14 Nov 2022

History:

Lost Capitol Hill: John T. and Elisabeth Hofmann

B. H. Warner

When we last looked at the old Tunnicliff’s Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue, the premises had just been taken over by John T. and Elisabeth Hofmann. While the previous operators had not done well there, the Hofmanns clearly had what it took. And while what that was is not easy to tell from the English-language newspapers of the time, it becomes clear when you search through the German newspapers from that era. Here, almost every issue has an advertisement for “John T. Hofmanns Sommer-Garten.”

The establishment was not just the site of beer consumption, but also of bowling competitions, slaughter soup dinners, and excursions of the US-Bavarian club from their annual convention in Baltimore. [Ed. note: Slaughter soup is a hearty German soup made using many parts of a slaughtered pig.––MHC]

In 1889, Hofmann made his ownership of the Tunnicliff’s official when he bought the land (and, presumably, the building) from Brainard H. Warner, a prominent D.C. businessman, who had come here after serving in the Civil War, then working in the Treasury while studying for a law degree at what is today George Washington University. While he then got his start in real estate, he would later branch out into other fields, including banking, and many civic organizations.

John T. Hofmann was also heavily involved in civic organizations, both to help those less fortunate, and simply for pleasure.

For instance, he was put to work helping the “German Protestant Orphan Asylum Association of the District of Columbia,” an organization founded in 1879 by members of a German church at 20th and G NW. In 1880 they build an orphanage on Good Hope Road in Anacostia. Such an institution needs money to operate, and so they would have summerfests on its grounds. In 1894, Hofmann was one of those responsible for ensuring that all visitors had a good time – and, presumably, contributed liberally to the orphanage.

Detail of an ad for John T. Hofmann’s Sommer-Garten showing a bowling tournament. (LOC)

Hofmann was also a member of the “Pine Ridge Pleasure Club,” though here, there were some that he did not take his job as keymaster too seriously. Having invited a certain Henry Rabe to visit their premises, located on Pennsylvania Avenue across the newly built Pennsylvania Avenue Bridge, the visitor was shocked to find that while the members of club went to sleep, he was put to work. He had to “cut and chop wood, make fire, pluck and cook chickens, in short put together a fine meal, so that the others could, upon waking up, eat heartily.” Rabe found the sympathetic ear of a reporter for the Washington Journal, and was able to get his complaints published in the September 15, 1894, issue of that paper.

Whatever happy exterior he presented as a publican, John Hofmann had some private demons of his own. The Washington Morning Times of May 30, 1896 began an article with the following words:

With a smile on his lips and his laugh echoing in the room he had just left, John T. Hofman [sic] stepped out of his saloon yesterday afternoon at 3:15 o’clock, locked the door of the toilet-room, and sent a bullet crashing through his brain.

The rest of the article was filled with a failed attempt to find a motive. He was, according to the article, happy, was making good money with his saloon and beer garden, was happily married with six children, and had a “little vine-clad cottage” to live in. His final words had been about an upcoming summer outing. The only cloud on the horizon was his daughter Katie’s marriage to George Frederick Renwick, of which John T. apparently did not approve, though no particular reason for this was given.

John T. Hofmann was buried in Congressional Cemetery.


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