A newly formed committee dedicated to saving Rhodes Tavern last week kicked off its campaign to preserve the city's oldest surviving commercial structure with an inventive bit of public relations.
Members of the Citizens Committee to Save Rhodes Tavern, aware that a large group would be touring Decamur House and Lafayette Squares as part of National Historic Preservation Week, milled about the square and buttom-holed people to tell them about the tavern. By the end of the afternoon, tavern supporters had rerouted about 50 of the visitors to a tour of their own.
The demolition of the tavern has been proposed by the Oliver Carr Company, which plans to build a $40-million, shopping-hotel-office mall in the block bounded by 14th, 15th, F and G streets.
"I was on one side of the room asking a lot of questions, and (James and Grano) were on the other side of the room asking a lot of questions," said Linder. "After the meeting we looked at each other and decided to form the committee."
The committee, with a nucleus of eight people, hopes to attract support by showing the building to the public and telling them about its history, according to Linder. A reception open to the public, will be held at 6:30 p.m. May 17 at the historic tavern at 15th and F streets.
One day last week, Grano took visitors on walking tours. Richard Squires, who rented the building's upper two floors as an artist's studio, showed visitors through the tavern and passed out pamphlets describing its history.
"I moved in here in 1974, got interested in the tavern and started doing historical research on it at the Columbia Historical Society," said Squires who uses the studio to build wooden sculptures. "We're now standing in the part that was added in 1845, on the land that was originally a garden."
The original building, constructed between 1799 and 1801, was a hotel run by William Rhodes. Frequented by people active in civic affairs, the hotel was a meeting place for the Orphans Court and a polling place in the first municipal election June 7, 1802. About 1810, the F Street frontage was converted to stores, one of which was run by Roger Weightman, the the eighth mayor of Washington. In 1814 the Bank of the Metropolis, of which Andrew Jackson was a stockholder, bought the building and set up its headquaters there.
The same year, two British officers, General Ross and Admiral Cockhurn, took over the building for their headquaters when the British invaded Washington. Mrs. Barbara Suter, who ran the tavern on the second floor of the building, later recalled serving the two commanders a dinner of roast chicken as their troops burned the White House.
" . . . Admiral Cockburn, blowing out the candles, said he preferred the light of the burning Presidential Palace and Treasury," she wrote, whose conflagration hard by illumined the room, outshining the pale moonlight, also beaming in all its silver radiance."
In 1840, the banking firm of Corcoran and Riggs, the forerunner of the Riggs National Bank, was set up in the building. Since that time a variety of shops have occupied the lower floor. From 1909 to 1914, the second and third floors were used by the National Press Club.
The building, now on the National Register of Historic Places, originally had a large wing fronting on 15th Street; the wing was demolished during the 1950s.
"Carr says it will cost $1.5 million to save this building - but that figure includes reproducing the wing that was torn down," said Squires. "But just to renovate the existing building and turn it into a restaurant would cost under half a million and would soon pay for itself. With the history of the place and its beautiful views of the city, it would be very popular."
"We hope to get an architect working on design alternatives," said James.
In March, the Fine Arts Commission, which reviews demolition and building permits for buildings near important federal installations, decided it would not require Carr to save the tavern. The commission, however, ruled that Carr must save two other landmark buildings in the block - the Albee-Keith Theater Building and the Metropolitan Bank Building. The decisions are only advisory, but the District government invariably follows this advice.
The District's State Historic Preservation officer has ordered a 180-day period of negotiations before any of the bulidings can be demolished. The Joint Committee on Landmarks is holding a series of negotiations with representatives of the Carr Company preservation groups and interested citizens. The newly formed Citizens Committee to Save Historic Rhodes Tavern is participating in the negotiations.