A New-Old Grand Hotel for Washington

Today the GSA has announced that it is seeking bids for rehabilitation of the Old Post Office Pavilion, one of the landmarks of downtown Washington, D.C. Even if you have not visited the Nation’s Capital, gentle reader, from television and photographs of Pennsylvania Avenue you are probably familiar with the 270-foot tall tower of the Old Post Office, a very grand building designed by architect Willoughby Edbrooke and built between 1892 and 1899. Because of the height restrictions imposed on buildings in the city subsequent to the Height of Buildings Act in 1899, it remained the tallest building in the city until the completion of the campanile of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in 1960. It has survived several attempts at demolition, and repeatedly foiled the attempts of developers to find a good use for it; now it seems the government wants to try again.

This structure, with its castle-like appearance reminding one somewhat of the architectural fantasies of Ludwig II of Bavaria, rises high above the avenue and provides a spectacular view of the city from its observation platform. It was built in what is called a “Richardsonian Romanesque” style, named after Henry Hobson Richardson, who designed the enormous Trinity Church in Boston and the gigantic, creepy State Asylum for the Insane in Buffalo, New York, using reinterpretations of elements from the Romanesque period of European architecture. Richardson’s work also had a significant influence on the great Louis Sullivan, who developed his own Romanesque Revival style, and helped to form the early work and later development of Frank Lloyd Wright.

Edbrooke practiced for a significant period of his career with architect Franklin Pierce Burnham, one of the leading designers of the legendary Columbian Exposition complex in Chicago, and they collaborated on the beautiful Georgia State Capitol Building. Edbrooke also helped design a number of the iconic buildings on the old quad of the University of Notre Dame (my law school alma mater), including the main administration building with its famous “Golden Dome”. He went on to build numerous government buildings in this rather grand style, including post offices, court houses, and office buildings.

However by the time the construction of the Old Post Office was underway, the aforementioned Columbian Exposition of 1893, with its stunning “White City” of gleaming classical buildings, had struck a popular nerve. The ushering in of the Beaux-Arts period, which had a profound impact on the look of many American and European cities from government buildings to museums to train stations, meant that the Old Post Office was architecturally out of fashion even before it was finished. It was, to many eyes, a white elephant that continued to grow on Washington’s most prominent Avenue despite the fact that many wanted construction to be stopped and the project sent back to the drawing board.

The building ceased to function as a Post Office nearly a century ago, and since then has served a variety of functions while ducking the wrecking ball. Fortunately for fans of the building, such as yours truly, it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973, meaning that it cannot now be voluntarily torn down. It stands as an interesting, colorful counterpoint to the mostly classical and modernist buildings which line this section of the Avenue today.

In its most recent rehabilitation, office space was installed along with a food court and retail area in the central atrium, but this has never proven to be a successful space. Visitors on a weekend, including those well-disposed toward liking the building such as myself, will often find the place somewhat depressing. Finding a new use for the space is not going to be easy, but I would suggest that the building itself suggests what would be a perfect use for it: a grand hotel, possibly combined with residential apartments or condominiums.

City officials hereabouts are always complaining that new hotels need to be built, and that there is a dearth of hotel space in the center of town capable of holding large numbers of people, despite the significant number of political and trade conventions which meet in Washington on a regular basis. This has resulted in enormous hotels being built in the surrounding suburbs, such as in Arlington, Virginia, and the city fathers would like to see these tourist funds spent in the District rather than elsewhere. Unfortunately, most of the time when the city tries to green-light a new hotel project, it is to build yet another unremarkable glass and concrete blob, indistinguishable from any other K Street office block.

There are virtually no old, grand hotels in the Victorian-Edwardian style left in Washington. Most of those that did exist were torn down in the days before historic preservation became the law of the land. Probably the only survivor is The Willard Inter-Continental, a Beaux-Arts hotel built in 1901 on the site of the older Willard Hotel, which was first founded in 1816 and stands just a couple of blocks away from the Old Post Office. Later grand hotels such as The Mayflower, Hay-Adams, Wardman Park, St. Regis, and The Shoreham, built roughly around the time of the jazz age and grand in their way, do not provide the same level of spectacular architectural space that was expected at the turn of the 19th century.

The size, location, and style of the Old Post Office would lend beautifully to the creation of an impressive hotel in what is certainly among the most central locations both a hotelier and a hotel guest could wish for. It is an easy walk to all of the museums and monuments of the National Mall, stands right along the parade route for the Presidential Inaguration, and is but a short stroll to the White House and federal office buildings and courthouses, along with dozens of restuarants, bars, shops, and so on, which have all come to be built in recent years due to the very impressive urban renewal of Washington’s urban core. Given the gigantic size of the place, of course, this would not be a small or easy task to undertake, but I would argue that the rewards would be obvious: tourists would want to stay in a building such as this, given its location, if the interior and accommodations of the structure were brought up to a high standard.

It would be very easy to argue that establishing hotel space in this outmoded form of architecture is a waste of time, and that guests nowadays want to stay in boxes with nondescript po-mo furniture, which is generally what is being built anymore. In response, I would point to the example of the rehabilitation of the spectacular old Victorian-era Midlands Hotel at St. Pancras in London and say, “Explain this.” The building was brought back to life by recognizing that these old, so-called white elephants have a lot of potential, if they are looked at with a sympathetic eye.

Not everyone wants to stay in – or indeed live in – a space that is so blandly international in style that it could just as easily be found in Stockholm, Sausalito, or Saigon. Creating a hotel out of this amazing structure would allow more visitors to enjoy it, while at the same time generating increased revenue for the city. From weddings to charity and inaugural balls to conventions, the events held here would bring new life into this beautiful building.

The Old Post Office and Pennsylvania Avenue at night,
looking towards the Capitol Building.
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