On February 18, 1996 an early morning fire gutted the Hotel Washington. While the sixteen residents made it out safely, the damage from the fire was massive and the building was deemed a total loss. Twenty years later, the cultural impact of the Hotel Washington complex is still felt, along with its absence from downtown.
Originally built in 1885 as a railway hotel, The Hotel Washington was a destination and venue for Madison’s LGBT community and featured a dance room called The New Bar as well as Rod’s Club, named for late owner Rodney Scheel. Drag shows, Halloween parties and employee parties held there attained legendary status. The building also housed a concert hall, The Club De Wash, which over the years hosted such musical luminaries as Robyn Hitchcock, Free Hot Lunch, Smashing Pumpkins, Dave Matthews, Merle Saunders, Morphine, Paul Cebar, The Replacements and countless others. The first live show at de Wash was performed on Nov. 18, 1977 by renowned Madison folk duo Peter & Lou Berryman, who became a weekly fixture at the club, playing every Friday night thereafter until the middle of 1986. Local legends The Gomers cut their teeth as a band at Club De Wash, holding the Rock-o-Rama Rock Jam every Tuesday for three years. The Hotel also featured the Cafe Palms restaurant and the former speakeasy known as The Barbers’ Closet, which had a “secret entrance” known only to regular patrons. The sixth and newest venue to open was the Micro Bar, featuring craft beer on tap — which at the time was rare in Wisconsin — and an outdoor patio in the back.
Just days before the fire, the Hotel and its many businesses were the subject of a multi-part article in the Capital Times’ entertainment weekly ‘Rhythm’ section. This was one of the first instances of public press that covered the idea that the Hotel Washington contained gay nightclubs. In the days following the fire, there were rumors that the blaze had been the work of arsonists who were upset by the articles. An investigation revealed that the fire was the result of improper disposal of smoking materials, which was the also the cause of the New Years’ Day fire that permanently closed O’Cayz Corral almost five years later.
Owner Greg Scheel attempted to rebuild the Hotel, but was not able to secure the finances and ultimately the property was rebuilt as a gas station and convenience store.
Over the next few weeks WORT will be taking a closer look at the Hotel’s origins, its heyday and legacy. Many Madisonians have fond memories of their times at the Hotel Washington and we would like to hear from you! Please send messages and photos to email@example.com or share them to the WORT FM facebook page.
There are also two Club de Wash reunion events happening downtown this weekend on Sunday February 21: one at Woof’s Bar on King Street, and another at Genna’s Bar on W. Main Street! Check WORT’s listings at http://www.wortfm.org/calendar for more information.