The Martha Washington Hotel & Spa

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Discover the Martha Washington Hotel & Spa, the quaint hotel that was once home to General Robert Preston.

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The Martha Washington Hotel & Spa, a charter member of Historic Hotels of America since 1989, dates back to 1832.

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A member of Historic Hotels of America since 1989, The Martha Washington Hotel & Spa is one of the many contributing structures listed within the Abingdon Historic District. The Martha Washington Inn & Spa began life as the retirement home for General Robert Preston following his successes in the War of 1812! It was specifically built as a private residence for General Preston, his wife, Sarah, and their nine children two decades later. The project was incredibly expensive at the time, costing the Preston’s an impressive $15,000 to complete. Nevertheless, in 1858, the Preston family home was purchased as part of a scheme to transform the mansion to into an upscale college for young women. In honor of the first lady of the nation, the school was named “Martha Washington College,” which was affectionately coined “The Martha” by locals. But the American Civil War was soon to have a dramatic effect on the college, though. Schoolgirls became nurses and the beautiful grounds became training barracks for the Washington Mounted Rifles. Union and Confederate troops were involved in frequent skirmishes in and around the town with the college serving as a makeshift hospital for the wounded, both Confederate and Yankee alike.

Despite the devastating effects of the Civil War, the Martha Washington College managed to survive. However, the Great Depression, typhoid fever, and a declining enrollment eventually took its toll. The Martha finally closed for good in 1932, standing idle for several years. Then, three years later, The Martha Washington opened as a hotel and throughout the years has hosted many illustrious guests. Eleanor Roosevelt, President Harry Truman, Lady Bird Johnson, Jimmy Carter, and Elizabeth Taylor were among the many famous individuals who soon frequented the hotel. The facility was even used to temporarily house actors and actresses appearing at the Barter Theatre across the street. Gregory Peck, Patricia Neal, Ernest Borgnine, and Ned Beatty are just a few of the prominent actors who began their career there—all of whom later returned to visit “The Martha” at some point during their lifetime. Fortunately, much of the inn's historic charm, antiques and architectural detail were preserved, too, even though its future remained uncertain due to constant change in ownership.

Thankfully, The United Company—representing a group of dedicated businessmen—purchased the Martha Washington and began a multimillion-dollar renovation in 1984. Aware of this historic landmark's importance to the town of Abingdon, the restoration was carefully designed to preserve and enhance much of its original splendor and architectural detail. The reborn “Martha Washington Hotel & Spa” then joined The Camberley Collection of fine historic destinations a decade later. Today, The Martha Washington Inn & Spa still stands as gateway to the past, providing those modern amenities expected by today's traveler amid the genteel elegance of period antiques and furnishings. Much of the architectural integrity of this historic landmark has been meticulously preserved, as well. The original brick residence still comprises the central structure of The Martha Washington Hotel and the original living room of the Preston family is now the main lobby of the hotel. In fact, the grand stairway and parlors are today much as they were in the 19th century. The rare and elaborate Dutch-baroque grandfather clock, measuring over nine feet tall, was shipped from England by one of the Preston daughters, Mrs. Floyd, and now resides in the Edith Wilson Parlor.

  • About the Location +

    Located in the southwestern corner of Virginia, Abingdon is a city replete with history. This pastoral southern community was first settled during the mid-18th century, following the surveys conducted by Dr. Thomas Walker from 1748 and 1750. A colonial military officer from Virginia named Colonel William Byrd III then ordered the construction of the Great Valley Road through the area a decade later, which attracted scores of settlers intent on reaching the Cumberland Gap. Oral tradition even stipulates that one of those frontiersmen was the legendary Daniel Boone, whose dogs were attacked by a pack of wolves while traveling along a local stretch of the Great Valley Road. (Today, the site of the supposed incident is called “Wolf Hills.”) Over time, a few of the families passing along the thoroughfare actually decided to settle the land, including the Blacks, Briggs, and Colvilles. They had eventually established a small village by the eve of the American Revolution, mainly upon land purchased from Dr. Walker. Nevertheless, the community remained fairly isolated in the Virginian wilderness for some time, prompting the early residents to construct a rudimentary citadel dubbed “Black’s Fort.” (It specifically consisted of a log stockade with a couple cabins.) The fort later played an integral role in defending the town from hostile bands of Native Americans during the brief colonial conflict known as “Lord Dunmore’s War.”

    Due to its decent size and proximity to the Great Valley Road, the Virginia General Assembly evenutally made the town the seat for the newly formed Washington County in 1776. The settlement was incorporated as “Abingdon” two years later, its new name selected in honor of Martha Washington’s ancestral home in England. Abingdon soon emerged as a major transportation in southwestern Virginia, casting of its previous identity as a frontier outpost. Indeed, its location along the Great Valley Road attracted local patriot forces as they gathered to head to South Carolina during the American Revolutionary War. The town’s Muster Grounds were even the staging point from which they started their fateful 300-mile march to Kings Mountain. (The Battle of Kings Mountain would be a major victory for the nascent United States.) Abingdon grew considerably in the years following the conflict, with a string of new businesses opening thanks to the continued foot traffic on the Great Valley Road. Travel through Abingdon was evenutally supplemented by the opening of a new turnpike in 1803, as well as the arrival of the railroads a few decades later. As such, the town became the center for all regional commerce for not just Virginia, but also communities in nearby Tennessee and Kentucky.

    The population of Abingdon swelled by the middle of the 19th century, as its historic downtown core gradually featured a variety of upscale structures that reflected its newfound economic importance. Some of the roads downtown featured a beautiful blend of popular architectural styles, such as Greek Revival, Colonial Revival, and Italianate. Many new industries debuted in Abington, too, including tanneries, wagon manufactures, and even a cigar plant. In fact, the town’s lucrative economy was able to host a prestigious school for women known as the “Martha Washington College.” But perhaps Abingdon’s most impactful industry were public services, specifically in the areas of law and political administration. Several of the town’s residents at the time even rose to become significant political figures, including several Virginia governors like John B. Floyd, Wyndham Robertson, and David Campbell. Today, Abingdon has reverted back to being a quaint pastoral community, although its tranquil nature has made it an endearing place among modern tourists. Cultural heritage travelers in particular find Abingdon to be incredibly enchanting, due to its countless historical landmarks and attractions. One of the greatest institutions in modern Abingdon is the Barter Theater, which first opened during the Great Depression. Now host to over 160,000 people every year, this fantastic performance venue has an impressive list alumni that includes Gregory Peck, Ernest Borgnine, and Ned Beatty.


  • About the Architecture +

    The Martha Washington Hotel & spa stands today as a brilliant example of Greek Revival architecture, one of the most common historical styles in the southern United States. Greek Revival style architecture first appeared throughout the western world during the late 18th and early 19th century. It appeared at a time when intellectuals in both Europe and English-speaking North America became obsessed with Greco-Roman culture. The style borrowed heavily from elements of Greek architecture, using it to build a wide variety of civic facilities. Ancient Greek culture was especially popular, for most people knew little about its history. The first archeological excavations had occurred earlier in the 18th century, exposing Hellenistic Greece to the West en mass for the first time. But while many European architects utilized the Greek Revival-style architecture, it truly reached the pinnacle of its popularity in the United States. In fact, some historians consider Greek Revival-style to be the nation’s very first “national” architectural form! The reason for that steeped interest was drawn from romanticized interpretations of Greek society that had started to permeate throughout America. The United States was a young nation at the end of the 1700s, and its citizens were desperate for previous democratic examples that they could emulate in their won republic. Nowhere was this desire more apparent than among the country’s founding elite. They looked to the philosophies of the Grecian republics of antiquity for successfully examples of popular government. This pursuit gradually seeped into the cultural fabric of the United States, influencing everything from artwork to literature. Even the names of several towns—including Ithaca, New York, and Athens, Georgia—reflected this development.

    The national fascination with ancient Greece took root in America’s architectural practices, too. Many architects began designing buildings that mimicked structures like the great the Parthenon. Even Thomas Jefferson—known to be an accomplished engineer—used Greek design principles to create the Virginia State Capitol Building in 1785. American architects—as well as their European counterparts—typically constructed buildings in the style of Greek Revival by using a symmetrical foundation anchored by combination of stucco and wooden walls. They subsequently painted them white to give the illusion that they had been constructed out of marble or some other elegant stone. A brilliant front portico acted as the main entrance into the building, which was surrounded by a large porch that could span the length of the building’s front façade. The roof itself was low pitched and was either gabled or hipped. Just below the rooftop rested an area called the “entablature” that consisted of elaborate trimming and cornicing. In some cases, the entablature itself consisted of a frieze where most of the decorative work resided. But perhaps the single greatest defining feature of Greek Revival-style buildings were the many columns (or pilasters) that proliferated throughout the interior and exterior. Architects designed the columns in one of three sub-categorical styles known as Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian. They were also usually fluted or smooth and featured an ornate structure called a “capital” at the top. By the 1820s, Greek Revival-style architecture had become the most widely used in the United States. It remained that way for the next three decades, until different revivalist architectural forms finally displaced it in popularity.


  • Famous Historic Guests +

    Gregory Peck, actor known for such roles in Twelve O’Clock High, Gentleman’s Agreement, and To Kill a Mockingbird.

    Patricia Neal, actress known for her roles in A Face in the Crowd, Hud, and The Day the Earth Stood Still.

    Ernest Borgnine, actor known for his roles in Marty, Airwolf, and McHale’s Navy.

    Ned Beatty, actor known for his roles in Deliverance, Rudy, and All the President’s Men.

    Elizabeth Taylor, actress known for her roles in Cleopatra and The Taming of the Shrew.  

    Eleanor Roosevelt, First Lady to former U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1933 – 1945)

    Lady Bird Johnson, First Lady to former U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson (1963 – 1969)

    Harry S. Truman, 33rd President of the United States (1945 – 1953) 

    Jimmy Carter, 39th President of the United States (1977 – 1981) 


  • Women in History +

    Eleanor Roosevelt: Among the many guests to stay at The Martha Washington Hotel & Spa over the years was former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. She was born Anna Eleanor Roosevelt in 1884, the daughter of Elliott and Anna Hall Roosevelt. A member of the Oyster Bay clan of the Roosevelt dynasty, Elliott himself was the brother of U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt’s immediate family cherished community service, although both her parents died at an early age. Her intellectually progressive outlook on life was further reinforced by Marie Souvestre, who was Roosevelt’s headmistress during her time in London’s prestigious Allenswood Boarding Academy. Nevertheless, she kept those personal influences close to her heart, and used them as the foundation for her future work as a social activist. Indeed, some of her earliest work involved tending to the overcrowded settlement houses in New York City’s Lower East Side.

    Around the same time, she began courting her distant cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. They eventually married in 1905 and had six children together. Yet, the marriage was strained by the two’s dueling personalities, as well as the demands of her husband’s early political career. Roosevelt often felt her responsibilities as a “political wife” were tedious, especially after Franklin’s appointment as the Assistant Secretary of War shortly before the outbreak of World War I. Their marriage further deteriorated in 1918, when Eleanor discovered that Franklin had an affair with their mutual friend, Lucy Mercer. Roosevelt, thus, vowed to throw herself fully back into her political activism. But the two had a strong understanding that their fates remained intertwined and aspired to support one another going forward. It was Eleanor who encouraged Franklin to remain in politics even after he was beset with polio in 1921. As such, Eleanor Roosevelt was incredibly instrumental in aiding her husband’s election as the Governor of New York in 1928, as well as his subsequent rise to the presidency four years later. She often gave numerous speeches in public on his behalf that galvanized thousands of people. Roosevelt also became a central figure at of his many campaign events, serving as her husband’s voice whenever he could not attend.

    But Eleanor Roosevelt still established her own vibrant political career as the First Lady of the United States. Historians today consider her actions to have fundamentally transformed the role that the First Lady traditionally held within the national government. Roosevelt used her position to advance a number of causes close to her heart, including gender equality, civil rights, and housing reform. For instance, she arranged a massive celebration at the nearby Lincoln Memorial to protest the racist decision of the Daughters of the American Revolution to not let Marian Anderson—an African American opera singer—perform at Constitution Hall. On another occasion, she privately lobbied for the passage of the Costigan-Wagner Bill, which would have made lynching a federal crime. Roosevelt also held exclusive press conferences at the White House for female journalists, in order to help enable women to break into the field. She even attempted to create an experimental community in West Virginia called “Arthurdale,” where homeless miners unfairly driven out of the industry would have a shot at achieving a new, independent life. Although considered a failure, it was testimony to her commitment to enhance the lives of countless others.

    Eleanor Roosevelt’s historic career continued well after her time as the nation’s First Lady ended in 1945. She played a significant role in transforming Hyde Park into a museum dedicated to her late husband’s legacy, which set the precedent for future presidential libraries to follow. She also served as a delegate to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, becoming its chairperson in 1947. Roosevelt remained with the organization until 1953, and her political insight proved integral toward drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. After working to reform New York politics throughout the remainder of the decade, Roosevelt eventually worked to support the campaign of John F. Kennedy. While she initially rebuffed Kennedy for his refusal to denounce McCarthyism, Roosevelt relented on the grounds that she believed he had the best chance of leading the nation into the future at the time. When Kennedy won in 1960, she became his representative to such organizations like the National Advisory Committee to the Peace Corps. Then, in 1961, Kennedy appointed her as the First Chair of the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women. But Roosevelt would not see the commission come to fruition, as she died mere months after it was organized. Eleanor Roosevelt has since been revered as one of the most influential figures in 20th-century American history and is esteemed throughout the world today for her years of advocacy.


Image of Historian Stanley Turkel, Historic Hotels of America Image of Stanley Turkel's Book Built To Last: 100 Year Old Hotels East of the Mississippi, Historic Hotels of America.

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Hotel History: The Martha Washington Hotel & Spa (1832), Abingdon, Virginia*



By Stanley Turkel, CMHS



The Martha Washington Inn was built in 1832 as a private residence for General Francis Preston and Sarah Buchanan Preston and their nine children. Much of the architectural integrity of this historic landmark has been meticulously preserved for over a century and a half. The original brick residence still comprises the central structure of The Martha Washington Hotel and the original living room of the Preston family is now the main lobby of the inn. In fact, the grand stairway and parlors are today much as they were in the 19th century. The rare and elaborate Dutch-baroque grandfather clock, measuring over nine feet tall, was shipped from England by one of the Preston daughters and now stands in the East Parlor.



The mansion remained in the Preston family possession until 1858, when it was sold for $21,000 to the founders of the all-women Martha Washington College. At the time of the Civil War, the college served as the training ground for the Confederate unit, the Washington Mounted Rifles. After various skirmishes between United States and the Confederacy, wounded soldiers were brought to the school for treatment where schoolgirls became nurses. Despite the devastating effects of the Civil War, the Martha Washington College survived. However, the Great Depression, typhoid fever and a declining enrollment eventually took its toll.



For the next 50 years, The Martha Washington Inn was to experience a number of changes in ownership. For a period of time the facility was used to house actors and actresses appearing at the Barter Theatre across the street. Patricia Neal, Ernest Borgnine, and Ned Beatty are but a few of the prominent actors who began their career here. The Barter Theatre is today known as the longest-running professional resident theatre in America. The Martha was closed in 1932, after standing idle for several years.



In 1935, The Martha Washington Inn opened as a hotel and throughout the years has hosted many illustrious guests. Eleanor Roosevelt, President Harry Truman, Lady Bird Johnson, President Jimmy Carter, and Elizabeth Taylor are counted among the many famous guests who have frequented the hotel. Fortunately, much of the inn's historic charm, antiques and architectural detail were preserved, even though its future was at times uncertain.



In 1984, The United Company, representing a group of dedicated businessmen, purchased The Martha Washington Inn and began an eight-million dollar renovation. Aware of this historic landmark's importance to the town of Abingdon, the restoration was carefully designed to preserve and enhance much of its original splendor and architectural detail.



In 1995, The Martha Washington Hotel joined The Camberley Collection of fine historic properties. Sensitive to their role as stewards of a long and enduring legacy, Camberley maintains the hotel's strong ties with the Barter Theatre and the community of Abingdon. Today the Martha Washington Hotel & Spa stands as gateway to the past, providing those modern amenities expected by today's traveler amid the genteel elegance of period antiques and furnishings.



*excerpted from his book Built To Last: 100+ Year-Old Hotels East of the Mississippi



*****



About Stanley Turkel, CMHS



Stanley Turkel is a recognized consultant in the hotel industry. He operates his hotel consulting practice serving as an expert witness in hotel-related cases and providing asset management an and hotel franchising consultation. Prior to forming his hotel consulting firm, Turkel was the Product Line Manager for worldwide Hotel/Motel Operations at the International Telephone & Telegraph Co. overseeing the Sheraton Corporation of America. Before joining IT&T, he was the Resident Manager of the Americana Hotel (1842 Rooms), General Manager of the Drake Hotel (680 Rooms) and General Manager of the Summit Hotel (762 Rooms), all in New York City. He serves as a Friend of the Tisch Center and lectures at the NYU Tisch Center for Hospitality and Tourism. He is certified as a Master Hotel Supplier Emeritus by the Educational Institute of the American Hotel and Lodging Association. He served for eleven years as Chairman of the Board of the Trustees of the City Club of New York and is now the Honorary Chairman.




Stanley Turkel is one of the most widely-published authors in the hospitality field. More than 275 articles on various hotel subjects have been posted in hotel magazines and on the Hotel-Online, Blue MauMau, Hotel News Resource and eTurboNews websites. Two of his hotel books have been promoted, distributed and sold by the American Hotel & Lodging Educational Institute (Great American Hoteliers: Pioneers of the Hotel Industry and Built To Last: 100+ Year-Old Hotels East of the Mississippi). A third hotel book (Built To Last: 100+ Year-Old Hotels in New York) was called "passionate and informative" by the New York Times. Executive Vice President of Historic Hotels of America, Lawrence Horwitz, has even praised one book, Great American Hoteliers Volume 2: Pioneers of the Hotel Industry:



  • “If you have ever been in a hotel, as a guest, attended a conference, enjoyed a romantic dinner, celebrated a special occasion, or worked as a hotelier in the front or back of the house, Great American Hoteliers, Volume 2: Pioneers of the Hotel Industry is a must read book. This book is recommended for any business person, entrepreneur, student, or aspiring hotelier. This book is an excellent history book with insights into seventeen of the great innovators and visionaries of the hotel industry and their inspirational stories.”

Turkel was designated as the “2014 Historian of the Year by Historic Hotels of America,” the official program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. This award is presented to an individual for making a unique contribution in the research and presentation of history and whose work has encouraged a wide discussion, greater understanding and enthusiasm for American History.



Works published by Stanley Turkel include:



Most of these books can be ordered from AuthorHouse—(except Heroes of the American Reconstruction, which can be ordered from McFarland)—by visiting www.stanleyturkel.com, or by clicking on the book’s title.



Contact: Stanley Turkel



stanturkel@aol.com/917-628-8549

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