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What Once Was

What Ultimately Happened to William Tunnicliff’s Two Hotels? — Part 2

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By Stephen A. Hansen*

In May of 1799, William Tunnicliff announced that his large and commodious new hotel 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, across from the north wing of the rising Capitol Building. Tunnicliff had purchased the lots from Capitol Hill proprietor and developer Daniel Carroll of Duddington who once owned all of the land on which the Capitol now sits. Carroll kept the lot on the very corner of First and A Streets for himself, and it remained vacant for the next 15 years.

Circa 1850 view of Daniel Carroll’s Duddington estate that stood at New Jersey and Independence Avenues, SE.  photo -- Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Circa 1850 view of Daniel Carroll’s Duddington estate that stood at New Jersey and Independence Avenues, SE. photo — Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Tunnicliff’s new hotel was built of red brick with the front facing on A Street ornamented with molded free stone from the same quarries that supplied the material used for the White House and the older parts of the Capitol. It also had extensive stables in the rear to accommodate coaches and teams arriving daily from Baltimore.
During a visit to Washington in the summer of 1800 and before the unfinished White House was yet inhabitable, President John Adams stayed at Tunnicliff’s new hotel. Later that year, Secretary of State John Marshall, shortly to become fourth Chief Justice of the United States, resided at the hotel as well.

New research by the author has determined that photographs of the Brick Capitol (later the old Capitol Prison) include images of Tunnicliff’s Washington City Hotel as well, long thought razed, appearing as an annex to the larger building facing on First Street, NE. (See Brady photograph here.)

Matthew Brady 1850’s photograph of the old Brick Capitol, then being used as a school.  Tunnicliff’s  Washington City Hotel stands to the left, behind the main building.  photo -- National Archives.

Matthew Brady 1850’s photograph of the old Brick Capitol, then being used as a school. Tunnicliff’s Washington City Hotel stands to the left, behind the main building. photo — National Archives.

In August, 1804, Tunnicliff’s wife died and only a few days later, he and his partner George Walker sold the hotel to Pontius Stelle, who had arrived in Washington in 1799 from Trenton, New Jersey. Upon his arrival in Washington, Stelle had established a small boarding house on New Jersey Avenue. With the sale of the hotel to Stelle, Tunnicliff drops out of history, and no one knows what happened to him.

Stelle was no sooner settled in Tunnicliff’s hotel, for which he was mortgaged to Tunnicliff, when his sights fell upon a hotel building that was part of the splendid new set of row houses on the adjoining square to the south that Daniel Carroll was building, which became known as “Carroll’s Row.”

Detail from Brady’s photograph of the old Brick Capitol showing Tunnicliff’s Washington City Hotel. photo -- National Archives.

Detail from Brady’s photograph of the old Brick Capitol showing Tunnicliff’s Washington City Hotel. photo — National Archives.

Stelle leased Carroll’s hotel — the large end building in the row to the north — in 1805 and established “Stelle’s Hotel and City Tavern,” known simply as “Stelle’s.” He then started advertising to rent out his old hotel on A Street, but it would stand vacant for the next five years.

Stelle had a reputation as a grand hotelier. His hotels were of the highest order in accommodations and class of guests, and were run on the most extravagant scale, with no expense spared to make them models of comfort and luxury according to the fashions of the day. Yet, he would often not accept payment from many of his favorite guests, preferring their company over a paid hotel bill, which undoubtedly contributed to his financial failure in the hotel business.

Stelle’s Hotel and City Tavern lasted only four years in Carroll Row. In 1809 Robert Long took over Carroll’s hotel building, but gave up the lease after only one year. Best known for Long’s Hotel, in its short life it was the site of many festive occasions, including President Madison’s 1809 inaugural ball that was also attended by ex-President Thomas Jefferson and all the foreign ministers to Washington. The ball was described as the “the most brilliant and crowded ever known in Washington.” An attendee described the guests as a “moving mass” that crowded into the ballroom and broke an upper window sash for ventilation when the air became oppressive.”

Carroll's Row.  The building to the left served as home to Pontius Stelle and Robert Long's hotel.  photo—author’s collection.

Carroll’s Row. The building to the left served as home to Pontius Stelle and Robert Long’s hotel. photo—author’s collection.

Five years had passed and Stelle was still trying to unload the old Tunnicliff hotel, and in 1811 he finally found a buyer. Unfortunately, due to a complication with the mortgage his attempt to sell the building ended up in a lawsuit with the buyer. The court found in the buyer’s favor, but Stelle was finally free of the hotel. At this point in time, Stelle was done with the hotel business himself and accepted a position in the office of the Comptroller of the Currency in the Treasury Department, a position he held up to the time of his death in 1826.

Part 3, next month’s installment will tell of Tunnicliff’s former Washington City Hotel becoming part of the temporary U.S. Capitol ,as well as a Civil War prison.

*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.