February/March 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 2
Rhodes Tavern in Washington, D.C., has seen it all, or almost all. Richard Squires, the building’s unofficial historian, tells us that its cornerstone was laid at Fifteenth and F streets near Pennsylvania Avenue in 1799, the year of George Washington’s death. The tavern was there when Thomas Jefferson took his lonely inaugural walk up the Avenue in 1801 to be sworn in as President, and it has been there for every inaugural parade since. In the spring of 1814, part of it became the Bank of the Metropolis—Washington’s second bank and soon to be its largest—and in the summer of that year the tavern became temporary headquarters for British invasion forces during the War of 1812. After putting the torch to the Capitol, the Treasury, and the Presidential Palace, Squires writes, “Admiral Sir George Cockburn rode into the main room of the tavern on a mule, and dismounting, introduced himself to the startled inn-keeper as ‘the much abused Cockburn, come to sup with you, madam.’”
President Andrew Jackson used the Bank of the Metropolis for the deposit of federal funds when squabbling with Nicholas Biddle and the Bank of the United States, and after the Metropolis moved out for larger quarters in 1836 its rooms in the tavern were taken over by the firm of Corcoran & Riggs, which became the most important financial link between Pennsylvania Avenue and Wall Street in the days when wheeling and dealing between New York and Washington changed the economic face of the nation. More than forty years later, Charles Guiteau strolled into a gun shop on the ground floor of the tavern and selected the elegant, pearl-handled pistol with which he assassinated President James A. Garfield in 1881.
From the administration of Thomas Jefferson to that of Woodrow Wilson, Rhodes Tavern was a place where Presidents, senators, congressmen, newspapermen, financiers, and more than four generations of power brokers rubbed elbows and ideas. Today, in keeping with the debased condition of much of Pennsylvania Avenue, it houses a newsstand, souvenir shop, fruit stand, coffee shop, and art-restoration laboratory, and its ancient brick Georgian façade has been slathered over with twentieth-century stucco. Still, it is the oldest continually operated commercial building in downtown Washington and the oldest building of any kind in the area of Pennsylvania Avenue between the Capitol and the White House; it has earned its entry in the National Register of Historic Places.
Nonetheless, it now is threatened with destruction to make way for a hotel and office complex. But not if the Committee to Preserve Rhodes Tavern has anything to say about it—and it has a great deal to say, enough to persuade Senators Muriel Humphrey, S. I. Hayakawa, Clinton Anderson, and others to introduce a resolution in the Senate to save the place. “I find it difficult,” Senator Humphrey told her colleagues, “to believe that, after spending millions of Federal dollars in the past few years to preserve the ceremonial character of Pennsylvania Avenue, we should lose the only building that has witnessed every one of its ceremonies—Rhodes Tavern.”
Just so, but whether Congress agrees or not probably will not be decided until this summer. Some friendly persuasion ws to be in order.