D.C.'s oldest bar, oldest hotel? A tricky question

A postcard of the Hotel Harrington, open since 1914, Washington's oldest continuously operating hotel.
A postcard of the Hotel Harrington, open since 1914, Washington's oldest continuously operating hotel. (Collection Of Jerry A. Mccoy)
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By John Kelly
Sunday, June 20, 2010

Old D.C. friends and I were pondering two things about Washington the other night: What is the oldest continuously operating bar in Washington, D.C., proper? What is the oldest continuously operating hotel?

-- Nicholas Thimmesch, Reston

Many establishments in Washington claim to the oldest this or the oldest that, but the words "continuously operating" are the key to answering these questions.

For example, the Old Ebbitt Grill calls itself Washington's "oldest, most historic saloon," tracing its origins to 1856. That may be true, but the Ebbitt has changed hands and moved several times over the years. In 1970, it became part of the Clyde's chain and has been at its 15th Street NW location only since 1983.

The Willard Intercontinental's Web site says that the Pennsylvania Avenue NW hotel "has been the center of the social and political life in Washington, D.C., since it first opened in 1818." But the current Beaux-Arts building dates only from 1901, and the hotel was closed between 1968 to 1986, when it reopened in restored splendor.

Barring evidence to the contrary, Answer Man suggests that Billy Martin's Tavern at Wisconsin and N streets NW in Georgetown is the city's oldest bar. It was opened in 1933 -- the year Prohibition ended -- by William S. Martin, who emigrated from Ireland in the 1890s.

Martin ran the bar with his son, Georgetown University grad William G. Martin. The current owner, Billy Martin, represents the fourth generation to run the tavern. As befits a place that's been around so long in such a fashionable neighborhood, Martin's has seen its share of famous clients, including every sitting president from Truman to the most recent Bush. John F. Kennedy is said to have proposed to Jackie in Booth 3. These days, Chris Matthews is a regular.

Incidentally, while Martin's may be the oldest bar, it does not possess the city's oldest liquor license. The very first D.C. liquor license granted after the end of Prohibition went to the people who needed it most: the National Press Club. (That august establishment has changed location since then.)

As for the oldest continuously operating hotel, it's the Hotel Harrington, at 11th and E streets NW.

"For a while, it was a continual battle with the Hotel Washington," the Harrington's general manager, Ann Terry, told Answer Man during a recent tour. "They were saying they were the oldest, but they're from 1917."

The Hotel Harrington beats the Hotel Washington -- now a boutique hostelry called the W Washington -- by three years: The initial six-story wing of the Harrington opened in 1914. Two 11-story additions were added over the years. The hotel was built by Charles McCutchen and Harrington Mills. Ann said the name was selected after it was decided that "the Hotel McCutchen" was too much of a mouthful. The same two families still own the 300-room hotel.

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