Nobody Asked Me, But... No. 148;
Hotel History: The Willard InterContinental (1850), Washington, District of Columbia*
By Stanley Turkel, CMHS
The National Park Service and the U.S. 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 more justly could be called the center of Washington than either the Capitol or the White House or the State Department." From 1847 when the enterprising Willard brothers, Henry and Edwin, first set up as innkeepers on the corner of 14th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, the Willard has occupied a unique niche in the history of Washington and the nation [...]. In 1847, Benjamin Ogle Tayloe leased the establishment to Henry A. Willard and his brother, Edwin [...]. In 1858, the Willards expanded again, purchasing the property of Col. James Kearney and built a six-story addition to the hotel [...].
At the beginning of the twentieth century, a new Willard Hotel was built by the George A. Fuller Company to the designs of the famous architect Henry Janeway Hardenburgh. In 1922, a major fire caused the evacuation by Vice President Calvin Coolidge, several U.S. Senators, composer John Philip Sousa, movie producer Adolph Zukor, and other attendees at the annual gridiron dinner.
Presidents Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce, Buchanan, Lincoln, Grant, Taft, Wilson, Coolidge and Harding stayed at the Willard. Other notable guests have included Charles Dickens, Buffalo Bill, David Lloyd George, P.T. Barnum, and countless others. Walt Whitman included the Willard in his verses and Mark Twain wrote two books there in the early 1900s. It was Vice President Thomas R. Marshall, annoyed at the Willard's high prices, who coined the phrase "What this country needs is a good 5-cent cigar."
Situated just two blocks from the White House, the hotel is replete with the ghosts of the famous and powerful. Over the years it has been the gathering place for presidents, politicians, governors, literary and cultural figures. It was at the Willard that Julia Ward Howe composed "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." Gen. Ulysses S. Grant held court in the lobby and Abraham Lincoln borrowed house slippers from its proprietor. Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Jenny Lind were all part of the parade of celebrated Willard guests.
Even the uniquely political term "lobbyist" is said to have been coined at the Willard to describe those 19th century special-interest promoters who cornered politicians in the opulent Willard Hotel lobby.
The Willard sat vacant from 1968 and in danger of demolition until 1986 when it was restored to its former glory. A $73 million restoration project was carefully planned by the National Park Service to recreate the hotel as historically accurate as possible. Sixteen layers of paint were scraped from the woodwork to ascertain the hotel's original 1901 colors.
The New York Times architecture critic Paul Goldberger wrote on September 22, 1986:
Most restorations of venerable buildings fall into one of two categories: they are either attempts to recreate as faithfully as possible what once was, or they are inventive interpretations that use the original architecture as a jumping-off point.
The newly rehabilitated Willard Hotel is both. Half of this project involves the respectful restoration of Washington's greatest hotel building, a distinguished Beaux-Arts structure by Henry Hardenbergh that had been derelict since 1968, a victim of the decline of its neighborhood, a few blocks east of the White House. The other half is an exuberantly conceived, brand new addition containing offices, shops, public plaza and a new ballroom for the hotel.
*excerpted from my book Built To Last: 100+ Year-Old Hotels East of the Mississippi (AuthorHouse 2013)
About Stanley Turkel, CMHS
Stanley Turkel was designated as the 2014 and 2015 Historian of the Year by Historic Hotels of America, the official program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. This award is presented to an individual for making a unique contribution in the research and presentation of history and whose work has encouraged a wide discussion, greater understanding and enthusiasm for American History.
Stanley Turkel is one of the most widely-published authors in the hospitality field. Two of his hotel books have been promoted, distributed and sold by the American Hotel & Lodging Educational Institute (Great American Hoteliers: Pioneers of the Hotel Industry and Built To Last: 100+ Year-Old Hotels East of the Mississippi). A third hotel book (Built To Last: 100+ Year-Old Hotels in New York) was called "passionate and informative" by The New York Times. His fourth hotel book was described by The New York Times: "Nostalgia for the City's caravansaries will be kindled by Stanley Turkel's...fact-filled...Hotel Mavens: Lucius M. Boomer, George C. Boldt and Oscar of the Waldorf."
Built to Last: 100+ Year-Old Hotels East of the Mississippi is available for purchase from the publisher by visiting bookstore.authorhouse.com.