Constructed in 1962-65, the Washington Hilton was hailed for its sinuous massing, its use of column-and-slab construction throughout, and its uniform precast concrete wall panels—in sum, a sharp departure from local traditions. Architect William B. Tabler created an important example of Modern design in Washington, innovative structurally, functionally, and aesthetically. Tabler, a Harvard-trained Midwesterner, first achieved success as the principal designer of the Statler Hotel at 16th and K Streets, and later as lead architect for the Statler company.
When Conrad Hilton purchased the Statler chain in 1954, Tabler became the chief architect for the Hilton Corporation, starting him on a path to becoming perhaps America’s greatest hotel architect, responsible for more than 400 hotels during his lifetime. Tabler emphasized highly efficient function, attention to labor-saving details, and economy through the employment of new construction methods and building systems. He also favored materials like concrete, which offered lower material costs and speed in assembly, but also plasticity for dramatic massing and detail. On projects like the Washington Hilton, it allowed the Modern grid to be bent and shaped expressionistically while creating depth, shadow and the visual contrast of large windows within a light-colored grid.
The “gull-wing” design of the Hilton avoids straight views down long, monotonous halls, maximizes the number of rooms with southern light and views, and allows the blank slab ends to become focal points of the design. The exuberant floating canopies represent another expressionistic touch inspired by the thin-shell concrete roofs popularized in the 1950s and 60s. In keeping with Conrad Hilton’s motto, "World Peace Through International Trade and Travel," the building’s evocation of sails and wings—and famous airline terminals—was an appropriate idiom for an establishment welcoming diplomats from around the globe to the capital of the free world.
Beginning in the mid 1950s, new construction in Washington Heights has primarily consisted of large apartment buildings and commercial buildings, including the Washington Hilton. Although these buildings often contrast from the more traditional styles constructed throughout Washington Heights since its establishment, these more recent architectural expressions illustrate the evolution of the neighborhood and a shift in American architecture in the latter half of the twentieth century. These buildings, regardless of style and form, emphasize the use of modern materials.
The hotel came into further recognition in the 1980s as the site of an assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan after a speaking engagement at the Hilton building.
Today, the building continues to operate as a Hilton hotel at the critical city juncture between Dupont Circle and Adams Morgan.
DC Inventory: July 24, 2008
Part of the Washington Heights Historic District