New York Met buys Gadsby’s Tavern parts in 1917

This article is posted by permission of the Alexandria Gazette.

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New York Met buys Gadsby’s Tavern parts in 1917

November 21, 1996 
by Gretchen Bulova

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Gadsby’s Tavern Museum Ballroom after the woodwork was purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1917. Today, 76 years later, the woodwork can still be seen in the recreated Ballroom at the Met. in New York City.
Courtesy of the Historic American Buildings Survey

On May 21, 1917, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City took away some of Alexandria’s most important pieces of history. In the process, the Met performed a favor for which modern day Alexandrians should be forever grateful.

By the turn of the 20th century, Gadsby’s Tavern, then referred to as the City Hotel and Tavern, had ceased to operate as a hotel. Considered one of the finest establishments in the country during its heyday, the building had fallen into disrepair. Rooms that had been the setting for political dinners, grand balls, and elaborate public affairs were now nothing more than odd shops. The tavern had hosted famous individuals, such as George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and the Marquis de Lafayette; now citizens discussed tearing down the old buildings to make way for a parking lot. By the turn of the century, Alexandria’s interest and pride in Gadsby’s Tavern were lost.

Around 1917, representatives from the Metropolitan Museum Art were collecting prime examples of American architecture for its future American Wing. Upon learning of the Tavern and its association with Washington, and other patriotic figures, Mr. Glenn Brown of the American Institute of Architects suggested that the Met move the Ballroom to New York as a means of preserving the historic room. Trustees from the Museum negotiated with the owners of Gadsby’s Tavern to purchase architectural elements from the famous hostelry. The Met purchased the unique musicians gallery, cornice, door frames, and mantelpieces from the Ballroom. Two mantelpieces from the City Hotel dining rooms and the exterior doorway were also sold. On November 11, 1924, the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art - featuring the permanent installation of the recreated Gadsby’s Tavern Ballroom with original woodwork - opened to the public.

In this manner the significance of Gadsby’s Tavern was preserved, despite the continued decay of the buildings. In a 1926 publication, Early American Inns and Taverns, Elise Lathrop captured the tragic state of Gadsby’s Tavern. "On the southwest corner of Royal and Cameron Streets, is all that remains of the famous old Gadsby Tavern, now a mere shell. Across its old brick front still runs the sign: City Hotel, but according to an old resident, it has not really been a hotel for probably seventy-five years. The lower floor is occupied by a junk shop, but the fine window-moldings, and one old fireplace, with paneling reaching to the ceiling, though begrimed and blackened, are still beautiful. The second floor contained the ballroom, removed in its entirety, and set up in the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City."

However, the publicity surrounding this paradox - the derelict buildings and the Met’s Exhibit purchase of its woodwork, struck a nerve with many Alexandrians. In May, 1928, after the owners of Gadsby’s Tavern put the buildings up for sale, American Legion Post #24 began a fundraising drive to purchase the historic buildings for $18,000 and restore them for $22,000. The ensuing interest in the campaign from Alexandrians and local organizations was enormous. Campaign contributions were reported almost daily in the Alexandria Gazette. Local groups such as the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Alexandria Committee of the Colonial Dames, the Garden Club of Alexandria, and the Alexandria Association not only backed the American Legion in their endeavor, but sponsored restoration of specific parts of Gadsby’s Tavern. By 1932, just in time for the 200th anniversary of George Washington’s birthday, a major portion of the smaller building, the first floor of the City Hotel, and the courtyard were restored.

While the original woodwork of the Gadsby’s Tavern Ballroom is lost to Alexandria forever, the Metropolitan Museum of Art set in motion the preservation of Gadsby’s Tavern. This preservation ethic continues today, as Gadsby’s Tavern undergoes yet another restoration project. More next week.