Downtown Washington, DC bustled in 1914. Elegant new office buildings rose amidst the 19th century theaters, shops, saloons, and newspaper offices. Nine department stores drew crowds of shoppers. A few blocks away, Washingtonians and increasing legions of tourists marveled at the wonders displayed in the Smithsonian's recently opened Natural History Museum.
Harrington Mills, a hotelier, spotted an opportunity. He and business partner Charles W. McCutchen built a hotel that met "popular one-room-and-bath-demand," an unusual concept at the time, as described by the Washington Post. They set aside special "sample rooms" for traveling salesmen to show their wares to buyers from nearby stores.
Mills and McCutchen officially opened their Hotel Harrington, at 11th and E Streets, NW, on March 1, 1914.
Designed by the architectural firm Rich & FitzSimons, the six-story hotel boasted a dining room and two-story lobby with a mezzanine, all finished in marble. Upstairs, mahogany-trimmed hallways led to 80 rooms, all with running water and most with private baths.
The hotel proved so successful that in 1918 Mills and McCutchen doubled the size of the lobby and built a 12-story annex along E Street, containing a two-story ballroom and 100 additional rooms. The Harrington now ranked among the city's largest hotels. A final expansion in 1925, a 12-story wing with another 125 rooms, filled in the rest of the E Street block to 12th Street.
In 1932 the hotel installed Art Deco embellishments, including the stainless steel canopy, with back-lit letters, over the front entrance. Always innovative, the Harrington in 1938 became DC's first air-conditioned hotel. Late 1940s modernization resulted in reduced ceiling heights in the ballroom and lobby, and modern finishes and furnishings throughout the building.
The hotel has provided a comfortable home-away-from-home for its guests—more than 10 million of them over the years—as well as for its employees. Tenures spanning several decades are not uncommon, and many staff members have spent most of their careers with the Harrington.
The 1934 end of Prohibition brought renewed excitement to downtown DC. At the Harrington it took the form of the Pink Elephant Cocktail Lounge, touted by a nightlife critic as just the place for a "cozy tete-a-tete," and featuring cocktails that "hit the spot." As war loomed in the late 1930s, the Pink Elephant was replaced by the more dignified Harrington Tavern, but in the early 1950s the Pink Elephant returned with the latest in modern decor, including spacious red circular booths.
The Harrington's elegant white-tablecloth dining room had been a popular spot for meetings of the Washington Board of Trade and many other civic and professional groups through the 1930s. Huge increases to DC's downtown workforce during World War II, and a faster pace of life afterwards, led the Harrington to convert the dining room to the self-service Kitcheteria. A favorite of tourists and office workers alike, the Kitcheteria served more than 1 million meals annually during its 1948-1991 run.
Ollie's Trolley opened at the hotel's 12th Street corner in 1989, succeeding the Beefe ‘n' Rolle and the mid-1960s' Queen Bess Coffee Shop. Harry's pub opened in the former Pink Elephant Lounge in 1993, followed by Harriet's Family Restaurant in 2005, in the former Kitcheteria.
A skyscraper by DC standards, the Harrington was the ideal location for the city's first television station and transmission tower. DuMont Corporation's W3XWT (soon renamed WTTG-TV and now known as Fox Channel 5) set up shop on the upper floors and in 1946 began broadcasting about 20 hours of programming a week. The popular and pioneering Milt Grant Show, a daily dance party featuring local teenagers and a virtual Who's Who of national stars, was transmitted live from the WTTG studios between 1956 and 1961.
A radio station found a home in the Harrington as well. In 1953 Washington's "Good Music Station," WGMS-AM and FM, moved into what a reporter described as "new and more sumptuous quarters" in the hotel. The station offered Washingtonians the finest in classical music, including live concert broadcasts of the Library of Congress chamber series, National Gallery of Art Orchestra, and National Symphony.
WTTG moved to upper Northwest DC in 1962, and WGMS followed in 1965.
In 2014, as the Hotel Harrington celebrates its 100th anniversary, it continues to welcome travelers and school groups, many with loyalty dating back decades, from around the globe. The oldest continuously operating hotel in the city, the Harrington remains a family business, in the hands of third-, fourth-, and fifth-generation descendants of the founders. Ann Terry, Managing Director since 1986, looks forward to taking the Hotel Harrington into its second 100-year run as "Washington DC's Tourist Hotel."