© Copyright www.cosmopolis.ch Louis Gerber All rights reserved.
Review by Torge Hamkens. Article added on March 21, 2005.
Located on 1401 Pennsylvania Avenue, just a block away from the White House, the historic Willard InterContinental has been a favorite of presidents and world figures for more than 150 years. In fact, the Willard has hosted almost every U.S. president since Franklin Pierce in 1853. From its inception to this day, the Willard has been a major force in the social and political life of Washington, DC. “In a sense, the history of the Willard displays the history of America”, says Barbara Bahny, who handles public relations for the Willard. “The hotel is a microcosm of the history of the country.”
While covering the Civil War for “The Atlantic Monthly”, famous American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne gave a description of the Willard Hotel: “This hotel, in fact, may be much more justly called the center of Washington and the Union than either the Capitol, the White House, or the State Department… You exchange nods with the governors of sovereign States, you elbow illustrious men, and tread on the toes of generals; you hear statesmen and orators speaking in their familiar tones. You are mixed up with office seekers, wire pullers, inventors, artists, poets, prosers… until identity is lost among them.” This atmosphere has not changed. Today, Barbara Bahny nicely portrays the Hotel’s guests as “people that quietly move and shape the world”.
Although the landmark spot has served as hotel since 1818, the Willard’s history as a major force in the social and political life of Washington began in 1850 when the brothers Henry and Edwin Willard brought the property. Since that time, the Willard has been at the centre of a couple of anecdotes that illustrate the hotel’s history:
Because of assassination threats in the tense pre-Civil War period, President-elect Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865) and his entourage were smuggled into the Willard at dawn on February 23, 1861, keeping a low profile until he took office. Even after that, he sometimes held staff meetings in front of the lobby fireplace. Lincoln and his family of five stayed at the hotel until his inauguration. His first paycheck as President went to pay his Willard bill at $773.75 for his family’s ten day stay, including meals. “A copy of this bill is on display at the Willard InterContinental amongst a presentation of historical documents and photos”, Bahny proudly explains.
After a long day in the Oval Office, President Ulysses S. Grant (1869-1877) used to escape the pressures of the presidency with a cigar in the Willard lobby. As word spread of Grant’s fondness for the Willard lobby, people would look for him to argue their individual cases. Allegedly Grant called these people "lobbyists", thus coining the term.
In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921) held meetings of the League to Enforce Peace, predecessor of the League of Nations, at the Willard. Wilson’s Vice-President, Thomas Marshall, in criticizing the price of cigars at the hotel news stand said, “What this country needs is a good five cent cigar.” Marshall lived at the hotel during his term as Vice President.
In 1923, the Willard stood in as the official residence of President Calvin Coolidge (1923-1929) for nearly a month. After the sudden death of President Warren Harding (1921-1923), Mrs. Harding needed time to pack her possessions and move out of the White House. During that time the presidential flag flew over the main entrance of the Willard.
In August 1963, while a guest at the Willard, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote his famous “I have a Dream” speech. Dr. King delivered his speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during “The March on Washington”, America’s first large-scale integrated protest march. Afterwards, he and other civil rights leaders met with President John F. Kennedy in the White House.
Yet the Willard Hotel does not only have history, it also has a grandiose architecture. Today’s building dates back to 1901. Joseph Willard Jr., nephew of Henry Willard who first brought the Willard to prominence in the 1850s decided to create one of the city’s first skyscrapers to “out-dazzle” anything else on the Washington horizon. For that task he selected architect Henry Janeway Hardenbergh, who also designed New York’s famed Waldorf-Astoria Hotel and The Plaza Hotel. Hardenbergh chose the Beaux-Arts style that dominated the second half of the 19th century. It can be recognized by the hotel’s imposing size, a profusion of intricate, external detail, a high mansard roof and “pavilions” that just forward at the ends and in the center. Internally, it springs from its vast proportions, its great columns and long vistas, underscored by interior features such as huge chandeliers, inlaid mosaic marble tile floors, elaborate plaster work and painted and carved ceilings.
The hotel flourished until after World War II, when it fell on hard times as the surrounding neighborhood began to decline. The Willard family sold the property in 1946 to new owners who failed to keep the building up to the grand style of its past. By 1968, the neighborhood had slipped into such a dramatic downward spiral that the Willard closed its doors. Most of the original furnishings were sold, the building fell into despair. “There were trees growing in the lobby”, Bahny explains.
Fortunately, the area got a boost during the 1980s from local and federal supporters so that the Willard reopened its doors in 1986 with its Beaux Arts splendor carefully restored and reborn as the Willard InterContinental. Since then, the Willard has once again resumed its place as “The Crown Jewel of Pennsylvania Avenue” being the scene of meetings, gala social events and sumptuous dinners in elegant dining rooms. Heads of State, one is told, stride through the vast lobby, celebrities and senators stroll under the chandeliers, and crowned heads rest again in lavishly appointed suites.
Two of these suites depicted next to this article deserve especial attention:
The 2,280 square foot Presidential Suite, decorated in reds and golds in a federal style, boasts a black and white marble foyer, two sitting rooms with parquet floors covered by handmade Aubusson rugs, a master bedroom with a four-poster bed and an oval-shaped private dining room, which looks onto the Washington Monument and the Pennsylvania Avenue. It is stated, that the Secret Service and the State Department were consulted to ensure provisions for maximum security in the Presidential Suite.
The Honeymoon Suite (also called Jenny Lind Suite) secreted away in the angled top of the hotel, is decorated in a cool monochromatic scheme of cream and beige. An elegant foyer filled with custom-crafted American Empire style furniture and one-of-a-kind antiques, lead to an elevated sitting area with a porthole window overlooking the U.S. Capitol. Adjacent to the sitting area is a dramatic oval bedroom with dome-ceiling. Finally, an outstanding feature of the suite is the sunken Jacuzzi bathtub, which is spacious enough for two and provides open views of the Washington Monument from a circular casement window.
The Willard also offers a restaurant, The Willard Room, where Washington’s most famous faces come for its fine, innovative cuisine, elegant surroundings and confidential atmosphere. The dining experiences at the Willard Room are orchestrated by Maitre d’Francisco Nieto whose dining room prowess is said to be well known in White House circles and among celebrities of the show biz. Not accidentally, the Willard Room served as a movie location for director Steven Spielberg’s film Minority Report, starring actor Tom Cruise. Barbara Bahny still recalls an evening of that time when, “amid a haze of cigar smoke”, she met Stephen Spielberg, Tom Cruise and Bill Clinton seated together, chatting.
Last but not least, a major institution of the Willard is the Round Robin Bar that is said to be often frequented by politicians. With its polished mahogany and stately atmosphere it is a perfect place for enjoying an afternoon or evening cocktail. During the 1850's when the bar was called the “Gentlemen's Parlor”, famous Kentucky Senator and Congressman Henry Clay mixed Washington's first Mint Julip here. This refreshing, hand-crushed libaton is now the signature drink of the Round Robin. The author of this article can testify to its superb quality, having meticulously observed that the current offerings at the Bar are up to par.
A stay at the Willard InterContinental brings you right to the heart of American social and political life. Yet, the Willard is anything but a snobby hotel. It portrays something much rarer in today’s world - class.
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The landmark building. Photo © Willard Intercontinental Washington, D.C.
The Lobby. Photo © Willard Intercontinental Washington, D.C.
The Presidential Suite. Photo © Willard Intercontinental Washington, D.C.
An Executive Suite - the category tested by Torge Hamkens.
Photo © Willard Intercontinental Washington, D.C.
The Honeymoon Suite. Photo © Willard Intercontinental Washington, D.C.
View from the Honeymoon Suite. Photo © Willard Intercontinental Washington, D.C.
The Willard Room. Photo © Willard Intercontinental Washington, D.C.
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