The Old Congress Hall Hotel: A 'school of practical politics' that we desperately need today
The Congress Hall Hotel on Capitol Hill was a home-away-from-home for hundreds of congressmen and senators from 1907 to 1930. Eighty-seven of them lived at the hotel during the 64th Congress, from 1915 to 1917, 66 with their wives and families. The hotel was on New Jersey Ave. SE at Independence Ave. where the Longworth House Office Building is today and was torn down in 1930 to make room for the congressional offices.
Democrats and Republicans and Civil War veterans from both sides lived at the hotel during its heyday. There were “wets and dries,” high- and low-tariff advocates, gold and silver men, opponents and backers of women’s suffrage, and supporters of both sides in what was called the European War until the U.S. entered in April 1917. The men and their families often ate three meals a day in the hotel’s two white-tablecloth restaurants, and spent evenings playing bridge, poker or chess. Famous congressional storytellers attracted almost nightly audiences. There were music nights with members and their families often performing. There were lectures, dances and receptions. Small groups walked from the hotel to their offices across the street and to the House or Senate chambers. They went downtown to vaudeville shows and movies, took long drives through Rock Creek Park, picnicked, and went home together to their districts in railroad sleeping cars.
There were Easterners, Midwesterners, Southerners and Westerners. There was a huge coal miner from Pennsylvania who had gone into the mines as a “breaker” when he was age eight. There were comfortable farmers from Ohio, Iowa, Mississippi, Oregon and Maine. There were Tammany Hall pols, and New Yorkers who fought Tammany. There were small-town bankers, publishers of local newspapers, and men who had “read the law” the way Lincoln had. Many had attended “the common schools” outside of small towns and were otherwise self-educated.
Congressional staffs at the time were typically two or three men and women handling the congressmen’s mail. Members were loyal to their party leaders but sometimes broke away. They had to weigh the views of constituents who “dropped in” to their D.C. offices or who they visited conscientiously at county fairs, meetings and meals when they went home for long recesses.
Rep. Champ Clark (D-Mo.), the Speaker of the House for much of President Woodrow Wilson’s two terms (1913-1921), was a hotel resident for decades; so was feisty Rep. John Nance (“Cactus Jack”) Garner (D-Texas), who insulted other bridge players, drove the KKK out of his Uvalde, Texas, district and became FDR’s first vice president. Clark loved the Congress Hall and believed that congressmen who commuted to their districts too often were less effective than those who stayed in Washington among their fellows. The 27-page index to his book, “My Quarter Century of American Politics,” is mostly a list of hundreds of his peers who he knew amazingly well.
Regrettably, in those days, there were no women or African Americans in Congress -- but in the hotel, and in Congress, advocates of diversity and progressive changes were well-represented. Meyer London, a socialist and a cousin of my father, lived amicably at the hotel with his wife and 12-year-old daughter for much of 1915-1917. He and other male members of Congress championed the rights of African Americans, Puerto Ricans, Chinese railroad laborers and other ethnic minorities. They fought for universal suffrage and unions, attacked income inequality and, in early 1917, voted 189 to 138 in favor of mandatory universal health insurance, citing its decades of success in Germany -- and still, they got along with members who disagreed with them.
Residents of the hotel took votes that divided their constituents and riled up other members. Despite this, differences apparently were tolerated by peers and voters who favored different courses. Wives worked together to chaperone dances and organize lunches, dinners and receptions attended by civil servants, foreign guests and others of varied political and religious views.
The Congress Hall was not the only Washington hotel from which members could walk or take a streetcar to Capitol Hill. The George Washington Inn, almost on the Capitol grounds, housed 20. Along Pennsylvania Ave toward the White House or a street or two back the Raleigh, Driscoll, Cochrane, Burlington and New Willard all had between a dozen and 20 resident congressmen. Indeed, almost all the 435 members lived a short walk or a streetcar ride from the Capitol.
The Congress Hall was very special, though. The Washington Post called it “The Congress Hall School of Practical Politics,” after a storytelling, song-filled reunion for 250 former guests in February 1934. Everyone understood that the Congress Hall brought together members with sharply different views, that camaraderie usually prevailed, and that this was a good thing. Sadly, a passel of deliberately vicious saboteurs has undone this understanding and camaraderie -- leaving many Americans to wonder what can be done to recreate the atmosphere of the old hotel in today’s acrimonious Washington.