Site hosted by Build your free website today!

The Hotel Washington

When Delesseps arrived in Panama ...

Seen from a distance, from an inbound ship, the town appeared to float on the bay as if by magic. White walls and red roofs stood out against blue water and flaming green foothills. But close up, it was a squalid shantytown set on stilts, paint peeling. There was a stone church that the railroad's guidebook made much of but that would been of little interest anywhere else[This would be Christ Church-By-The-Sea, which was built by the Panama Railroad Com.] A variety of saloons and stores lined the east side of Front Street, facing the harbor. There were an icehouse, a railroad office, a large stone freight depot, two or three seedy hotels, and the "tolerable" Washington House, a galleried white-frame affair, which, like virtualy everything else in sight, belonged to the railroad company. The railroad itself ran down the middle of Front Street, and in a park, or what passed for a park, in front of the Washington House, stood an ugly red-granite monument to the railroad's founders, Aspinwall, Chauncey, and Stephens. In a nearby railroad yard there was also a bronze statue of Colubus, an Indian maiden at his side, which had been a gift from the Empress Eugenie years before. But that was the sum total of Colon's landmarks.

Towards the end of the completion of the Panama Canal: [The new Hotel Washington was opened March 23, 1913]

As the tide of tourist travel set toward Panama, the serious problem of taking care of thousands of visitors confronted the canal authorities. There were times when every available facility for taking care of lodgers was called into requisition, and still hundreds of American tourists had to find quarters in cheap, vermin-infested native hotels at Colon. Believing that the situation demanded a modern hotel at the Atlantic side of the Isthmus, and having in mind the sucess of the Government in the construction and maintenance of the Tivoli Hotel at the Pacific side, it was decided by the Secretary of War that the Panama Railroad company should build a new hotel at Colon, to be operated by that company for the Government. The result was the beautiful Washington Hotel, in whose architecture one finds the world's best example of northern standards of hotel construction adapted to tropical needs.

Built of concrete and cement blocks, it is constructed in a modified Spanish Mission style that makes it cool and comfortable at all times. Its public rooms, from the main lobby to the diningrooms, from the ladies' parlor to the telephone and cable rooms, from the barber shop to the billiard room, are large, airy, and most attractively furnished. Its ball room, opening on three sides to the breezes borne in from the Caribbean, is a delight to the disciples of Terpsichore, while its open-air swimming pool, said to be the largest hotel swimming pool in the world, affords ideal facilites for those who otherwise would sigh for the surf. Persons who have visited every leading hotel in the New World, from the Rio Grande southward to the Strait of Magellan, say that it is without a superior in all that region and, perhaps, without an equal except for one in Buenos Aries.

Here one may find accommodations to suit his taste and largely to meet the necessities of his pocketbook. The best rooms with bath cost $5 a day for one, or $6 for two. Table-d'hote meals are served at $1 each, while those who prefer it may secure club breakfasts and a' la carte service. Anyone who has visited the Hotel Washington, situated as it is on Colon Beach, where the breakers sweep in from the Caribbean Sea, feels Uncle Sam is no less successful as a hotel keeper than as a builder of canals.

The Panama Canal Review, December 5, 1952 Dry-season winds that bend the palms that circle the Hotel Washington bring the Atlantic side hotel the year's largest numbers of guests.
The annual upswing in visitors that marks the months of the trade winds is traditional and is not expected to change during the coming dry season, which will be the hotel's fortieth as a stopping place for Isthmians and tourists.
The numbers of both groups of guests increase considerably during the dry season but the proportions change to about half local guests and half tourists, compared to 75 percent local guests during the rainy season.
The tourist visitors debark from the ships on regular runs and the cruise ships which visit in greatest number during the dry season, the majority of which, if they stop on the Isthmus, dock on the Atlantic side.
Isthmians, who become more outing-minded when the rains have stopped, often stay at the Washington in the course of their rambles around their own Isthmian back yard.
For many of them the charms of a trade-wind-conditioned room, with innerspring mattress, balcony, and maybe even breakfast in bed, outweigh the attractions of other types of more demanding Isthmian junkets. The swimming pool, tennis and handball courts also draw other local visitors.
The position of the Washington as a stopping place and weekend resort for government employees is traditional and well secured by their 25 percent discount on room rates.
Parties, weddings, teas, and other social gatherings draw many Isthmians to the hotel. Few days pass without some get-together in one of the public rooms - the gilt-decorated main dining room, looking out to the Caribbean and the Atlantic entrance to the Canal; the adjoining Fountain Room, dominated by a plant-filled, fountain-sprayed niche; the lounge, between the bar and lobby; or the grand ballroom, with its gilt and heavy crystal chandeliers and a tradition of gala parties.
Other local visitors come in just to eat, attracted there by the efforts of Herbert Thompson, the chef, whose specialty is plank steak.

The present hotel building was authorized by former President William Howard Taft after he visited the Isthmus in 1910 and noted the absence of suitable commercial hotel accommodations on the Atlantic side of the Isthmus.
Early planners visualized that the Hotel's park-like grounds would be one of its main attractions - a belief that has proved to be very well founded and is most apparent during the dry season when the many flowering trees and shrubs in the deep lawns are at their best.

But the sight and the sound of the Caribbean beating against the sea wall around the hotel is probably the charm that endears the place most to most of the Washington's visitors, who take their comfort with their ringside view of Manzanillo Bay and ships entering and leaving the Canal.


The Panama Canal Review, January 1, 1954
AN AVENUE OF PALMS leads to the Hotel Washington in Colon which is today under new management. After over 40 years of operation by the United States Government or its agencies the hotel has been leased to the firm of Inversiones Motta, S.A., and will be operated by them.

The transfer today of operations of the 40-year-old Hotel Washington in Colon to the firm of Inversiones Motta, S.A., begins another chapter in the history of the stately-looking, palm-surrounded big building facing the Caribbean. It has been a social center for Atlantic siders, a hostelry for distinguished guests, an overnight shelter for Canal pilots, and a weekend resort for Pacific siders for many years.
On December 22 Arturo Motta, representing the five-brother company, signed a lease for the hotel and a contract for its management. Governor Seybold, in his capacity as president of the Panama Canal Company, signed for the company.
In a statement issued at the time Mr. Motta expressed the hope that the Atlantic side community would use the hotel's facilities and make it their own center to an even greater extent than they have in the past.
The name of the hotel will not be changed; local humorists, however, have already dubbed it the "Motel Washington," which is as bad a pun as anyone ever heard.
Although no Canal Zone hotel has ever before been operated under contract, contract management is not new in Canal history. During construction days the clubhouses were operated by the YMCA; employees paid regular dues and were given certain privileges, like reduced rates at movies, on their membership. For a number of years restaurants in the Canal Zone were operated under contract by Carl Strom. The present Ancon clubhouse and the Balboa police station were both restaurants under Strom management.

The early history of the Hotel Washington is well known. The original hotel was built about 1870 as a residence for employees of the Panama Railroad Comapny. It was a two-story frame building located on the present hotel site. In 1905, when construction of the Canal swelled American forces in the Canal Zone, a third floor was added to the hotel and in 1908 it was taken over by the Isthmian Canal Commission.
In May 1910, the Washington began to take transient visitors and the load soom became so heavy that the adjacent Bennington House was also turned into an inn for overnight guests, or those staying longer.
President William H. Taft, a frequent visitor here during construction days, was convinced of the need for a good Atlantic side hotel - although his favorite local stopping place was the residence of Col. George W. Goethals - and in 1910 he authorized construction of the new Hotel Washington. He decided on its architecture, selected the architects, and set the sum of $500,000 as the top limit for its cost.
The old hotel was moved, the seawall reinforced, and work begun on the new building. On March 13, 1913, the Washington -as we know it today- housed its first guest, a well-known American named Vincent Astor. Ten days later it was opened formally to the public.

During World War II the Washington was an eerie place. Signs in the corridors and the elevator advised guests of the whereabouts of air raid shelters. The roof, a vantage spot for sightseers, was off limits. An anti-aircraft battery was located next door, on the swimming pool side, and from time to time guests were notified, in advance, that there would be firing practice. They could then find urgent business elsewhere or stuff their ears with cotton.
None of the halls were lighted, except by low-burning lanterns set on the floor, and blackout restrictions were stringently enforced. With submarines lurking so close outside that at least one ship was torpedoed only three hours after it sailed from Cristobal, the precautions were necessary and few people complained.
The hotel was full of strangers on important war business and an occasional survivor of a torpedoing found his way through its hospitable doors. Outside, in full view of the hotel, row on row of dull gray painted ships waited for transit or to form convoys for the Caribbean crossing, and air-and sea-craft from the nearby naval base at Coco Solo buzzed or roared about their particular missions.
In the fall of 1950 the hotel underwent a minor face lifting. The lawns and gardens were reseeded and new planting done. Some of the interior was painted, new furniture added, and tennis and handball courts near the swimming pool were readied for use by guests. Earlier this year more interior redecorating was done.

The Hotel Washington is currently run by a consortium of Arabs, and has been turned into a gambling casino. The have also built a condominium next door at the former Ft. DeLesseps.