Washington Marriott Wardman Park: Tales from a Presidential Residence Full of WW II and TV History

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.

Wardman’s Folly

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. 

The Busboy Poet

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.”

A Wardman Family Surprise

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.

Wardman 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 named Amy 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 cleaners arrived.

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.

A Presidential Residence

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 confirmation hearings.

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.

The 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.

Television History

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 Wardman Tower.

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.

Wardman Park Hotel Today

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.”

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