Monday, August 24, 2009

You too can sleep like a President, at the Hay Adams hotel

Looking for a place to stay in DC? The Hay Adams hotel, directly across Lafayette Square from the White House, is one of the premier addresses in the Nation’s Capitol. The hotel is used today as a swanky site for weddings, a nice place to put up visiting diplomats, and was briefly the residence of the Obama's before the inauguration. Built in 1927 by famed DC developer Harry Wardman and his architect Mihran Mesrobian, the hotel actually sits on the site of two neighboring houses owned by statesmen John Hay and Henry Adams. (Hence – The Hay Adams hotel.)

The original Hay and Adam’s houses were commissioned by the two long time friends from famous American architect Henry Hobson Richardson, a former Harvard classmate of Adams. John Hay and Henry Adams had become close friends in 1880, and together with their wives, Marion ‘Clover’ Adams and Clara Hay, as well as their friend and director of the US Geological Survey, Clarence King, the group formed the so called ‘Five of Hearts’ club. The ‘Hearts’ were a literary society of sorts, and even went so far as to create and correspond on stationery with five playing card hearts across the top. The five were always involved in the political circle, writing anonymous political histories and satires, and in 1883 Adams convinced Hay that they should buy adjoining lots at 16th and H Streets facing Lafayette square.

Henry Hobson Richardson, who became famous for the “Richardson Romanesque” style of architecture he created, was well known for his heavy use of masonry, deep arches, steep pitched roofs, and turreted towers. In order to ensure that their homes took on characteristics of Richardson’s style without being too elaborate for a downtown DC neighborhood (Lafayette Square was entirely residential at the time) Adams, who was a good friend of Richardson’s asked that while the houses be unique, they should still remain generally within the confines of a plain square box with a flat roof. The final house cost $60,000 dollars to complete, and was, in form, a square brick building on the side of the lot at the center of H Street. The uniqueness came from some typically Richardsonian elements on the facade, including heavy arched entranceways, a beautiful arched central window at the third floor, and a series of nine small finial type windows at the fourth floor. So that the two facades would match along H Street, the houses were constructed with the same materials; red brick accented with Ohio buff sandstone around the doors and first floor windows.

Houses of John Hay and Henry Adams, circa 1884

After Adams death in 1918, his house was bought by Senator James Wadsworth and his wife Alice, who had acquired the Hay house after Clara Hay died in 1914. The Wadsworth’s leased the building to the Brazilian embassy, and in 1927 it was sold to DC developer Harry Wardman. Wardman was widely considered the most important real estate developer of the twenties, and he bought the property with intentions to raze the Richardson buildings and replace them with a Beaux Arts style apartment hotel. The city of Washington was going through an apartment house boom during the period of “Coolidge Prosperity” and the expansion of the federal government during preparations for World War I. Harry Wardman was at the forefront of this building craze, and during the 1910s and 20s he was responsible for building 4,000 houses, 12 office buildings, two clubs, two hospital annexes, two embassies, one parking garage, 400 apartment buildings, and eight hotels.

Wardman’s primary architect Mihran Mesrobian was a Turkish born architect who emigrated to American in 1921. Mesrobian had been trained in Turkey at the Academie des Beaux Arts in Istanbul, and he brought this classical building mentality to his work in Washington. Although apartment hotels at the time were favoring Tudor and Second Empire styles, as found with Washington’s famous Willard Hotel, Mesrobian felt that the Beaux Arts principles were well suited to D.C.’s tight lot sizes and height restrictions. Mesrobian also believed that the Beaux Arts association with the Italian Palazzo styles gave the residents a feeling of, “presiding in an elegant and stately building.”

Architect H.H. Richardson was himself trained at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, and because Richardson employed Beaux Arts methods in his design, there were aspects of the original Hay and Adams façades and interiors that Mesrobian was able to emulate in his own work. Some of the artistic iron grilles Richardson had used in the original exteriors were saved and then added to replicas used in flanking the hotel’s entrance. The entrance and curved driveway off of 16th street were built in imitation of Richardson’s original plans. The homes were also designed to have a heavily rusticated base on the façade, a technique typical of Beaux Arts design done in an imitation of Italian renaissance palazzos, and Mesrobian followed suit by rusticating the hotel façade at the street level. This method of deeply cutting and distressing the stone helped Mesrobian to give the illusion of walking alongside a renaissance palace, and also helped to bring back some of the memory of the original homes.

Photo source: Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians

Sources: O’Toole, Patricia, “What they had in common was wit and friendship” Smithsonian, 21(June 1990 pg. 132-138)

Mesrobian, Caroline Isabelle, A selection of the architectural oeuvre of Mihran Mesrobian, beaux arts architect Washington DC (New Orleans, Louisiana: Tulane University, 1978, 47-58

Goode, James M, Best Addresses: a century of Washington’s distinguished apartment houses(Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, c1988)

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