Hundreds of US towns, cites, counties, lakes, etc. bear the name Washington – most, one would think, in honor of George Washington, although it’s possible baseball vagabond Claudell Washington may have been recognized by a locale or two in recent years.
The first town to name itself for America’s Founding Father was Washington, Ga., which definitely took a leap of faith when it opted to identify itself with the then-commander in chief of patriot forces in January 1780. At that point, the colonies’ hopes for defeating the British in the American Revolution were very much touch and go, and would be for another 18 months.
One imagines that if the war had gone the other way, British and loyalist forces would not have looked kindly on those who opted to name their town for the defeated rebel leader.
Today, Washington is a bucolic community of about 4,000, with a surprising number of antebellum mansions – more than 100 – including that of Confederate Secretary of State and later General Robert Toombs; the residence of planter John Talbot – now called the Griggs Home – where Eli Whitney spent time perfecting his cotton gin; and the Slaton Home, where Sarah Porter Hillhouse, Georgia’s first female newspaper editor, lived more than 200 years ago.
At the heart of the town is the Washington’s court square, which, more accurately, is shaped like a rectangle and is surrounded by one- and two-story brick buildings.
Many date from the late 1890s, having been built after a particularly devastating fire in June 1895 that claimed five stores, an office building, a wagon-and-machine shop and a residence. In addition, the town’s Episcopal church and two other dwellings were seriously damaged.
Obviously, the conflagration wasn’t on par with the great Chicago Fire of 1871, but in a town that then claimed 2,000 residents, such a blaze could have proved debilitating to business and citizenry alike.
The town’s residents didn’t take long to rebound; several of the structures in the court square bear the date 1895.
Propelled by agriculture and its position on a key rail line, Washington continued to thrive despite the occasional setback.
A short distance from courthouse square sits the old Barrows House Hotel (above), built by Edward F. Barrows, an architect who assisted with construction of the Atlanta Penitentiary.
The Barrows Hotel opened in 1899, and was a two-story, Romanesque Revival-style, brick building that featured a square, two-and-a-half story corner tower, a parapet roof with elaborate cornice, round-arched windows and an arcaded first floor on the front facade.
The hotel sat across from the old Georgia Railroad depot and was built to accommodate “drummers,” or traveling salesmen.
But, like the town, and rural communities across the region, the hotel has fallen on hard times in recent decades.
The train depot was demolished in the 1970s and the hotel itself has been in disrepair for at least that long. Still, despite creeping foliage, scattered debris and the occasional broken window, the structure retains at least a sliver of its past grandeur.
In recent years Washington has embraced efforts to renovate many of its many older structures. Taking on a project the magnitude of the Barrows House Hotel would be no mean feat, but it would be a worthy compliment to the other stunningly restored edifices around the attractive Southern town.
(Top: Barrows House Hotel, located on Depot Street, Washington, Ga.)