Wild About Harry

This picture is from our Local History and Geography lesson block.


If you lived in Washington, DC in 1938, ONE out of every TEN of your neighbors was living in a house or apartment built by Harry Wardman (1872-1938), whose birthday it is today. Not bad for a guy born in Bradford, England who came to the United States at age 17 and started out as a department store floorwalker in New York. He moved on to a store in Philadelphia, then to Washington, DC in 1893, where he found carpentry work and learned to build staircases.

Wardman wasn’t satisfied with staircases, however. Washington suffered from housing shortages both after the Civil War and after World War I, and Wardman was poised and eager to fill the need. He moved on from staircases to building entire houses, and then larger structures: buying land, building on it and selling, then buying new land for another project. He built apartment buildings, office buildings, hotels, clubs, and whole neighborhoods of row houses renowned for the quality of their construction and materials.

Wardman built many of Washington’s grandest apartment buildings, the Hay-Adams Hotel, and the British Embassy, but his best-known project is probably the Wardman Park Hotel in Woodley Park. Wardman and his wife already had an impressive mansion in the neighborhood, at the intersection of the newly-extended Connecticut Avenue and Woodley Road. An iron bridge had only just been built in 1891 allowing easier travel across the ravine of Rock Creek Valley, and Wardman decided that Woodley Park would be a fine location for a hotel.

So in 1916, while his wife was overseeing their daughter’s schooling in Paris, Wardman ordered a crew to empty their house of its furnishings, and then he had the place torn down, to be replaced by the Wardman Park Hotel (now the Marriott Wardman Park). People called it “Wardman’s Folly.” Why, you ask? Supposedly because no one in his right mind would ever want to stay in a hotel soooo far away from downtown. But I’m trying to imagine returning from a trip to Paris and discovering that my husband has knocked down our house and replaced it with a hotel. “Folly” is certainly one word that would come to mind. Many other words, too, probably.

Wardman made a fortune. By 1929 he had amassed $30 million (which I understand was a lot of money in those days). Most of it was lost in the stock market crash, but he retained enough to continue some of his building projects and was on his way to a second fortune when he died, having spent years putting roofs of one sort or another over the heads of Washingtonians. Our family lives today in a Wardman neighborhood (our house turns 100 years old this year), and I definitely plan to put some candles in the dessert tonight and sing Happy Birthday to Harry.


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