Built in 1799 by Bennett Fenwick (ca.1765-1801)—and, most likely, his enslaved work force—Rhodes' Tavern opened as a tavern and inn in 1801 under the management of William Rhodes. In 1805, Rhodes sold the tavern to his future brother-in-law, Joseph Semmes, who ran it until 1809 under the name "The Indian King." The tavern was sold multiple times, becoming a boarding house, town hall, bank, stock exchange, and press club. It was thought to be the oldest commercial building in DC and was designated as such in 1969.
Fears of demolition began in 1977 when developer Oliver T. Carr Jr. announced plans to erect a $40 million mall, hotel, and office complex on the block where Rhodes' Tavern was located, along with two other historic structures in the Beaux-Arts style, the Metropolitan Bank and the Keith-Albee Theater. At first, Rhodes' Tavern seemed like it would be preserved as the new building would retain the existing structure of Rhodes' Tavern. Preserving Rhodes' Tavern would cost $1.5 million and Carr met with local preservation advocacy group, Don't Tear It Down (now the DC Preservation League) to halt development until local groups raised enough funds to save Rhodes' Tavern, thus beginning a six-year debate and saga.
Various government officials, preservation advocates, and community members took sides that divided the preservation community. In 1978, the United States Commission of Fine Arts (CFA) recommended the demolition of the vacant Rhodes' Tavern, and Don't Tear It Down agreed. Even former chairman of the CFA and director of the National Gallery of Art, J. Carter Brown (1935-2002) cited Rhodes' Tavern as a "poor little beat up derelict" to Congressman Charles Diggs (1922-1998). Most of the original structure was razed in 1957 and the interior was demolished in 1979, leaving just a portion of the historic façade for the fight in the early 1980s. By June 1984, the DC Superior Court granted a preliminary injunction against the demolition permit, but by August the ruling was overturned. When the DC Court of Appeals lifted the injunction, demolition began on September 10, 1984.
The battle over Rhodes' Tavern demonstrates the tension between local preservation advocates and developers over DC's built environment. As the city grows and changes over time, various groups have their own opinions on how the city should look. While Rhodes' Tavern was not saved in the end, the façades of Metropolitan Bank and some of the Keith-Albee Theater remain, incorporated into the design of the Metropolitan Square office building. The new building honors the past with a commemorative marker, approved by the CFA in 1999.
DC Inventory: November 8, 1964 (Joint Committee on Landmarks)
National Register: March 24, 1969
This site is included in the Capital City Slavery Tour for Bennet Fenwick and Joseph Semmes' roles as slaveholders in the early city. It is highly likely that they utilized enslaved laborers in construction of the building and in the daily operations of the tavern. For further information on slavery in the District, explore the Capital City Slavery Digital Exhibit.