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Quirky Charm

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Legacy of Tabard Inn Continues to Attract Attention, Loyal Following

With no elevator to be found, some guests may have to trudge up four flights of stairs to reach their rooms at the Tabard Inn. But the prospect of such a workout hasn’t deterred those who want to experience one of Washington’s most charming, comfortable and quirkily decorated hotels.

For those unfamiliar with the origin of the hotel’s name, England’s Tabard Inn, which is no longer in existence, is referred to in Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales” as a place of respite for pilgrims. The English inn’s American namesake on N Street, NW, just south of Dupont Circle, has taken up the original Tabard’s mission with zeal, culminating in not only business success but also a legacy of loyal patrons who wouldn’t stay anywhere else in the nation’s capital.

Irene Mayer, a self-described “hippie” and the hotel’s in-house designer, has worked at the Tabard Inn for 25 years. In describing her decorating philosophy, she recalled an ad for the Marriott hotel chain: “There are no surprises at the Marriott.” Mayer’s reaction to the ad was, “How sad,” and that reaction sums up her decorating philosophy.

No rooms—hallways, crooks or crannies for that matter—should be the same at the Tabard Inn. Indeed, wandering through the three joined townhouses, built in the late 1800s, that make up the inn is like visiting the home of a lovable eccentric. One wonders why Mayer hasn’t created a guided tour of the Tabard to add to its already popular restaurant, bar, catering services and Victorian parlor with a working fireplace.

Maintaining the Tabard’s homey ambience is paramount to Mayer, but there is also a work-in-progress theme to the decorating. “A person evolves and so does the Tabard Inn. It’s not supposed to look like it’s frozen in time,” she explained.

Wall colors can range from bold burgundy to red to mango to green. Some furniture is scratched and chipped, adding to the hotel’s shabby chic. In one hallway, there’s an art deco table and in another, stamped leather chairs from Peru. In one room, a window is dressed with a chartreuse curtain and another with cream lace. Mayer dislikes shower curtains, so in some of the tiled bathrooms, there aren’t any. “You don’t need them,” she observed. Interestingly, every bedroom has a secretary with books inside—a decorating decision inherited from the inn’s first owner. But that kind of consistency is an exception to Mayer’s decorating rules.

It may come as no surprise—or a complete surprise—that House and Home, an interiors magazine published in Dublin, Ireland, chose a small room in the Tabard Inn for inclusion in an article on the 30 most beautiful bedrooms in the world in its May/June 2005 issue. (The only other room chosen in the United States was in the Soho House in New York City.)

Scouring estate sales, art galleries and flea markets, Mayer searches for one-of-a-kind items to decorate the Tabard Inn. “We all have that artistic thing that wants to come out,” Mayer said of her decorating.

And perhaps that’s why it is the hotel’s art collection that sets it apart from every other lodging establishment in the District. After all, it’s highly improbable that there is another hotel in Washington that has several paintings of the George Washington family in one room, while in the hallway, a nude mannequin dubbed “Martha Pat Bell” poses in a wooden bathtub. In another artistic display, a photo of a smiling President John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert hangs on a wall opposite a photo of Marilyn Monroe, laughing and clad in black fishnets. There’s also a Soviet-era painting of three children wearing white masks, chasing each other, as well as a huge painting—previously housed in a Washington club—that depicts a barnyard scene with brilliantly plumed, oversize turkeys in the foreground.

Upon entering the hotel foyer, guests are welcomed by a colorful statue of a laughing Buddha, perhaps putting them on notice to expect the unexpected. Another laughing Buddha in hot red can be found in an upstairs parlor. And there’s much, much more to engage the creative soul.

From the start when Mayer was hired by owners Edward and Fritzi Cohen, their ideas about decorating the Tabard were in sync. (Edward Cohen died in the late 1990s.) It’s notable that neither the Cohens, who purchased the Tabard in the mid-1970s, nor the previous owner had any prior hotel experience. In Mayer’s view, the lack of a “big, corporate formula” helped to fuel the Tabard Inn’s unique legacy. The original owner was a woman who traveled and had her own ideas about giving visitors a comfortable and enjoyable experience while visiting Washington. The Cohens followed suit with their own style.

Although the inn frequently caters to younger travelers looking for a bargain and willing to share a hall bathroom, Mayer noted that the Tabard’s proximity to the White House attracts a surprising range of political types—not to mention celebrities and even rock stars.

The Tabard Inn does not advertise; Mayer prefers word-of-mouth referral to attract the kind of patron who will enjoy its accommodations. She observed that people who travel a lot enjoy staying at the Tabard, although other times there are people who may think they’ll love the inn but then don’t. One unhappy guest commented, “I knew I was in trouble when I saw the Edgar Allen Poe atmosphere.”

Guests can’t call room service at midnight and order a sandwich because there isn’t any room service. However, food and drink can be ordered from the restaurant or bar and taken back to rooms—without the aid of an elevator, of course.

In addition to its restaurant—one of the first in the city to serve organic fare—there is a lively social scene at the Tabard’s exceptionally cozy bar. Situated between the large main parlor and the restaurant, it’s a perfect roost for people-watching and conversation without having to shout over a blaring television or loud music. The bar and main parlor are also major haunts for Washington’s 30-somethings and interesting people of every ilk.

Thirty-somethings may not be the only entities haunting the Tabard Inn. At least two employees spotted the same man one summer who appeared to walk through windows and a wall. The first encounter occurred at night in the inn’s basement inside the red wine room, where an employee was counting money and taking inventory. “At night, when there’s only the night auditor and everyone’s asleep, it can get to be pretty spooky if you’re prone to be paranoid,” Mayer said.

The employee related to Mayer that he sensed someone was in the room with him, and he thought he was going to be robbed. He looked up and locked eyes with a man who turned and walked through the wall.

The second sighting occurred when a member of the wait staff was in the bar one afternoon and saw a man walk through the restaurant windows and down the steps to the red wine room. Research by a Tabard employee revealed that a man who had once maintained the furnaces in a building on N Street had been killed in an explosion. Mayer said that she and other Tabard employees decided this was the ghost, and that they were somehow “messing with his space.”

And, along with the ghost, messing with the Tabard Inn is something that can rile Mayer. “Some people come here and say, ‘If I had this place, I could make it look great,’” she said. “And I want to respond, ‘Honey, it does look great. Just leave it alone.’” Many would share her opinion.

Tabard Inn 1739 N St., NW For more information, please call (202) 785-1277 or visit www.tabardinn.com.

About the Author

Rachel Ray is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.

Last Edited on April 7, 2011