The Washington Marriott Wardman Park is set on 16 leafy acres in Woodley Park, an exclusive neighborhood. When the hotel opened in 1918, however, Washingtonians called the venture “Wardman’s Folly.” It was considered to be far out in the countryside. In fact, the hotel is only two miles from the White House.
A folly it was not. The hotel has lasted more
than 100 years. In honor of its centennial in 2018, the Washington Marriott
Wardman Park put out a press release in search of “lost items” that made it out
of the hotel over the years. They weren’t in search of the memorabilia, really.
They were looking for the stories that went along with it.
Bill Walsh, the General Manager at the Washington Marriott Wardman Park, told Storied Hotels that they received hotel matchbooks, heavy wooden hangers and ashtrays marked with the former logo. Former guests mailed in programs from inaugural balls and big society events. Perhaps the most interesting item came from a couple who spent their wedding night at the hotel in 1944. “They sent us their room folio where the room rate was $5 and they spent $3.60 on food and beverage. We got a good chuckle out of it,” Walsh said, “but it was obviously a special night for that couple.”
Walsh told us, “It’s nice to see that people remember
the hotel so fondly. It really brings the history to life.” Here’s a look back
at some of that history.
Harry Wardman started out as a stowaway. In
1889, the 17-year-old boarded a ship in England hoping to land in Australia.
Instead, the ship dropped him off in New York with just seven shillings to his
name. And so began his journey.
Wardman worked at a dry goods shop in
Philadelphia until he found an apprenticeship in the construction business.
Soon after, he decided to move to Washington and began working as a carpenter
and, eventually, a builder. He went on to build over 5,000 houses and 400
apartment buildings in the Washington, DC area. According to reports, one in
ten Washingtonians lived in a “Wardman” at the time of his death in 1938.
He also built hotels, including the Hay Adams
and the St Regis. His first hotel, however, was the Wardman Park Hotel. At the
time of its opening, it was the grandest and largest hotel in the city. In
addition to the 1,200 guest rooms, the hotel was a grand ballroom, a Turkish
bath, a billiards room and much more.
While it was undeniably impressive, some
Washingtonians nicknamed the hotel “Wardman’s Folly.” At the time, the location
was considered to be far out in the country. We hardly see it that way today –
the hotel is located just two miles from the White House.
Wardman Park Hotel opened on November 23,
1918, just days after the end of the Great War. Despite its location, the hotel
was hugely successful. The city had expanded greatly during World War I and was
experiencing a housing shortage.
In these early days, a young writer got a job
as a busboy at the hotel. Langston Hughes had been working as a personal
assistant to historian Carter G. Woodson at the Association for the Study of
African American Life and History, but found the job was cutting into his
writing time. He decided to leave the position to become a busboy at the
Wardman Park Hotel.
In around 1925, Hughes encountered the poet Vachel Lindsay at the restaurant. Hughes showed Lindsay some of his work. Very impressed, Lindsay claimed that he had discovered a new “busboy poet.”
In 2018, the hotel held an event on Langston
Hughes’ birthday in honor of the hotel’s centennial. Arranged in collaboration
with the Busboys and Poets organization in DC, the event featured readings of
Hughes’ poetry. To cap it off, they named a two-bedroom presidential suite in
Langston Hughes’ honor.
General Manager Brian Walsh told Storied Hotels that he plans to hold the event for years to come. “It’s a wonderful celebration of a young man who had a great career and got his start here at Wardman Park.”
In 1928, Wardman’s wife and daughter went on
holiday to Europe. While they were overseas, he dismantled the family home and
built the Wardman Tower in its place. How they felt about the surprise upon
their return is a mystery.
Today, the Wardman Tower is the only part of
the original hotel that remains. It’s listed on the National Register of
Historic Places. The eight-story tower was designed by architect Mihran
Mesrobian, a close colleague of Wardman’s. Mesrobian was an Armenian-American
architect who served as the palace architect to the last Ottoman Sultan before
moving to the United States.
The now-iconic building used red brick to
match the existing Wardman Park Hotel. Mesrobian designed the tower so that 90%
of the rooms have direct sunlight at some point in the day. Many of the rooms
offer beautiful views over Washington.
In 1931, in the throes of the Great
Depression, Wardman was forced to sell his hotel to Washington Properties.
Thankfully, the story doesn’t end there.
Park During World War II
During WWII, when General Dwight Eisenhower
was the top general in Europe, he would make top-secret trips back to
Washington to meet with President Franklin D. Roosevelt. After his briefings,
he would often sneak up the back stairs at the Wardman Tower to see his wife.
Ike wasn’t the only one sneaking around the
hotel during WWII. Just before the United States joined the war. A British Spy
Elizabeth “Betty” Thorpe, code named “Cynthia,” used the hotel
as a base for her surveillance on the French Vichy Embassy. During her time at
the hotel, she gained access to top secret information. Her espionage would
change the course of the war.
Thorpe’s mission was to find the Nazi
ciphers that were hidden in a safe in the Vichy French embassy. She convinced
an employee of the French embassy, who she made her lover, to help. First, she
and her lover, Brousse, made friends with the watchman. They told him they
needed a place for their late-night trysts because Brousse was married and
Thorpe lived with her mother. With the help of a hefty bribe, he agreed to let
them use the embassy in the evenings.
They spent weeks meeting up at the embassy at
night to set up the appearance of normalcy. One night, they invited the
watchman for a glass of celebratory Champagne and slipped him some sleeping
pills. They brought in a code-cracker who figured out the code to the safe. But
time was running short. They couldn’t take the books, copy them and return them
before the cleaners arrived. They would have to try again another night.
Soon thereafter, they waited until the
watchman was out of sight, cracked the safe and took the ciphers, as big as
dictionaries. An accomplice brought them back to apartment 215B at the Wardman
Park to photocopy them while the couple stayed at the embassy. By 4:00am, the
accomplice was to deliver the books so they could return them before the
It was 4:30am and he still wasn’t there
arrived. Thorpe chain-smoked cigarettes and stared out the window, afraid that
the Vichy officers would swoop in at any moment. Finally, at 4:40am, the
accomplice returned with the books. She ran back to the office and replaced
them in the safe. Before she locked it, she kissed the books.
The plan was a success. The codes were the
final piece that the Enigma team needed to crack the Vichy code. The Allies
used this knowledge to land in North Africa, where they were met little enemy
resistance. She had changed the course of the war.
Over the years, the lavish residences would be
a home to many of Washington’s political elite. President Dwight Eisenhower and
his wife Mamie Eisenhower were early residents. President Lyndon B. Johnson
stayed for about 45 days during his Vice Presidency. Other residents included
President Herbert Hoover, Vice President Spiro Agnew, Vice President Charles
Curtis, Senator Bob Dole, Senator Barry Goldwater and Secretary of State
Cordell Hull. In 1967, Justice Thurgood Marshall stayed at the hotel during his
From Herbert Hoover to George W. Bush, all the
presidents except one held an inaugural ball at the Wardman Park Hotel. The
only president who didn’t was Gerald Ford. In fact, Gerald Ford didn’t have an
inaugural ball or an inaugural address. As he was inaugurated after Richard
Nixon resigned, it wasn’t considered an appropriate time for a party.
Hostess with the Mostess
Presidents didn’t only come to the Wardman
Park Hotel for inaugural balls – they also came for parties. The most
infamous parties in the building happened at Perle Mesta’s residence. The
legendary socialite lived in the Wardman Tower for 25 years. Known as
Washington’s “Hostess with the Mostess,” Perle held lavish parties at the
Wardman Tower that were frequented by Washington elite. Presidents Calvin
Coolidge to Gerald Ford were guests.
“She certainly was a character with a flare for entertaining,” Bill Walsh told us. “She took the social scene in Washington to another level.” As for the presidents, Walsh said “They obviously heightened the popularity (and notoriety) of her events.” He continued, “I’m sure a lot of the stories that happened up there, maybe people didn’t want to get out.”
Later on, her parties moved overseas. President Harry Truman appointed her as U.S. Minister to Luxembourg. Interestingly enough, Perle Mesta was the inspiration for the lead character in Irving Berlin’s 1950 Broadway musical, Call Me Madam. The play was about a wealthy socialite who became ambassador to a fictional country of Lichtenburg despite her questionable qualifications.
The hotel plays a role in television history,
too. The first broadcast of NBC’s Meet
the Press was filmed at the theater in Wardman Tower. The moderator of the
show, Lawrence Spivak, was a resident of the Wardman Tower for over 49 years.
Other television shows filmed at the tower
include segments from Today Show, The Camel News Caravan and The Arthur Murray Dance Program.The Muppets also got their start at the
Willard Scott, an iconic personality on the Today Show remembers picking food off of
the buffet tables when he worked as an NBC page. Willard Scott went back to the
Wardman Park to broadcast the Today Show
for the hotel’s 75th anniversary.
In 1953, Washington Properties sold the hotel
to Sheraton, who renamed it the Sheraton-Park Hotel. At this time, the hotel
was transformed from a residential property into a hotel. Extensive convention
space was added.
In the 1970s, the owners decided that the original 1918 building was too outdated to work with. They decided to build a modern hotel. When the new building opened in 1980, they demolished the original hotel. When Marriott took over in 1998, the owners spent an additional $100 million on renovation.
Today, more change is underfoot. A number of
the suites in the Wardman Tower are being converted into luxury condos, like
they were in the old days. However, the hotel still maintains about 40 rooms in
the historic tower, including several several specialty suites.
While updates are happening, the hotel’s spirit remains. Walsh tells us, “We’re a big hotel – we have 16 acres. Yet, in this big building there’s a sense of real old world charm. It’s not just the charm of the physical brick and mortar of the building, but the location that we sit in. It’s an oasis in the city of Washington where you don’t have to open your door and be right in the middle of rush hour traffic. Whether they’re enjoying Washington on personal business or for meetings or conventions, the entire atmosphere just oozes charm.”