Samuel Blodget's Hotel

Blodget's Hotel. Library of Congress.

Blodget's Hotel once stood on the block bounded by E and F, 7th and 8th Streets NW, now occupied by the old General Post Office building that was converted into the Hotel Monaco in 2002.  The original hotel was built on the "F Street Ridge," the high ground above Pennsylvania Avenue that served as the main route between the White House and the Capitol building at the time, as Pennsylvania Avenue was prone to seasonal flooding from the Tiber River.  Construction of the hotel began in 1793, but was not completed until 1810 when the federal government purchased it to house the Patent and Post Offices.  It was destroyed by fire in 1836.

Blodget's Hotel as it appeared when completed in 1810.  Rendering by Stephen A. Hansen

Samuel Blodget Jr, circa 1784.  Portrait by John Trumbull.
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Samuel Blodget Jr. was a native of New Hampshire and a Revolutionary War officer, who had made a fortune in the East India trade and hoped to increase it in Washington real estate.  Blodget sold George Washington and the city commissioners on the idea of a lottery to attract investors to the fledgling city.   He proposed a lottery scheme to sell fifty thousand tickets at $7 apiece, with a top cash prize of $25,000, and a grand prize of “1 superb hotel with baths, out houses, etc. to cost $50,000.”  With a planned frontage of 120 feet, it would far exceed the size of any building at the time in America and would be the largest privately-owned building in Washington.

Blodget's Hotel - south face.  Rendering by Stephen A. Hansen

James Hoban, the architect of the White House, won the competition to design the hotel, further increasing its attractiveness as the big lottery prize.  Hoban’s design, very similar in proportions and detailing to several other of his buildings at that time (see Similar Hoban Designed Buildings, below), was for a three story building, one hundred and twenty feet long, and sixty feet wide, ornamented with a pediment, and six Ionic pilasters on the north and south faces of the building.

Lottery ticket for the Blodget's Hotel raffle

Blodget’s lottery scheme was a complete failure.  Ticket sales did not meet expectation and many thought Blodget was postponing the drawing to continue selling more tickets.  When the drawing actually occurred and someone finally won the $25,000 prize, Blodget had only $4,000 on hand to pay out.

In 1793, a reported 1,500 people attended the ground breaking for the construction of the hotel, more than four times the population of the city at the time. But the groundbreaking was mostly for show. Blodget did not have the resources to finish the construction of the hotel, and for several years the “Grand Hotel” stood only as an empty shell.  In 1796, the Washington Gazette printed a comment by a stage coach passenger: “In riding through your city this morning, my eye was struck at a great distance with the word “HOTEL” inscribed in red letters upon the front of magnificent building, half finished.”

Washington, D.C., ca. 1803, showing a pastoral view of Washington with the President's House, Gales' House, and Blodget's Hotel to the right.  Library of Congress.
That same year, Isaac Weld, an English traveler who was visiting Washington City noted that the “the public buildings so far are the President’s House, the Capitol, and a large Hotel, the latter being a large brick building ornamented with free-stone and stands between the other two.”

In 1800, the still unfinished hotel opened as the United States Theater, the first theater in the new capital. The floors were temporarily laid with rough boards and with rough boards serving as benches for seating. In Early Recollections of Washington City, Christian Hines recalled that as a boy, he and others would sneak into the building through the basement rooms, hoist themselves up on a bench and remove one of the temporary floor boards in order to secretly watch the play.  He also recalled that several of the basement rooms at the time were occupied by the families of Irish laborers. 
In 1810, Congress authorized the purchase of the still unfinished hotel to house the Post and Patent offices. The patent office was relocated from the upper floors of the old War Department building to two large and two small rooms in the west wing of the second floor of the hotel.  The General Post Office occupied the first floor of the building, and the city post office was located in the basement.

In August of 1814, former Architect of the Capital and then Superintendent of Patents Dr. William Thornton, arguing that the models in the patent office were private property, convinced the invading British troops not to burn the building and leave it standing after which they went onto burn the rest of the city. As a result, the Patent Office was the only Government building in Washington left untorched by the British. 

The next month, with the Capitol building in ruins, President Madison arranged for Congress to temporarily convene in Blodget’s Hotel.  It was not until December of the following year that Congress moved to a new temporary building, referred to as the “Brick Capitol,” on the site of today's Supreme Court Building where they were to stay for another four years. In 1829, the Patent Office moved into a newly constructed addition to the building that faced Seventh Street.

In December 1836, a servant accidentally dumped hot fireplace ashes into a wooden refuse box, setting the building on fire. It burned to the ground, destroying thousands of patent models and records.  At the time, the fire department was located very near the building, but the fire hose was sixteen years old and in such bad shape that it was useless, but no one found out until they had to use it the night of the fire. 

Similar James Hoban Designed Buildings

Charleston County Courthouse, Charleston, SC (1790-92)
Old Treasury Building (1801)

Copyright Notice: Copyright © 2012  Stephen A. Hansen. All Rights Reserved.