In its 168 years of existence Great Falls Tavern has been a lockkeeper’s house, a bar and tavern, a hotel and a grocery store. It has been expanded, abandoned, reinvented, endangered, championed and saved. Beginning this week it will be substantively renovated for the first time.
When the tavern first opened in 1828 it was not, in fact, a tavern, said Warren Kasper, a ranger at C&O Canal National Historic Park. The modest structure that was completed then was a lockkeeper’s house. Shortly thereafter an addition was built on the north end to accommodate a restaurant, bar and a small hotel. The tavern was intended to accommodate politicians and D.C.’s wealthy residents who were looking for a weekend getaway, Kasper said, as well as the boatmen who ferried boats up and down the canal.
The tavern saw numerous additions and uses over the next century. It closed down as a tavern to become a grocery store and feed store for canal boats, then it closed again and reopened as a hotel and tavern.
The tavern’s tenuous existence mirrored that of the C&O Canal itself, which turned a profit only twice in its commercial life, said Kasper. The building spent much of its existence alternating from one vocation the next, trying to find a niche that would make it profitable, but most commonly that was as a hotel and tavern.
“THE UNIFYING theme behind all of it is that it has been a symbol of hospitality on the canal,” said Kasper during a tour of the building that offered visitors access to parts of the building that are usually off-limits to the public.
The fits and turns of the tavern continued into the 20th century. The hotel and tavern closed in 1910 and the building was taken over as the operating building for a local club. It was turned back into a hotel in the 1920s, when the rising popularity of the automobile allowed easy access to visitors, even after the C&O Canal had finally ceased operations in 1924, Kasper said. The Great Depression ended the building’s days as a hotel for good, however, and it remained dormant through the 1940s despite having been purchased by the National Park Service in 1938.
Heavily damaged by a fire in 1948, the building nearly became a rest stop for a proposed highway along the C&O Canal right of way in the early 1950s, Kasper said. In what has become a story of local legend, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas led a tour of the canal that raised the support needed to turn it into a national park, saving the Great Falls Tavern from an unseemly fate. It has since served as a visitor center for the National Park Service.
“Great Falls Tavern is a landmark,” said Ted Cain, a board member of the Friends of the Historic Great Falls Tavern. “It’s been a place where people have always enjoyed themselves. … It was a very popular place and it still is. People seem to love it and it just seems to have a charm to it.”
THE RESTORATION of the historic building will include a new air conditioning system and electrical wiring throughout, said Don Harrison, president of the Friends of the Historic Great Falls Tavern. The grounds and some of the surrounding structures will also be renovated, eliminating the parking lot nearest the tavern and updating the bathroom facilities adjacent to the building, Harrison said. A fire suppression system will also be included, Kasper said, outfitting the building with ceiling sprinklers, and structural reinforcements will be made to strengthen the building in spots where it has settled over time.
“Right now the building doesn’t represent or indicate any [particular] time of the building’s existence,” Kasper said. “That is the goal of renovation.”
The main room, currently the visitor’s center, will be renovated to evoke the image of a 19th century tavern, said Kasper. Tables and chairs will occupy the floor space and the ranger’s desk may end up resembling an old fashioned bar. There will also be new exhibits detailing the history of the canal, the tavern, and the natural history of the Potomac Gorge. The process is expected to take eight to nine months, said Kasper.
“They want to follow the theme of the 1860s when it was so popular. and sort of bring it back to the old heyday,” said Cain.