My interest in Rhodes Tavern goes back 10 years to my first job in Washington as a researcher for the Library of Congress. An early assignment, conducted on behalf of a member of Congress with a long record of support for home rule, led me to study the origins of the local movement for political rights. From newspapers and documents of the period, I learned that Rhodes Tavern played a key role in the development of relations between the federal and local governments and was a center of Washington's early civic, political and social activity.
And now the tavern at 15th and F streets NW, for years a kind of unofficial city hall, faces the imminent approach of the wrecher's ball. Rhodes Tavern must be saved.
While the national significance of the tavern has been recognized, the building's place in local history is equally impressive, as extensive research in newspapers and old documents shows. In 1801, Washington's first neighborhood civic association organized and began to meet there regularly. This civic group, known as the F Street Inhabitants and Proprietors Association, initiated the longstanding debate on what portion of local expenses should be shared by the federal government. Their first concern was the financing of Washington's street and sidewalk improvements, an issue that continues to be part of the federal payment debate today.
After Congress withdrew the federal franchise in the District of Columbia in 1801, citizens met at Rhodes Tavern to discuss what degree of home rule and congressional representation might be extended by Congress. These meetings resulted in the drafting of the first petitions to Congress on these subjects, so important then and now.
The first city council elections were organized there in 1802, and the tavern was one of three polling places in the first four city elections. The other polling places, also taverns, have long since been demolished.
Washingtonians concerned about property assessments met at Rhodes Tavern to discuss the matter and to petition the local government to establish a board of assessment appeals. Such a board was established, and newspaper advertisements soon informed residents that the board of property assessment appeals, as well as the tax collector and certain court officials, had regular hours of business on the premises.
Many citizens' meetings held at the tavern were presided over by Washington's first mayor, Robert Brent, and city council members. Washington's militia met at the tavern and drilled on adjacent streets. Two early local unions, the carpenters and the bricklayers, organized and met there regularly. And it was probably the site of some slave trading, an activity documented at other downtown taverns of the period. In 1804, Joseph Semmes, a Georgetowner associated with the local slave trade, was operating Rhodes Tavern under the sign of the Indian King.
Rhodes Tavern represents an architectural link to the past as the only remaining building in downtown Washington built to the design specifications for the City of Washington established by President George Washington in 1791. A presidential proclamation of that year required all private construction in the new capital to be of brick or stone and to be between 35 feet and 40 feet in height. These design guidelines were recommended to President Washington by then-secretary of state Thomas Jefferson, who was the president's adviser on the planning of the new capital.
Can't we save the only place left in the original city center that is an example of the urban design promulgated by the man whose name this city bears? The tavern is the only remaining building downtown contemporary to the occupancy of the White House and to the first meeting of Congress in the Capitol in 1800. All other contemporary taverns and hotels of 19th century Washington have been torn down, the last in the 1930s.
Demolition of Rhodes Tavern would be a profound and fundamental loss to both federal and home-town Washington, to resident and visitor alike. With it will go downtown Washington's last remaining link with its civic roots, the last physical evidence of Washington's early history and development as a city and capital. To destroy it will only give credence to those who maintain that Washington is and always has been a city of transients with political ties and roots elsewhere.