“The Hotel Congressional: Washington’s Most Convenient Hotel! Minutes from All Points of Interest! All Rooms Completely Air-conditioned!” a brochure exclaimed.
Today, the once-sleek Hotel Congressional is better remembered as a shabby old building that housed a hodgepodge of congressional activities. Once, it was a prime spot for Representatives to convene, relax, and live in while in Washington. The structure evolved into congressional office and House Page dormitory space before it was ultimately torn down. How it went from a sleek, modern hotel to a dowdy House workspace to a parking lot is a tale of the changing nature of congressional work.
Post-World War II Representatives arrived on Capitol Hill to find few attractive living spaces among the exhausted Washington boarding houses. The new Hotel Congressional, built by local entrepreneurs and complete with furnished apartments rented by the month, plus meeting rooms and restaurants, was just the ticket. Although opportunely placed, the Hotel Congressional lacked some of the comforts of home. “It was a very tiny, little apartment,” recalled George Andrews, whose parents both served in Congress. “It was basically two rooms. . . . The bathroom was about the size of a postage stamp, and the kitchen was smaller than that.”
Size aside, if one were a Representative when the hotel opened in 1948, convenience and air-conditioning were the most sought-after amenities. The Hotel Congressional sat right across the street from the Cannon House Office Building, making it not minutes but mere seconds from the House’s offices and hearing rooms, and one of the few nearby places outside the House Chamber where Representatives could enjoy air conditioning. The establishment became such a popular perch that Representative Barratt O’Hara of Illinois took to the floor of the House to list the many colleagues who lived there and to let a fellow Member know that “there is a warm welcome waiting for him over at the Congressional Hotel.”
The hotel later became more workplace than home. The House bought the building in 1957, intending to use it as temporary office space. At the insistence of its devoted congressional residents, however, Congress leased it back to the hotelier, beginning a period when work and domesticity mingled at the hotel. Political groups soon set up bases for congressional activity in some of the suites. The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is a case in point. The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights coordinated its lobbying efforts from the Hotel Congressional, and Representatives hammered out elements of the bill during secret negotiations in Room 410.
By the early 1970s, as the expanding suburbs became home for many Representatives, office space became a more pressing need than apartments. By the early 1970s, the House’s need for office space squeezed out residents of the hotel. In 1972, the House repurposed the building, dubbing it House Annex No. 1. Judiciary Committee staffers worked there during the Nixon impeachment investigations, sifting through thousands of pages of Watergate tape transcripts delivered to the old hotel’s front door. In 1983, residential necessities came to the fore again for Capitol Hill. The House Page program established the first dormitory for Pages in part of the former hotel: 30 rooms on two floors for 96 Pages. Other floors continued to be offices and training rooms. In 1990, the House named House Annex No. 1 for longtime Democratic Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill of Massachusetts. At the same time, his Republican counterpart, Minority Leader (and later President) Gerald Ford, received the honor for House Annex No. 2, an office building located at the foot of Capitol Hill.
Representatives Ford and O’Neill had storied and overlapping careers in the House. Both began their service in the post–World War II era, Ford in 1949 and O’Neill a few years later in 1953. Each aspired to House Leadership posts, and each achieved that success after years of rising through the ranks. They became friends across the political aisle, with a mutual fondness that began with their shared love of golf and weathered their many political differences. When Ford became President, O’Neill reflected on their relationship. “Christ, Jerry, isn’t this a wonderful country?” he exclaimed, “Here we can talk like this and you and I can be friends, and eighteen months from now I’ll be going around the country kicking your ass in.”
In the 21st century, the once-grand building succumbed to decades of hard use. It was declared structurally unsound and replaced by a parking lot in 2002. But in the coming decade, another O’Neill Building came to the House. Former Federal Office Building No. 8, opened in 1965 as a laboratory for the Food and Drug Administration, was renamed for Speaker O’Neill in 2012. Its location, next to the Ford House Office Building, has reunited the two friends, at least in stone and mortar.
Sources: Todd S. Purdum, An Idea Whose Time Has Come: Two Presidents, Two Parties, and the Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (New York: Henry Holt, 2014); James Cannon, Gerald R. Ford: An Honorable Life (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2013); Washington Evening Star, 1 May 1948; Washington Post, 11 January 1946 and 31 May 1983; Congressional Record, 3 September 1969 and 19 April 1972; Historic American Buildings Survey No. DC-856; Roll Call, 16 December 2002.Follow @USHouseHistory