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Guest Historian Series: Stanley Turkel, CMHS
Nobody Asked Me, But... No. 148;
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 my book Built To Last: 100+ Year-Old Hotels East of the Mississippi (AuthorHouse 2013)
About Stanley Turkel, CMHS
Stanley Turkel was designated as the 2014 and 2015 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.
Stanley Turkel is one of the most widely-published authors in the hospitality field. 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. His fourth hotel book was described by The New York Times: "Nostalgia for the City's caravansaries will be kindled by Stanley Turkel's...fact-filled...Hotel Mavens: Lucius M. Boomer, George C. Boldt and Oscar of the Waldorf."
Built to Last: 100+ Year-Old Hotels East of the Mississippi is available for purchase from the publisher by visiting bookstore.authorhouse.com.