The Phoenix Park Hotel—originally the Commodore—is one of the very few hotels around Union Station that survive from the days when almost everyone who visited Washington arrived by train. The magnificent railroad terminal, opened in 1907, once served as the primary transportation gateway to the nation’s capital, welcoming visitors from far and wide. In the decades after it was built, countless thousands of newcomers disembarked from their trains and wandered outside in search of a place to stay. Strategically located a short block away at North Capitol and F Streets NW, the Phoenix Park/Commodore was an easy choice. A group of Washington investors announced plans to build the hotel in May 1926. They originally planned to call it the “Milestone,” projecting that it would contain 140 guestrooms and cost $750,000. The guestrooms were tiny by today’s standards, but each included a private bath—a feature that was becoming standard around this time. It was a full-service hostelry with a comfortable lobby, reading room, stores, and restaurant filling the ground floor. The building’s accomplished architect, Frank G. Pierson, would go on to design the nearby Bellevue and Stratford hotels, as well as the Library of Congress’s Adams Building. For the Commodore, Pierson adopted a Georgian Revival style, accenting the building’s functional brick façade with elegant, classically trimmed limestone cladding. (This cladding appeared on the first two floors, along with large ground-floor display windows.)
Completed in the spring of 1927, the hotel was christened the “Commodore” (not the Milestone) and was originally managed by the New York-based Intercity Hotels Corporation. In 1932, a room at the Commodore could be had for $2.50 per night. The hotel’s cocktail lounge, the Cork and Bottle, drew local residents, Capitol Hill staff, and out-of-towners alike. In 1937, restaurateur Jack Melrose told the Washington Post that the place was “just crowded to the gills.” Melrose also ran the hotel’s Melrose Restaurant, which offered full dinners for a single dollar in 1944. (A menu from that year even warned customers that the cocktail lounge’s hours would be limited due to scarcity of liquor—one of many shortages that plagued the country in the 1940s.) The years after World War II saw widespread decline in the more historic parts of downtown Washington, including the Union Station area. As travelers increasingly rode airplanes instead of trains, business dwindled. Hotel managers, including the Commodore’s, offered specials to lure guests, such as free rooms for children under 14 accompanied by their parents. For instance, when a couple from Puerto Rico and their eight children showed up to stay at the Commodore in July 1960, manager J.F. McCormick subsequently posed cheerfully in a newspaper photograph with them to celebrate their bargain accommodations.
The hotel’s fortunes began to turn for the better in 1974, when restaurateur Daniel J. “Danny” Coleman opened the Dubliner, an Irish Pub, in the ground floor restaurant space. Coleman had grown up working in his immigrant Irish father’s pub in Syracuse, New York, and he was determined to bring a similarly authentic dining space to D.C. (The new location was historically fitting; this neighborhood, known as “Swampoodle” in the 19th century, had been home to poor Irish immigrants, many of whom worked in the nearby Government Printing Office.) Coleman’s pub was one of the first successful watering holes to draw people back to the neighborhood and help revive its fortunes, but the hotel itself had seen better days. When it became available for purchase in 1980, Coleman seized the opportunity to extend the Irish theme to the entire building. Rechristening it the Phoenix Park, after Dublin’s famed 1,760-acre urban park, Coleman and his partners renovated the hotel, increasing room sizes and adding facilities for meetings and parties. The massive renovation, completed in 1982, resulted in a luxurious, boutique hotel that celebrated the Commodore’s architectural heritage, while adding a new penthouse floor on top of the historic building.
The Phoenix Park became a mecca for politicians and other VIPs seeking luxury accommodations in the relaxed and intimate setting of a boutique hotel close to the U.S. Capitol, Union Station, and U.S. Senate office buildings. In 1995, Coleman and his partners undertook another major renovation of the hotel, this time expanding it significantly by installing a new adjoining tower on the south side of the building, doubling the number of rooms to 149, and adding a new ground-floor ballroom. The expansion came just in time for a major initiative, spearheaded by former Senator George Mitchell, to broker a peace deal in Northern Ireland. Irish politicians coming to the U.S. to negotiate an agreement stayed at the Phoenix Park Hotel, and the Dubliner served as their primary rendezvous while negotiating what would be known as the Good Sunday Agreement. Having found its niche, the Phoenix Park has continued to prosper and attract distinguished guests, including President Bill Clinton, Senator Ted Kennedy, and Speakers of the House Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill and Paul Ryan. (O’Neill even chose the Phoenix Park as the site of his 80th birthday celebration.) On St. Patrick’s Day in 2012, President Barack Obama dropped in for a surprise visit to the Dubliner, an event now commemorated with a plaque on the pub’s wall. A member of Historic Hotels of America since 2002, the Phoenix Park Hotel is truly an amazing place to stay in the nation’s capital.