No one asked me, but… # 258: Hotel History: The Willard Hotel, Washington, DC

Hotel history: Willard Hotel (394 rooms)

The Willard InterContinental Washington, commonly known as the Willard Hotel, is a historic Beaux-Arts-style luxury hotel located at 1401 Pennsylvania Avenue NW in downtown Washington, DC. famous Round Robin Bar, the Peacock Alley Series of luxury boutiques and voluminous reception rooms. Owned by InterContinental Hotels & Resorts, it is two blocks east of the White House and two blocks west of the Washington Metro Center station.

The National Park Service and the US Department of the Interior describe the history of the Willard Hotel as follows:

American author Nathaniel Hawthorne observed in the 1860s that “The Willard Hotel could more aptly be called downtown Washington than the Capitol, the White House, or the State Department.” Since 1847, when the enterprising brothers Willard, Henry and Edwin first established themselves as innkeepers on the corner of 14th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, the Willard has held a unique place in the history of Washington and nation.

The Willard Hotel was officially founded by Henry Willard when he rented out the six buildings in 1847, combined them into one structure, and expanded it into a four-story hotel which he renamed the Willard Hotel. Willard bought the hotel property from Ogle Tayloe in 1864.

In the 1860s, author Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote that “The Willard Hotel could more aptly be called downtown Washington than the Capitol, the White House, or the State Department.”

From February 4 to 27, 1861, the Peace Congress, made up of delegates from 21 of the 34 states, met at the Willard in a final attempt to avoid civil war. A plaque from the Virginia Civil War Commission, located on the Pennsylvania Ave. of the hotel, commemorates this courageous effort. Later that year, hearing a Union regiment sing “John Brown’s Body” as they walked under her window, Julia Ward Howe wrote the lyrics to “The Republic’s Battle Anthem” during a stay at the hotel in November 1861.

On February 23, 1861, in the midst of several assassination threats, Detective Allan Pinkerton smuggled Abraham Lincoln into the Willard; Lincoln lived there until his inauguration on March 4, holding meetings in the lobby and doing business from his bedroom.

Many presidents of the United States have frequented the Willard, and every president since Franklin Pierce has either slept on or attended an event at the hotel at least once; the hotel is therefore also known as “The residence of the presidents”. It was Ulysses S. Grant’s habit of drinking whiskey and smoking a cigar while relaxing in the lobby. Folklore (promoted by the hotel) maintains that this is the origin of the term “pressure,” for Grant was often approached by those seeking favors. However, this is probably wrong, because Ninth New Webster College Dictionary dates the verb “to lobby” to 1837. Grover Cleveland lived there at the start of his second term in 1893, worrying about his baby girl’s health following a recent outbreak of scarlet fever in the White House. Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations plans took shape when he held Peacebuilding League meetings in the hotel lobby in 1916. Six incumbent vice presidents have lived in the Willard. Millard Fillmore and Thomas A. Hendricks, during his brief tenure, lived in old Willard; then the vice-presidents, James S. Sherman, Calvin Coolidge and finally Charles Dawes all lived in the current building for at least part of their vice-presidency. Fillmore and Coolidge continued in the Willard, even after becoming president, to allow the First Family to leave the White House.

Several hundred officers, many of them World War I veterans, first reunited with General of the Armies, John J. “Blackjack” Pershing, at the Willard Hotel on October 2, 1922, and formally established the Reserve Officers Association (ROA) as an organization.

The current 12-story structure, designed by renowned hotel architect Henry Janeway Hardenbergh, opened in 1901. It suffered a major fire in 1922 that caused $ 250,000 (equivalent to $ 3,865,300 in 2020), in damage. Among those who had to be evacuated from the hotel were Vice President Calvin Coolidge, several US Senators, composer John Philip Sousa, film producer Adolph Zukor, newspaper editor Harry Chandler and many other media outlets, business and political leaders who were in attendance for the annual Gridiron dinner. For many years, the Willard was the only hotel from which one could easily tour all of downtown Washington, and as a result, it has housed many dignitaries throughout its history.

The Willard family sold their share of the hotel in 1946, and due to mismanagement and severe decline in the area, the hotel closed without notice on July 16, 1968. The building remained vacant for several decades. years and many plans have been launched for its demolition. It eventually went into semi-public receivership and was sold to the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation. They held a competition to rehabilitate the property and ultimately awarded it to Oliver Carr Company and Golding Associates. The two partners then called on InterContinental Hotels Group to become co-owner and operator of the hotel. The Willard was then restored to its turn-of-the-century elegance and a contingent of office buildings added. The hotel was reopened in the middle of a big party on August 20, 1986, which was attended by several United States Supreme Court justices and United States senators. At the end of the 90s, the hotel again underwent a major restoration.

Martin Luther King Jr., wrote his famous “I have a dream” speech in his hotel room at the Willard in the days leading up to his August 28, 1963 march on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

On September 23, 1987, it was reported that Bob Fosse collapsed in his room at the Willard and later died. It was later learned that he had in fact died at the George Washington University Hospital.

Among the many other famous guests at the Willard were PT Barnum, Walt Whitman, General Tom Thumb, Samuel Morse, The Duke of Windsor, Harry Houdini, Gypsy Rose Lee, Gloria Swanson, Emily Dickinson, Jenny Lind, Charles Dickens, Bert Bell, Joe Paterno, and Jim Sweeney.

Steven Spielberg shot the finale of his film Minority report at the hotel in the summer of 2001. He toured with Tom Cruise and Max von Sydow in the Willard Room, Peacock Alley and the kitchen.

Located just two blocks from the White House, the hotel is teeming with famous and powerful ghosts. Over the years, it has been the gathering place for presidents, politicians, governors, literary and cultural figures. Julia Ward Howe composes at Willard “The Republic Battle Anthem.” General Ulysses S. Grant held court in the lobby and Abraham Lincoln borrowed slippers from his owner.

Presidents Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce, Buchanan, Taft, Wilson, Coolidge and Harding have stayed at the Willard. Other notable guests included Charles Dickens, Buffalo Bill, David Lloyd George, PT Barnum and countless others. Walt Whitman included the Willard in his verses and Mark Twain wrote two books there in the early 1900s. Vice President Thomas R. Marshall, annoyed by the high prices of Willard, coined the phrase “What this country needs is a good 5-cent cigar.”

The Willard remained vacant from 1968 and in danger of demolition until 1986, when it regained its former glory. A $ 73 million restoration project has been carefully planned by the National Park Service to recreate the hotel as closely as historically possible. Sixteen coats of paint were scraped off the woodwork to verify the hotel’s original colors in 1901.

New York Times architecture critic Paul Goldberger wrote on September 2, 1986:

Most restorations of venerable buildings fall into one of two categories: either attempts to recreate as faithfully as possible what once was, or inventive interpretations that use the original architecture as a starting point.

The recently rehabilitated Willard Hotel is both. Half of this project consists of the respectful restoration of Washington’s largest hotel building, a prominent Beaux-Arts building of Henry Hardenbergh abandoned since 1968, victim of the decline of his neighborhood, a few blocks to the is from the White House. The other half is a brand new addition to the exuberant design containing offices, shops, a public plaza, and a new ballroom for the hotel.

My recent book “Great American Hotel Architects Volume 2Was published in 2020.
All of my following books can be ordered from AuthorHouse by visiting and by clicking on the title of the book:

  • Major American hoteliers: pioneers of the hotel industry (2009)
  • Built to Last: Over 100 Hotels in New York (2011)
  • Built to Last: Over 100 Hotels East of the Mississippi (2013)
  • Hotel Mavens: Lucius M. Boomer, George C. Boldt, Oscar du Waldorf (2014)
  • Great American Hoteliers Volume 2: Pioneers of the Hotel Industry (2016)
  • Built to Last: Over 100 Hotels West of the Mississippi (2017)
  • Hotel Mavens Volume 2: Henry Morrison Flagler, Henry Bradley Plant, Carl Graham Fisher (2018)
  • Great American Hotel Architects Volume I (2019)
  • Hotel Mavens: Volume 3: Bob et Larry Tisch, Curt Strand, Ralph Hitz, Cesar Ritz, Raymond Orteig (2020)

If you need an expert witness:
Stanley Turkel has been an expert witness in more than 42 hospitality-related cases. His extensive experience in hotel operations is beneficial in cases involving:

  • slip and fall accidents
  • wrongful deaths
  • injuries from fire and carbon monoxide
  • hotel security issues
  • dram store requirements
  • hurricane damage and / or business interruption

Please feel free to call her toll free at 917-628-8549 to discuss any expert witness assignments related to the hotel.

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