At 12 floors, the Cairo towers above nearby buildings. At its opening in 1894, the building’s height caused a tremendous uproar among local residents, who dubbed it “Schneider’s Folly” and lobbied Congress to limit the height of residential buildings in the District of Columbia to prevent more skyscrapers from being built. The resulting Height of Buildings Act of 1899, and subsequent zoning laws, have restricted the heights of buildings in Washington, D.C.
Around 1900, the building was renamed the Cairo Hotel and became a center of D.C. society, with its ballroom frequently the center of social and political gatherings. Its guests and tenants have included F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Edison, and other powerful political figures.
On March 15, 1897, the deposed queen of Hawaii, Queen Liliuokalani, stayed in the Cairo while she lobbied President Grover Cleveland for compensation for the U.S. overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom in January 1893. On February 15, 1905, the Cairo swirled with intrigue when, during a labor union strike, painter J. Frank Hanby fell to his death when the ropes supporting him broke. The ropes were found possibly to have been cut by acid, leading to a grand jury investigation into the cause of death and many high-profile articles in The Washington Post. The high society of Washington often held meetings at the Cairo Hotel, such as that between the Woman’s National Democratic League and a Congressman from New Mexico in 1913.
The December 2, 1923 Washington Post contained an advertisement for the Cairo Hotel that read:
The CAIRO HOTEL. Absolutely Fireproof. A hotel which has demonstrated its value in years of service to a discriminating clientele. Retains with bath, per day Rooms with detached bath, per day Two-room suites, per day Three-room suites, per day & parties visiting the National Capitol and families desiring to make Washington their temporary or permanent home, the Cairo Hotel offers exceptional advantages of location and environment, construction and arrangement, equipment and management. – James T. Howard, Manager
In June 1940, a newspaper headline reported “Two Bandits Rob Cairo Hotel, Escape in Chase”.
A party held on the night of November 30, 1940, featured 500 canaries singing beneath the chandeliers in the grand ballroom. The building also had a bowling alley and a coffee shop.
In 1954, the Cairo Hotel hosted Sunday mambo parties, played by Buddy Rowell and promoted by Maurice Gervitsch, known as “Groggy”. The dances were featured a 12-piece band. These glamorous and sensational days lasted into the late 1950s.
The building was sold in 1957 as a 267-room hotel, and on October 12 the new owners announced plans to spend $100,000 refurbishing the structure. In 1958, a fire caused by an electrical short-circuit on the sixth floor led to $25,000 worth of damage, but no structural problems.
The Cairo began to decline during the 1960s, when it was inhabited by squatters, prostitutes, drug addicts, student protesters, criminals, and even feral dogs. In June 1964, the FBI tracked a 24-year-old escaped convict to the building.
In 1966, the D.C. Department of Health considered leasing the run-down building for use as a rehabilitation center for alcoholics. After a series of failed attempts at renovation, including a closure on August 7, 1972, the building was restored in 1974 under the leadership of architect Arthur Cotton Moore. It was converted into condominiums in 1979.
At the building’s centennial celebration in October 1994, Ross Elementary school students sang “Happy Birthday” to the building in thanks for a $1,000 donation made by the Cairo Condominium Unit Owners Association. Ward 2 Council member Jack Evans read a proclamation declaring it “Cairo Day” in DC. Of the building, he said, “It is a real monument in the area.”
On May 29, 2007, a fire emptied the Cairo of its roughly 400 residents. At least nine emergency vehicles responded to the blaze. The fire heavily damaged one of the central units of the tenth floor. Firewalls prevented its spread, although some other units suffered water damage.
The building was repointed between 2007 and 2009, a $2.1 million project funded by the condominium owners, who paid fees ranging from $7,980 to more than $25,000, depending on the size of their apartments.
In summer 2010, the lobby’s years-old carpet was pulled up, exposing the original terrazzo flooring for restoration. It revealed echoes of the façade’s middle-eastern theme, with sandy hues and an interlocking tile pattern.