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What Once Was

What Ultimately Happened to William Tunnicliff’s Two Hotels? – Part 1

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By Stephen A. Hansen*

William Tunnicliff’s two establishments in early Washington are often mistakenly referred to as taverns. This is likely due to the fact that his first establishment on Pennsylvania Avenue served as a beer garden in the late 19th century. Perpetuating this misnomer, the modern-day restaurant across from Eastern Market on Capitol Hill, Tunnicliff’s Tavern, named after the earlier establishment, stands several blocks away from its historic namesake on the north of Pennsylvania Avenue.

Tunnicliff’s Eastern Branch Hotel sometime prior to 1904, then serving as a beer garden featuring the beer of Washington-based brewer E. Hofmann. photo--Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Tunnicliff’s Eastern Branch Hotel sometime prior to 1904, then serving as a beer garden featuring the beer of Washington-based brewer E. Hofmann. photo–Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

In 1795, real estate developer John Nicholson sold two lots just to the south of Pennsylvania Avenue between 8th and 9th Streets, SE to John Ashley. The sale included a 36-foot-square brick house with outbuildings. But who constructed the house, and when, is not known. It may have been one of the houses built by Nicholson to promote the sale of lots in the new capital city. The building may have also been constructed prior to 1791, predating L’Enfant’s plan for the city and its locations of streets, as the house originally faced south and fronted on what was to become an alley that divided the square, and the house’s entrance was later moved to 9th Street.

In October of 1796, William Tunnicliff, an Englishman by birth, opened the Eastern Branch Hotel in the house on Pennsylvania Avenue. Tunnicliff had acted as the attorney for the sale of the property to Ashley in Philadelphia the year before, and it appears that he negotiated a lease with Ashley to use the property for a hotel.

Tunnicliff’s Eastern Branch Hotel quickly became Washington’s most prominent hotel, although prior to 1800 there were only six hotels in the city. The Washington Dancing Assembly used the hotel for its first ball in December 1796, which may have been the first ball ever held in the city.

In addition to providing lodgings at the hotel, Tunnicliff capitalized on some of the other needs of travelers. In 1797, The Washington Gazette ran Tunnicliff’s advertisement of shirts, drawers, stockings, etc., for sale at the hotel.

With the seat of the federal government ready to remove to Washington from Philadelphia in 1800 and with accommodations soon to be at a premium, Tunnicliff realized that his hotel was a bit too far out of the way to take advantage of the needs of government staff who would be seeking housing. Also, the new post road through the city ran just to the north of the Capitol building along Maryland Avenue and then along F Street west towards Georgetown, shifting traffic coming into Washington away from Pennsylvania Avenue. It was probably for these reasons — along with a loan and encouragement from George Washington — that led Tunnicliff and business partner George Walker to open a hotel closer to the Capitol building.

In May of 1799, Tunnicliff announced that his large and commodious new house near the Capitol, the Washington City Hotel (often referred to as just “Tunnicliff’s”), was complete and ready for guests. This building stood on lots on First Street and what was then the 100 block of A Street, NE and immediately to the east of the north wing of the rising Capitol building — now the site of the Supreme Court.

Circa 1929 view two years before the old Eastern Branch Hotel building was razed. photo--DC Public Library, Washingtoniana Division.

Circa 1929 view two years before the old Eastern Branch Hotel building was razed. photo–DC Public Library, Washingtoniana Division.

The old building on Pennsylvania Avenue that housed the Eastern Branch Hotel changed hands multiple times after it was vacated by Tunnicliff. At this point, it probably ceased being used as a hotel; there were only four rooms on the second floor, and much larger hotels were now available. In 1803, John Ashley sold the property to John Travers of Philadelphia. In 1808, it was bought by Josiah Fox, a naval architect working at the Navy Yard. In 1813 it passed to William Morgan of Georgetown.

From an 1845 daguerreotype of William Easby, his wife Agnes and daughter Wilhelmina. image--Evening Star newspaper.

From an 1845 daguerreotype of William Easby, his wife Agnes and daughter Wilhelmina. image–Evening Star newspaper.

In 1821, Yorkshire, England-born Capt. William Easby, a master shipbuilder at the nearby Navy Yard, bought the house at a public sale. Easby improved the grounds and named it “Warwick.” The family lived there for several years before moving to Easby’s Point (near where the Kennedy Center stands today), where he established a shipyard and set up lime kilns in Foggy Bottom, and rented the house to William Doughty, another employee at the Navy Yard. Easby returned to the house in 1848, remodeled it and erected stables and a carriage house. He ended up acquiring the whole square and landscaped it to serve as the lawns and gardens around the house.

G.M.  Hopkins 1887 Real Estate map. By this time, the block was nearly fully developed except for the lots still occupied by the hotel (lots 10, 11, and 12).

G.M. Hopkins 1887 Real Estate map. By this time, the block was nearly fully developed except for the lots still occupied by the hotel (lots 10, 11, and 12).

Captain Easby died in 1854, and his wife Agnes continued to live in the house until her death in 1878. Easby’s son, Captain Horatio Easby, then acquired the house, but had no desire to live in there. He sold the house and the entire square that was then quickly developed in the 1880s.

The house subsequently became a restaurant/saloon and boarding house, an auto garage, and a storage house. It was finally raised in 1931 to make way for a gasoline station. A gas station still stands on the site today.

The site of Tunnicliff's Eastern Branch Hotel today. photo--Google Street View.

The site of Tunnicliff’s Eastern Branch Hotel today. photo–Google Street View.

Part 2, next month’s installment of the history of Tunnicliff’s venture into the hotel business, will tell the story of Tunnicliff’s Washington City Hotel.

*Stephen A. Hansen is an historic preservation specialist, Washington DC historian, author of several books and of the Virtual Architectural Archaeology blog.

© 2015 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Stephen A. Hansen. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part, including for commercial purposes, without permission is prohibited.