The Georgetown Inn at 50 Celebrates Its History, Plans Renovation
Fifty years after the Georgetown Inn opened to the public, its new owner is planning a multi-year renovation of the 96-room property, located at 1310 Wisconsin Ave., N.W. The hotel will throw a birthday party for itself and friends on June 6. Nayan Patel of Your DC Hotels purchased the hotel in November 2011. The upcoming renovation will be welcome news to those who remember the glory days of the Four Georges restaurant and piano bar, where pianist Mel Clement, bassist Louis Saverino and Julian Allman held forth, often accompanied by visiting artists from the Kennedy Center or National Theatre. Allman played his signature "Alley Cat" on a Stradivarius stolen from Carnegie Hall. That discovery made the front page of The New York Times when his widow followed his instructions to inspect the violin case after his demise and found the evidence.
Sheldon Magazine, president of American Mortgage Investment Company, built the Georgetown Inn, which opened May 20, 1962. Welcoming the first guest Peter Caruso, vice president and general manager Collins Bird threw the key across the driveway manned by “Tex” Aldridge in full livery and said the doors would not be locked again. After Collins retired in the early 1980s, the doors were abruptly locked during a peremptory shutdown in 1991 with Tex still at the helm. But—back to better days. In 1968, a young Herb Miller brokered the sale to Collins Bird and several partners. The hotel offered unique luxury for its day. A Washington Dossier magazine article acclaimed, “After Blair House, the Georgetown Inn on Wisconsin Avenue is probably D.C.’s spiffiest place to go for bed and board.” The hotel was later lauded by Fortune magazine as “A Way to Escape the Washington Stockade.”
A third generation hotelier, Collins Bird intended to return to his job a general manager of three hotels in Georgia after the Georgetown Inn opened but instead stayed on for 30 years and became synonymous with the property that welcomed many notables, including the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Charles and Ann Morrow Lindberg, Marlon Brando, Robert Mitchum, many Kennedys and the cast of the film, "The Exorcist."
The Inn was the Washington base of the original Mercury astronauts who became personal friends. Collins had a tailor on call to add new honors to the astronauts’ uniforms, as they obligingly signed photo after photo of their exploits. It was a sad occasion when friends gathered at the Inn for an Irish wake honoring astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee, who were killed in a fire during a prelaunch test of Apollo 1 in 1967. Another frequent guest was Hubert Humphrey, who framed an enormous key from the “frozen Chosun” hotel in South Korea for “his favorite innkeeper.” Once again, Collins made certain that the former vice president’s family was pampered when they arrived for Humphrey's funeral. The banquet room was filled with treats for all ages. In a gentler era, the Secret Service was pleased when Humphrey visited the hotel because the exits could be easily guarded. At the height of the Dallas Cowboys and Redskins rivalry, the Inn hosted then Cowboys owner Clint Murchison and his entourage. There was always a lavish party in Potomac with an unending fleet of limousines ferrying guests from the hotel and back. Collins held a pre-game brunch replete with a bus and police escort to RFK Stadium. One year, the bus waited for a late-arriving Elizabeth Taylor.
The first time the Four Georges closed for a private party was to celebrate Playboy magazine’s “The Girls of Washington.” David Chan took a number of the photos upstairs at the Inn. Party guests included the then-infamous Fanne Foxe, who had jumped out of the car of Rep. Wilbur Mills (D-Ark.) for a dip in the Tidal Basin, and Elizabeth Ray, who famously did not take dictation from Rep. Wayne Hays (D-Ohio).
Harry “Doc” Dalinsky was a treasured fixture at his Georgetown Pharmacy at the corner of Wisconsin Avenue and O Street, half a block from the hotel. He was a character, a cigar connoisseur and a confidant. The drugstore was a favored hangout of Ben Bradlee, Art Buchwald, David Brinkley and Herb Block. Collins started sending bagels and coffee to the pharmacy as people fetched their Sunday newspapers. A New York Times article on Doc’s Sunday brunch brought an overflow crowd to the consternation of the regulars.
For all its glamour quotient, the Inn was foremost favored by Georgetowners who could find a civilized haven with good food, drink and music. When you heard, “Let’s go to the Inn,” you knew it would be fun and you would see familiar faces, both locally and perhaps internationally known. The Georgetowner often wrote about the Georgetown Inn and Collins. A sizable portion of the September, 8, 1977, issue was devoted to the lead story by Suzie Gookin, headlined “Collins Bird to Marry.” I was that lucky person. We had 23 wonderful years together. Collins had been quoted as saying that his previous two marriages had ended in divorce with both ex-wives citing his hotel as “the other woman.” The third time must have been a charm, unless you count the hotel, making me the fourth wife.