People come to the Harrington Hotel not for luxury, but for a clean bed, a soft pillow, a kind word from Richard the bellman, a conversation from Rose the cashier, and a good cheap meal from the popular "Kitcheteria."
Built in 1917, the hotel at 11th and E streets NW is an 11-story souvenir of the days when Woodrow Wilson was president and carriages rumbled over the roads of downtown. It was a grand hotel then, packed with wealth during inaugurations. Today it goes largely unnoticed by that clientele, its cheap rates and convenient location attracting school groups and tourists. From most of its 300 rooms, there is a view of construction as a brand new downtown goes up all around it.
Once fur-draped women and tuxedoed men dined in splendor on white linen clothed tables under chandeliers at the Harrington. Now downtown workers and elderly people on fixed incomes drop by the hotel's noisy Kitcheteria for hearty, home-style meals.
On a recent Saturday, two neatly dressed elderly women chatted over lunch. "I live in a new shelter," the slim, silver-haired woman said.
"Oh, where?" asked her new friend, a plump woman with a knit hat over her graying hair.
"Up on Florida Avenue. It's really two houses together. But my name is at the top of the public assistance waiting list, so it shouldn't be long before I get a house." She paused to slurp up the soup that was her lunch, then added, "I'm all alone."
"It's me and my husband," the plump lady said, almost apologetically.
When their conversation ended, the plump lady left, and the slim woman, wearing a worn but beautiful imported knit vest, turned to a stranger to ask, "Do you think anyone is coming back here?"
She pointed to a slice of blueberry pie that looked untouched and sat alone on a table.
The stranger shrugged, and so the elderly woman said, "I'm going to take it. That saves me a dollar. You tell them if they come back I didn't think they were coming back."
People come to the Harrington looking for a deal. There are regulars who meet daily and come to the Kitcheteria for "specials" like spaghetti and meatballs for $2.25, or chicken and rice for $1.85.
"We get office workers, department store people and a lot of walk-ins off the street," said Ina Brown, the Kitcheteria supervisor who has worked at the hotel for 32 years. "The liver is a favorite, and people come for spoon bread on Fridays."
And, there are those who are attracted to the hotel's reasonable rates and convenient location. While the average District hotel room costs $88.52 a night, the Harrington asks $38 to $54 for its rooms, with special family rates are available.
"Midway between the Capitol and the White House," the Harrington post cards and a few highway billboards on the East Coast state. New guests at the hotel are given a copy of a hand-drawn map that squishes most of the city onto an 11-inch-by-8-inch sheet of paper.
What the hotel lacks in elegance, it compensates for in hospitality. "If you want to make a call, don't dial. Just pick up the phone and ask for the number, because all of the calls go through the switchboard," the bellman tells guests as he shows them to their rooms. "If you want anything -- anything: soap, toilet paper or whatever -- you just pick up the phone and ask for it and they'll bring it to you."
The room phone is basic black with a dial. This is not a push-button place. The furniture in one room included a floor lamp with a table attached to it, a bed with a lumpy mattress, a color television attached to a metal arm that sticks out of the wall at the foot of the bed.
There was an old porcelain bathtub and sink and checkered black and white floor tile in the bathroom. The rooms do not invite fantasies that taste of Dom Perignon, but they satisfy tourists, out-of-town groups and school kids who want a place to rest between trips to museums.
Because most of the clientele are families, tour groups and school kids, management eliminated the longtime "Pink Elephant" bar and put in its place a cafe that serves sandwiches and salads. The souvenir shop is filled with inexpensive mementos: salt and pepper shakers, Ronald Reagan buttons and bottles filled with artificial snow and depictions of area attractions.
At the Harrington Hotel barber shop, where a swordfish hangs on the wall, a somewhat color TV with a hanger for an antenna sits in a corner and shelves are filled with old bottles of hair tonic, owner Guy Puglisi still gives haircuts for $7. Puglisi has run the shop for 50 years while Joe Romano, a barber at the shop for only four years, is considered a newcomer.
In fact, there's a joke at the Harrington that people who have worked there less than 15 years are still newcomers. Cashier Rose Migliaccio has worked at the hotel 27 years, and Richard Killens, the bell captain has worked there 28 years.
"You know it must be a nice place. Would I have stayed so long?" asked Killens. "The people who work here and the people who come here are friendly. I sent two daughters to Hampton Institute and bought me a home off this salary right here."
"Because we don't have a lot of staff, you get to do a lot of different jobs," said Migliaccio. "It makes the job more interesting, challenging."
She even has time to step from behind her cashier's window sometimes and talk to guests about their travels, the movies or life in general. She also occasionally drops in at other hotels to talk to cashiers there about how they handle certain problems, like keeping out undesirables. Over the years Migliaccio has developed a knack for spotting criminals or people sneaking into rooms.
"Once there were two men, one in a wheelchair," she recounted. "They were dressed in black like Catholic priests. They kept coming to check on their mail. It turned out they were sending checks to themselves.
"I heard them arguing. One asked the other why he got more in his check than he did. The other guy said, 'Because I said more Hail Marys than you did,' " said Migliaccio. "Well, me being Catholic I knew you didn't get more money because you said more Hail Marys. We made some calls and found out these guys had stolen the checks and the priests' outfits from a church in Chicago."
Migliaccio, who said her work "ceased being a job and started being an enjoyment some years ago," wonders now if the Harrington might close soon, succumbing to an investor's offer to buy the property.
No one worried about the fate of the Harrington until Robert V. Bryce retired as managing director last year and the original owner died, leaving the hotel to his son, said Migliaccio. "The feeling was that the owner would keep the hotel open as long as Mr. Bryce wanted to run it."
Some people say Bryce was the Harrington. It was Bryce who closed the dining room and started the Kitcheteria in 1947. Everybody said it wouldn't work, but on the first day there was a line of people waiting outside to get in.
Bryce, who dropped by the hotel recently, remembers, too, when the Board of Trade held lavish luncheons at the Harrington and when the studios of WTTG-TV were located where the hotel's Beef 'N' Rolle carryout is now.
In those days traveling salesmen made up a large part of the Harrington's clientele. Fifteen rooms were reserved as sample rooms where New York designers came to show their wares to buyers from downtown stores.
"We were the 'Traveling Man's Home,' " said Bryce, 80, in between bites on a roast beef sandwich at the Beef 'N' Rolle.
Ah, the memories: He supervised the kitchen in making 25 club sandwiches for a party at the White House Rose Garden when Lyndon Johnson was president. "And the Nixon girls sent over to the coffee shop for sandwiches late one night," he said.
The late radio and television star Arthur Godfrey lived at the hotel for a while. "Babe Ruth stayed here, and one morning I saw him in the dining room. He would sign used baseballs and roll them across the floor to kids who walked in the lobby," Bryce said. "He would also eat a jar of figs, ham, eggs, and I don't know how many pieces of toast every day.
"We've tried to run this hotel so it would feel just like your home," Bryce said. "I hope it will continue."