Wormley House (1871–1893)

The Wormley House, ca. 1884
“Image Ownership: Public Domain”

Just one block away from President’s Square, now Lafayette Square, in Washington, D.C. stood the Wormley House, one of the most prominent private hotels and social clubs of its time, and the only one owned by an African American.

Well-known caterer James Wormley purchased properties on I street between 15th and 16th Streets, NW, Washington, D.C., in the early 1850s and developed these properties into a successful restaurant and hotel business. The business quickly became a favorite among the nation’s top military and political leaders of the era, as well as musicians and literary figures such as Gen. George McClellan, Mississippi Senator (and later president of the Confederacy) Jefferson Davis, and Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner. In May and December of 1860, Lt. Gen. Winifred Scott stayed with Wormley for a month while in town on business. In 1861 English writer Anthony Trollope wrote after a stay, “My landlord told me he was sorry I was going…No white American citizen, occupying the position of landlord, would have condescended to such comfortable words…” Wormley was commissioned in 1867 by Secretary of State William H. Steward to house the Japanese Commission at his hotel for six weeks.

In 1869 Wormley purchased another building at the southwest corner of 15th and H Streets, NW. By 1871 he had expanded the structure and opened another hotel and social club. This hotel, named Wormley House, became the flagship of Wormley’s businesses. It was private and reserved for the most distinguished guests. The five-story building was lavishly furnished and had all the amenities its clients needed right on the premises, including a barbershop, bar, cafe, and restaurants. Wormley’s other properties on I Street included the Wormley Annex and the Branch Hotel. Three county residences in Maryland produced food for the restaurants, and a rack track on Pierce Mill Road in Tenleytown, Maryland, was reserved for Wormley guests to race their horses.

The Wormley Hotel catered mostly to the upper class of political white men in the city and their guests. Private dinners were often held in the large grand dining rooms. One of the most notable was the grand dinner held in honor of the marriage of Amadeo I, the king of Spain, to Donna Vittoria, with entertainment provided by the U.S. Marine Corps Band, conducted by John Philip Sousa in 1870.

The 1876 disputed presidential election between Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and Democrat Samuel J. Tilden was secretly discussed at the hotel. The agreement reached at the end of those discussions later became known as “The Wormley Compromise” which led to the removal of federal troops from the South and the end of Reconstruction.

The hotel hosted famous guests outside of the political realm, including Frederick Douglass, John Mercer Langston, and Thomas Edison. Wormley was also the private confidant and nurse to some of the most famous individuals of the nineteenth century. He cared for Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, Vice President Henry Wilson, and Presidents Abraham Lincoln and James Garfield.

James Wormley died in Boston, Massachusetts, after a surgical procedure on October 18, 1884. Wormley House continued to operate until its sale in 1893.