Recent news articles about the Washington Post’s plan to sell its headquarters building have occasionally mentioned the newspaper’s historic home, which once stood at 1341 E Street NW on Washington’s old Rum Row. While the newer building has witnessed some of the newspaper’s greatest journalistic achievements, its plain and functional architecture is a far cry from the Post’s old building, which was one of the finest and most ornate Romanesque Revival structures ever built in Washington.
The E Street building was the Post’s fourth home. The paper began in 1878 when Stilson Hutchins (1838-1912), who had previously founded the St. Louis Times, came to Washington to start up a Democratic Party organ in the Nation’s Capital. His new daily first set up shop in the former headquarters of the Washington Chronicle at 914 Pennsylvania Avenue NW but moved within a year to Jackson Hall, at 339 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, a prominent Greek Revival structure where the Congressional Globe had been printed for many years. From here, Hutchins planned the first building specially designed for the Post, at 10th and D Streets NW, which the newspaper occupied beginning in 1880.
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By the 1880s Hutchins became less interested in promoting the Democratic Party, and after acquiring the Daily Republican in 1888—the only morning rival he had left at that point—he announced that the Post would no longer be aligned with any political party. The following year, after the Post swallowed the Evening Critic, Hutchins sold his newspaper to two former politicians, Frank Hatton (1846-1894) and Beriah Wilkins (1846-1905). It was on Hatton and Wilkins’ watch that the newspaper’s move to its iconic building on E Street took place, in October 1893, when the Post’s circulation stood at 16,00 daily and a paper cost 3 cents.
The new building was designed by Appleton P. Clark (1865-1955), a native Washingtonian who has been called the “dean” of Washington architects. Although he had no formal training as an architect, Clark designed many distinguished D.C. buildings. Surviving examples include the Victor Building at 9th Street and G Place NW (see our previous post), the facade of the Homer Building at 13th and F Streets NW, and the stately Roosevelt Hotel at 2101 16th Street NW.
For the Post building, Clark used the imposing Romanesque style that had been highly fashionable in the 1880s, producing an appearance that “happily combines an air of richness with an assurance of solidity,” as the United States Government Advertiser put it at the time. The roughly-finished Indiana limestone is the same material that was later used, in smooth-cut ashlars, to clad the office buildings of Federal Triangle. It was solid indeed—two feet thick on the sides and four feet thick in front. Whimsical touches graced the building’s lively façade: the carved heads of an eagle and an owl gazed down on visitors approaching the main entrance, suggesting patriotism, wisdom, and round-the-clock vigilance. A delicate, engaged Venetian Gothic balustrade crossed above the second floor. The unusual roofline with its pronounced gable featured decorative crockets and gargoyles at its corners and a unique little circular window within a crow’s nest-like balcony at the top, a fearsome carved lion glaring down from its bowl. A young stonecutter named James Earley did all the carving of the figures in situ, once the stones had been laid.
Inside the great counting room on the first level was paneled in red cherry wainscoting with a marble floor, iron grilles, and heavy swinging doors with beveled plate glass windows. Carved stone ornamental pillars supported a stuccoed ceiling. To the rear were the press room, engine room (a 50-horsepower McEwen engine ran all the building’s equipment), and mail room, the composing room being on the floor above. Editorial offices were on the third floor, with the upper floors leased out to other news organizations, including the United Press. The modern building had all the most up-to-date conveniences, including steam heat, lavatories, a Graves hydraulic elevator, and both gas and electric lights.
Reporters likewise were equipped with the latest high-tech gadgetry: cast-iron Remington typewriters that were far speedier than writing out stories in longhand. The composing room featured 10 Linotype machines, which streamlined typesetting by allowing compositors to key in a full line o’ type at a time, to be cast into a single recyclable lead slug, rather than having to set each letter individually in a frame. The Linotype machine had been invented by Baltimore native Ottmar Mergenthaler in 1883 with the active support of Stilson Hutchins. In fact, Hutchins had sold the Post to concentrate on marketing and securing worldwide patents for this revolutionary invention, which would earn over $3 million for him.
While officially on E Street, the Post’s new building really faced Pennsylvania Avenue, separated from it by a triangular bit of parkland. The added space created what was informally known as “Post Square,” an area where passersby could congregate to learn the latest news. Major sporting events would draw crowds anxious to follow the games, and the Post set up an elaborate public scoreboard on the front of its building in 1912 so fans could see the results of that year’s World Series between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Giants. This was already a neighborhood of newspapermen, with dozens of out-of-state news organizations located just around the corner in offices along 14th Street, a block known as Newspaper Row.
In contrast, the E Street block where the Post set up shop was known as Rum Row, home to a motley assortment of bohemian restaurants and saloons. As the name suggests, Rum Row was a place for drinking—and naturally an assortment of other vices as well, including gambling and prostitution. Originally a line of federal townhouses housing early residents and professionals, Rum Row changed character dramatically during the Civil War when soldiers swarmed the streets looking for cheap entertainment. Previously respectable homes and commercial establishments were replaced with saloons and gambling joints. On the other side of the Post building’s site were Engel’s and Shoomaker’s, two Rum Row fixtures. Shoomaker’s dated back to Civil War days, when young Shoo, as everybody called him, was the “handsomest man and the gamest gambler in the country,” according to an 1895 Post article. John Hall ran a gambling joint directly above Shoo’s saloon, and “it was a common thing for [Shoo] to lose a couple of thousand against Hall’s game in the morning and win it back in the afternoon.” Shoo would hit the faro tables with the likes of John Usher, owner of the popular White House saloon a few doors down, a favorite watering hole of theater folk and war-weary hard drinkers alike. Doc Parker, Bud Kirby, Redwood Vandegrift, Squirrly Robbins—they all ran gambling dens in the rooms above the White House and Rum Row’s other storefront saloons.
By the time the Post moved on to the block, the gambling joints had been closed by a concerted police crackdown in the 1880s, but the saloons survived and doubtless saw an uptick in business after the Post’s employees settled in. The central location of this strip made it the rendezvous for all elements of society. “On the row a man met and mingled with the elite, the bon-ton, the busy man-about-town, the Bohemian, the poet laureate, the soldier of fortune, and everything but the bootlegger, a type that at that date had not come into existence,” wrote the Post in 1921.
As well-known as any of Rum Row’s fixtures was Gerstenberg’s Restaurant, immediately to the west of the Post building. Gerstenberg’s was renowned for its beer, of course, but also appreciated for its steaks and German cuisine. The Post’s 1921 article offers this fond encomium:
Along around the evening hour, when the appetites which called for foodstuffs had been whetted and whipped into shape by the tang of tinkling iced Manhattans and dry Martinis, the old timers repaired themselves to Gerstenberg’s where steaks were the piece de resistance—great, juicy, luscious steaks, with a wreath of garnishments on the side, potatoes, crisp and brown, a leaf of lettuce, and a strenuous stein of beer, the steak costing 50 cents, with the accouterments thrown in, and the beer—Wurtzburger and Pilsner—at 10 cents a mug, each mug draped with an iridescent cloud of foam that oozed over and ran down the cool, earthen side of the stein like the filigreed lace veiling of a bride.
To the east of Shoomaker’s saloon was the aging Lawrence Hotel, which would be torn down and replaced in 1905 by the soaring 12-story Renaissance Revival headquarters for Frank Munsey’s Washington Times newspaper (see our previous post). Eventually the two newspapers would end up with adjoining buildings. In 1906 the Post built a modest expansion on its east side, shortly after the newspaper was sold to John R. McLean. Then, in 1915, the Munsey building expanded west, nearly doubling its size and eradicating the old Shoomaker’s and Engel’s saloons. The Munsey building at that point abutted the eastern side of the Post building. A second addition to the Post building, on the west side, was completed in 1934, taking the place of the old 3-story building that had housed Gerstenberg’s Restaurant.
After McLean took its helm, the Post “imperceptibly began to lose some of the sparkle which had marked it under Hutchins and under Hatton and Wilkins,” as delicately put in a 1947 retrospective by Post reporter Marshall Andrews. McLean allowed the paper’s editorial direction to drift into tabloid-like sensationalism. But the real trouble began on McClean’s death, when his son, Edward B. McLean, inherited the paper. Editorially, Ned McLean turned the paper sharply political, using its influence to help keep the U.S. out of the newly-formed League of Nations. The Post probably reached its editorial nadir in July 1919 when it helped foment that summer’s deadly race riot, just as the National Intelligencer had incited the Snow Riot in 1835. McLean’s neglect also doomed the paper financially. Readership sank and after the onset of the Great Depression it became insolvent. Finally an auction was held on the front steps of the organization’s ever-so-solid looking building in June 1933. Industrialist Eugene Meyer (1875-1959) purchased and rescued the the newspaper, investing in it heavily and promoting journalistic excellence in a way the Post had not seen for decades. The paper finally became consistently profitable again in the 1950s.
James Goode includes a colorful quote in Capital Losses about life in the old Post building during World War II, taken from Chalmers Roberts’ The Washington Post: The First 100 Years. It is well worth repeating:
At times it seemed amazing that the paper ever got printed. The old building shook and the lights flickered each evening as the presses, popularly believed to be held together by baling wire, began to roll. The second floor city room, easier to reach by steep stairs than by the single rickety elevator cage, was jammed with clerks and by ten o’clock was full of cigarette smoke. In the morning reporters wiped inky dust from typewriters. Acid from the engraving room dripped through the ceiling into the small “morgue,” or library room. Reporters and deskmen could still get away with drinking on the job; one editor who had his in a popular mouthwash bottle was famous for his repeated gargling. An electrician and his girl, having a tryst on the roof, crashed through a skylight into the printers’ proof room.
Of course, all the fun at the Post building was bound to eventually come to an end. The numerous inefficiencies and hazards of the old building, as well as its limited space, had to be overcome. Initially the Washington Post Company planned to build just a two-story printing plant on land it had purchased in the 1500 block of L Street NW, but soon a decision was made to build an entirely new headquarters there. The seven-story streamlined office building, designed by Albert Kahn Associated Architects of Detroit, was completed in 1950 and the first editions of the newspaper were printed there in December.
The old E Street building, which stood on land owned by the Willard family estate, was initially leased to the General Services Administration for use as government office space. The State Department used part of it for a library, and the Small Business Administration also had offices in it. In 1954 the building was torn down and replaced with a parking lot, followed a few years later by a parking garage. In 1980 everything that still stood on the block west of the National Theater, including the impressive Munsey Building, was razed, and the J.W. Marriott Hotel rose in its place.
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Sources for this article included George Rothwell Brown, Washington: A Not Too Serious History (1930); James M. Goode, Capital Losses (2003); Chalmers M. Roberts, The Washington Post: The First 100 Years (1977); and numerous newspaper articles.