their carts had been moved.

In 1975, records show that a guest called to complain about noise over the past two evenings from the room next door, where Juliette died. Strangely, there was no one in the room. Whether true or a myth, hotel employees have nicknamed the ghost “Vivica.”

Roche-Garland, the General Manager, doesn’t deny it. “We have a resident ghost whom, it has been said, a number of our guests and indeed a number of my associates have experienced over the years. She has been around for a long time and no doubt will continue to do so. This is a landmark historic hotel that has seen a lot over its 89 years. Who am I to question the ghost?”

Today, the suite has been restored into a lavish Presidential Suite called “the Ghost Suite.” Some guests still report hearing the tune of a music box from inside the empty rooms. Whether or not there’s a ghost, one thing is for sure. The city views from the suite are breathtaking.

Life at the Shoreham

In its early days, the Shoreham counted many congressmen among its residents. According to Phil Hollywood, who was General Manager of the Shoreham Hotel for decades, “So many people lived here that the mailman would bring huge sacks of Reader’s Digests and Saturday Evening Posts.” If you left your shoes out in the hallway they would be shined overnight.

According to a newspaper story that published on October 5, 1947, the price of a one-bedroom apartment with a bathroom and kitchen ranged from $100 per month $125 per month. Unfurnished suites ranged from $300 to $345 per month.

While the deluxe suites were luxurious – there was a fireplace in the living room, built-in bookcases, a sun parlor, foyer, two bathrooms – there was no air conditioning, which could get hot during the DC summers. Starting from the 1950s, televisions could be installed for an additional $3 a day.

Starting in 1950, the Shoreham decided to convert apartments and housekeeping rooms into hotels. Longtime residents were not pleased with the decision. Some were given 30 days to move after 15 years living in the Shoreham.

Politicians and Poker Games

Many politicians have passed through the doors over the decades. General Manager Roche-Garland told Storied Hotels that “Politics has been an integral part of the hotel since we opened in 1930. Seven U.S. senators, 18 congressmen, multiple diplomats and their families lived at Omni Shoreham.”

Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first inaugural ball took place at the Omni Shoreham Hotel. In fact, the hotel had a ramp and elevator installed to accommodate him. Since that time, the Shoreham has hosted an inaugural ball every year.

President Harry Truman was considered a regular at the hotel during his day. He often came to play poker with Speaker of the House John McCormack, Congressman William “Fishbait” Miller and Senator Warren G. Magnuson in room 406D.

During John F. Kennedy’s funeral in 1963, 19 Heads of State stayed at the hotels. Phil Hollywood told the Washington Post, “I stayed up all night greeting Presidents and Emperors. I never went to bed that night.”

The Blue Room

The Hollywood set brought the glitz and glamour. When Harry Bralove’s son took control of the hotel, the hotel’s lounge became one of the hottest spots in town. The Blue Room began producing fabulous live shows with famous entertainers. John F. Kennedy was known to bring Jackie to shows at the Blue Room. When Lyndon B. Johnson walked in, the band always played “The Eyes of Texas are Upon You.”

A long list of entertainers who played the Blue Room includes Aretha Franklin, Pearl Bailey, Peggy Lee, Benny Goodman, Bob Newhart, Tony Bennett, Pam Bricker, Bob Hope, Eartha Kitt and Judy Garland. Liza Minnelli also made her debut at the Blue Room. Like mother, like daughter.

Beatlemania Begins

While plenty of stars played the Blue Room, others stayed upstairs. In 1964, the Beatles were known across the U.S. but they hadn’t played a concert on American soil yet. That was about to change. Their first concert was scheduled for February 11, 1964 in Washington D.C and they were staying at the Shoreham Hotel.

The band was booked into room 625, which is today a Presidential Suite. According to Roche-Garland, “the hotel was thronged with thousands of fans staking out all areas of the hotel and on Calvert.” Guards were stationed on the entire sixth floor. The General Manager of the hotel at the time was Phil Hollywood. As Hollywood told the Washington Post in 1990, “They made quite a scene. They were such nice men. Brian Epstein, their discoverer, and manager was easy enough to deal with. Still, we had problems – worst of all was getting them in and out of the hotel.”

How did they manage? The hotel sent a limousine to one end of the building as a decoy. Then, they brought the tour bus to the other end of the building. The Beatles left through an unused ballroom, “much to their fans’ deep disappointment!,” says Roche-Garland. “We have an original playlist for their tour written on the hotel’s stationery on display in our lobby.”

Swimming with the SEALs

On November 18, 1942, a group of men gathered at the pool at the Shoreham Hotel. They weren’t there for a leisurely swim: they were there to change the course of military history.

They came to see a demonstration of a new device that would let its wearer breathe underwater. The demonstration was led by Jack Taylor, a former Hollywood dentist who left his job to join the U.S. Navy in WWII. He was recruited to join the secretive Office of Strategic Services (OSS) later on.

He put on the Lambertsen Amphibious Respiratory Unit (LARU), a piece of underwater breathing equipment that would pave the way for SCUBA, and started swimming.

The LARU would be used in underwater military operations. The technology allowed the American military to create a commando unit that would do sea, air and land operations: the Navy SEALS. Taylor swam many laps back and forth in the Shoreham pool without creating any bubbles. (Bubbles would give up the position of the diver to the Axis powers.) The successful experiment led to the creation of one of the most elite military units: the Navy SEALs.

 The Omni Shoreham Hotel Today

Since 1980, Omni has managed the historic hotel. There are 834 guest rooms, 24 meeting rooms and 11 acres of grounds. There are now two swimming pools instead of one, as well as a luxurious spa.

What brings their success? “Our incredible team of associates keep the history alive every day of the year. We recently celebrated three associates with over 50 years’ service each. We have an incredibly loyal team who take great pride in recounting their own stories over the years of the many things that have taken place at Omni Shoreham Hotel.” 

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