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.

A member of Historic Hotels of America since 1989, The Martha Washington Hotel & Spa was constructed in the years leading up to the Civil War, when many settlers from around the world began expanding into the Old American West. The Martha Washington Hotel & Spa—nicknamed "The Martha"—was originally constructed in 1832 at the cost of $15,000. It was meant to function as a retirement home for General Robert Preston, his wife, Sara, and their nine children after his service in the War of 1812. Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Abingdon, Virginia, the structural integrity and architecture of this 180-year old building has been meticulously preserved over the years. The original living room of the Preston home now serves as the hotel lobby.

The Preston residence was sold in 1858 for the price of $21,000 and converted to a women's college. For 70 years it operated, enduring the hardships wrought by the American Civil War and the Great Depression. During the Civil War, students stepped into the role of nurses for wounded soldiers from both Yankee and Confederate sides. The campus served as a training ground for the Washington Mounted Rifles. Despite frequent skirmishes and property damage, the Martha Washington College survived into the twentieth century.

For the next few decades, the hotel changed hands many times. At one point, the premises were used to house the actors and actresses appearing in theatricals across the street at Barter Theatre; Ned Beatty and Patricia Neal were among those that began their career in Abingdon. In 1935, the location opened officially as a hotel and since then has played host to many of the century's best and brightest, including President Jimmy Carter, Elizabeth Taylor, and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. In 1984, the United Company bought The Martha Washington Hotel & Spa and began an extensive renovation, taking care to preserve, as well as enhance the hotel's historic charms. The Martha Washington Hotel & Spa has since ranked among the best places to stay in Virginia, offering nothing but the best in contemporary comfort.

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, or by clicking on the book’s title.

Contact: Stanley Turkel

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