22 Aug 2022



John Adams

The story of William Tunnicliff’s taverns continues this week, as Tunnicliff abandoned his Pennsylvania Avenue location for a much better site nearer the Capitol, then under construction. In this week’s post, he plays host to two important names in the new capital, including the President of the United States.

On May 21, 1799, William Tunnicliff announced to the public that he had moved his establishment from Pennsylvania Ave SE to the SE corner of 1st and A NE, where the Supreme Court currently stands. The new establishment, though generally referred to as ‘Tunnicliff’s’ was properly the “Washington City Hotel.”

The reason for the move was clear: with the imminent arrival of the US Government, proximity to the new Capitol was an obvious positive. Also, with Maryland Avenue becoming the new post road, Pennsylvania Avenue was now a far poorer choice for a hotel. Post roads were those designated for the movement of mail, and were therefore better kept up and more traveled than other roads.

It probably also helped that it meant that Tunnicliff no longer had to deal with John Nicholson, or supplement his income in such mundane ways as an ad he published in 1797 might indicate:

FLEECY HOSIERY FOR SALE Those who consult their health and comfort at this season of the year are informed that the Subscriber has a number of articles such as Socks Ancle Socks Night Caps Gloves Stockings Drawers and Shirts All of which he will sell cheap at the Eastern Branch Hotel
Washington Jan 25 1797

Tunnicliff’s major coup came early: In the summer of 1800, President Adams came to visit Washington. As the White House was not yet ready to be occupied (and would still have only a six rooms available when Adams moved there full-time in the Fall) he chose instead to live at Tunnicliff’s hotel.

The Temporary Capitol before the Civil War. What was once Tunnicliff’s Tavern is the wing on the left side of the building (National Archives)

John Adams, described his visit in a letter to his wife on June 13, 1800:

I like the seat of government very well and shall sleep or lie awake next winter in the President’s house. [ … ] Mr Marshall and Mr Dexter lodge with me at Tunnicliff’s City Hotel very near the capitol. The establishment of the public offices in this place has given it the air of the seat of government and all things seem to go on well.

Mrs. William Thornton, the wife of the designer of the Capitol, wrote about the same event in her diary

Wednesday [June] 4th Fine day [ … ] The president came bye about three O’clock, Dr T- had a horse got ready, & with some other Gentlemen accompanied him to the Capitol. He stopt first at his house & the Treasury Office. – He travels in a Chariot & four.-and is going to Lodge at Tunnicliffe’s Tavern on the Capitol Hill.

Later that year, Secretary of State John Marshall, shortly to become 4th Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, lived at Tunnicliff’s, as well.

In August, 1804, Tunnicliff’s wife died. Her death was marked with an announcement in the Daily National Intelligencer that included the following couplet:

An ancient poet hath said Death takes the good—too good on earth to stay
And leaves the bad—too bad to take away.

A few days later, Tunnicliff sold the hotel to Pontius Stelle, a fellow innkeeper. Stelle ran the hotel for about two years, before selling it on to Samuel Coolidge. It later passed from a Robert Long to a John McLeod, who was presumably the proprietor when the British invaded Washington. Thereafter, it was subsumed into the Temporary Capitol built after the burning of the Capitol in 1814.

Tunnicliff himself after the sale has “sunk into oblivion, with numberless unchronicled events, in the wide and deep ocean of the past.” This wonderfully evocative quote is from William S. Forrest’s 1853 work Historical and Descriptive Sketches of Norfolk and Vicinity and should be translated as ‘I have no idea what happened to him afterwards.’

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