By Kwesi Billups
Founded in 1925, The Mayflower Hotel was created to serve as a hub for the ideal picture of high society and extravagance in the nation’s capital. From The Mayflower’s very inception, it operated as a venue for socialites to exercise their most public achievements, and their most private improprieties. Hotel owners often strive to market their lodging as accommodating and dependable homes-away-from-home, but The Mayflower Hotel has worked beyond that goal to cement its position as as much of a cultural actor as the celebrities and politicians that make use of it. The Mayflower’s prime position in the heart of Downtown Washington, D.C., at the Farragut North Metrorail Station, creates a breeding ground for exactly the kind of activity that the hotel used to claim a stake in the societal veins of the District’s high life- flamboyance, scandal, diplomacy, and a measured sophistication to attract the right clientele.
While recognizing The Mayflower Hotel’s undeniable historical role in D.C. culture, I would be remiss not to acknowledge that the representation of grandeur and excitement that the hotel possesses seems to be catered to, if not excluded to, a particular demographic. Figure 1, the first image that I am greeted with upon visiting the hotel’s official website, is that of a white man and a white woman dressed in business attire. Surely, I was not surprised by the image, but moreso signaled towards the brand that the hotel created. The ornate chandeliers and exquisitely detailed interior design within the The Mayflower were reminiscent of architecture popularized in the Roaring Twenties- a time of cultural reinvention and social blossoming amongst much of America’s youth. But, while this youth celebrated the heyday of the Art Deco movement and critically engaged the cultural assumptions underpinning American society, others languished in the heat of oppression and unpacked American tradition through the lense of those historically disparaged by an American socioeconomic system (Allwright 11).
The Mayflower Hotel’s built environment was designed to indulge the desires of a white elite populous by neglecting the wishes of a Black consumer base, because The Mayflower simply did not feel the need to cater to a Black audience. The Mayflower encapsulated the unpredictability and exhilaration of cultural advancement characterized by the Roaring Twenties, without discarding the traditionalism needed to attract a sociopolitical elite. The Mayflower designed a haven for well-to-do white folks by crafting the built environment to suit to the cultural identities of its intended patrons, a structural technique recognized for its effectiveness in bridging gaps, or in this case establishing them, between social and cultural identities. Nevertheless, it is curious that a hotel in the nucleus of a city informally known throughout history as Chocolate City would demonstrate such a lack of attention to the demographic that has long constituted a majority of the city’s population (Dvorak) (Census Reporter).
For all of my probing, I could not find a single image on The Mayflower’s website that was not representative of or overtly pandered to a white high-middle class market. The Mayflower Hotel has crafted a cultural field of its own within a city of diverse interests and backgrounds, tapping into the rhetorical situation of the needs of its consumer base. A place for elites to retreat from the urban landscape into a protective environment of what David Fleming illustrated in his City of Rhetoric as exclusions molded into the very core of America’s sociopolitical doctrine, The Mayflower is an institution of “safe” homogeneity (180). During my visit to the area, I encountered four homeless individuals in what could not have been more than a 200 foot walk from the metro station to the front door of the hotel, but that fact was lost on me after entering the palace known as The Mayflower Hotel.
For all of its shortcomings, The Mayflower Hotel undoubtedly has claimed a role in the history of the city, and proudly boasts its “iconic” status on it’s promotional website. The Mayflower’s founder created a palace within the confines of a rigid urban landscape, and this palace still exists today. I was awestruck stepping from the streets of Downtown D.C. into the Versailles-esque hall of mirrors within the Mayflower. Diagrams outlining the physical structure of The Mayflower’s renowned ballrooms and charts detailing the host of important events that have taken place at the hotel attract patrons of equal importance. The Mayflower has hosted some of the most powerful individuals of the last century and, as such, has acquired a healthy amount of the negative publicity that seems to so frequently accompany high impact figures. A face of scandal in its own right, the hotel has served as a personal crony with whom some figures have confided their most disgraced actions. Notably the site of a few of President John F. Kennedy’s affair de coeurs, Mayor Marion Barry’s bouts of drug use, a House investigation into Monica Lewinsky’s relationship with President Bill Clinton, and, most recently, Governor Eliot Spitzer’s career-killing prostitution transactions, The Mayflower has no doubt used such occurrences to boast it’s dedication to protecting the privacy of its patrons (Kershaw).
After conducting research into The Mayflower’s political history, I was surprised that the hotel hadn’t been renamed The President’s Hotel in tribute to all of the powerful white men that have held the title and conducted affairs at The Mayflower. However, despite The Mayflower Hotel’s demonstrably evident position within the rhetorical political situation of D.C., I am not entirely convinced that the hotel has earned its reputation as one of the best hotel’s in the nation’s capital. The Mayflower opened in 1925 with already a remarkable stake in D.C. high life. It’s first high-profile event, The Mayflower Hotel hosted the inaugural ball of President Calvin Coolidge just two weeks after its opening, going on to hold an inaugural ball “every four years until it hosted its final ball in January 1981” (Mayflower). I believe that The Mayflower Hotel was birthed from a position of privilege in D.C., and that it used that privilege to attract patrons of similar status in America. The Mayflower was destined for renown immediately upon the establishment of its physical foundation, because it’s built environment represented only that which it needed to preserve its reputation: white wealth. The Mayflower speaks to the existence of highly variable sub-cultural fields and the importance of surrounding in defining experience, for my walk down a city street was transformed into a stroll through elegance once I stepped foot into the hotel.
Allwright, Roberta Katheryn. “Special Interest: Art Deco. Its History and Influence on Architecture.” M.A., California State University, Dominguez Hills, 1997. http://search.proquest.com/docview/304384882/abstract/5DFD863FDB7B4FFDPQ/1.
Castillo, Roberto. “Feeling at Home in the ‘Chocolate City’: An Exploration of Place-Making Practices and Structures of Belonging amongst Africans in Guangzhou.” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 15, no. 2 (April 3, 2014): 235–57. doi:10.1080/14649373.2014.911513.
“Census Profile: Washington, DC.” Census Reporter. Accessed February 27, 2017. https://censusreporter.org/profiles/16000US1150000-washington-dc.
Dvorak, Petula. “From Chocolate City to Latte City: Being Black in the New D.C.” Washington Post. Accessed February 27, 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/from-chocolate-city-to-latte-city-being-black-in-the-new-dc/2015/10/15/c9839ce2-7360-11e5-9cbb-790369643cf9_story.html.
Fleming, David. City of Rhetoric: Revitalizing the Public Sphere in Metropolitan America. Albany: SUNY Press, 2008.
“Historic Hotels Washington DC Hotels L The Mayflower Hotel.” Mayflower. Accessed February 25, 2017. http://www.themayflowerhotel.com/.
Kershaw, Sarah, and Michael Powell. “Just a Hotel? For Some, It’s an Adventure.” The New York Times, March 20, 2008. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/20/fashion/20hotel.html.
“Mayflower Hotel.” Wikipedia, February 11, 2017. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Mayflower_Hotel&oldid=764828227.