Colonials Weekend draws closer every day, and space at area hotels is filling up fast. But before family members rush to make reservations at the Allen Lee, they might want to consider something a bit more historic.
Check out the Willard InterContinental. Sure, it might not have the same sleazy cachet as the Watergate or the defunct Vista Hotel – where D.C.’s beloved mayor Marion Barry was arrested for crack-cocaine possession – but it has played host to the last 33 presidents since the landmark spot began operating as a hotel in 1818. Since its opening, the Willard has figured prominently into American history, aided by its ideal location just a block away from the White House.
“The history of the hotel is the history of America,” gushes Barbara Bahny, who handles public relations for the Willard. “It’s a microcosm of the history of the country.”
Bahny has plenty to be proud of. Last week the Willard was named in the Washington Post’s Best Bets as “Washington’s Best Hotel,” as well as being named “Best Hotel for Business Travelers in Washington D.C.” by Travel & Leisure magazine.
But the Willard appeals as much to history buffs as AAA members. Very few other hotels could exhibit a copy of a hotel bill paid by Abraham Lincoln, and no other could boast one paid for using his first presidential paycheck. In the tense pre-Civil War period, threat of assassination loomed large over the President elect Lincoln and his entourage was smuggled into the Willard, keeping a low profile until his inauguration. Even after he took office he often held staff meetings around the lobby fireplace.
The spot changed hands and names several times before the Willard brothers bought it in 1850. After then, its reputation grew as a place where the business of politics took place. Nathaniel Hawthorne, writing for The Atlantic Monthly during the Civil War, noted that “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.” It was in the Willard’s lobby, not in any government building, where people crowded to make their case to Ulysses S. Grant, and it was there he coined the term “lobbyist.”
Several President-elects over the years have used the Willard as a residence while waiting to move in next door. In 1853 president-elect Franklin Pierce lived there until President Millard Fillmore left the White House. Fillmore then moved directly into the room vacated by Pierce.
For almost a month in 1923 the presidential flag flew outside the Willard, not the White House, while President Coolidge waited for the widowed Mrs. Warren G. Harding to move out of 1600 Penn. after her husband died in office.
Great authors and poets have also contributed to the Willard’s history by spending time drinking, socializing and even writing at the hotel. Charles Dickens stayed in the City Hotel that first occupied the Willard’s spot. Walt Whitman and Nathaniel Hawthorne celebrated it in poetry and prose, and Samuel Clemens used to enjoy causing a sensation just by stepping out into its lobby. Julia Ward Howe penned “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” while staying at the Willard, and Martin Luther King, Jr. stayed there while working and reworking his “I Have a Dream” speech.
Clearly it has, as Bahny stresses, “not just physical beauty, it has history.” But its history should never detract from its grandiose architecture and classic design. Just after the turn of the century the Willard got the star treatment from architect Henry Janeway Hardenbergh, who designed not only the Willard but New York’s Plaza Hotel and Boston’s Copley Plaza in the then-popular Beaux-Arts style. The Beaux-Arts style can be recognized can be recognized in the hotel classic rococo designs both inside and out, from the intricate mosaics that line the lobby floors up to its enormous, ornate chandeliers.
The hotel languished for over a decade after the D.C. riots of the late 1960s turned the Pennsylvania Quarter into a no-man’s land. Even during that time, the Willard figured its way into history. The United Citizens for Nixon-Agnew used the closed hotel as its national headquarters. Most of the original furnishings were auctioned off and the building fell into disrepair.
“There were trees growing in the lobby,” says Bahny.
The hotel, and the area, got a boost during the 1980s from local and federal supporters, and in 1986 the Willard reopened its doors and celebrated the second inauguration of Ronald Reagan. Since then, it has celebrated an inauguration for every succeeding president.
The hotel, its Beaux-Arts splendor restored, has also brought back probably its most signature feature – the Round Robin Bar. In a dark green cozy room nestled into a corner just off the lobby, a circular mahogany bar has always been a hub for politicians or just the avid political spectator. Henry Clay, a presidential candidate in the late 1700s, introduced the mint julep to Washington here; Walt Whitman immortalized the bar in verse and it is rumored that President Grant once had his own secret entrance. Even today, the Round Robin holds a place of prestige in Washington politics.
“Going to the Willard for drinks has a lot of significance,” says Ashley Goodrich-Mahoney, a junior at Brown University who interned in the White House Correspondence Office. “People are waiting for that invite (by their employers). It’s exclusive, and then you can ask ‘Oh, how did you start drinking at the Willard?'”
Getting invited to the Willard for a drink by a higher-up at the White House is always a plus to an internship there.
And unlike many historic locations in D.C., the Round Robin – perhaps because of its insider status, perhaps because of its upper-level prices – has avoided the demystifying presence of an overwhelming number of tourists.
“It’s not like Old Ebbitt Grill, which is becoming a Cheers,” Goodrich-Mahoney says. “It isn’t like that at all. People aren’t that familiar with it. It’s not the Russian Tea Room. When you go there are a lot of men in suits with American flag pins, which most of the people on the Hill are wearing right now.”
However, as Goodrich-Mahoney explains, the refined reputation can often turn away more patrons than it attracts. While some senior staffers at the White House make a habit of going to the Round Robin every Friday for some “bubbly,” the younger staff prefers a more relaxed watering hole.
“People go there is they’re having an important meeting,” she says. “The Willard is more staid, it’s for the older crowd. Everyone else goes to the Hawk and Dove.”
Bahny bristles at this depiction, and stresses that this isn’t the impression the Round Robin and the Willard want to give. “It’s elegant but friendly,” she says, “not stuffy. It’s an expensive hotel, it’s a good hotel, but not a snobby hotel.”
“It’s not just for the old, well-connected crowd,” she says. “I’m hoping that the younger crowd would join us at the bar.”
Their presence would carry its own benefits, she says. The Round Robin’s intimate environment has sparked more than a few friendly exchanges, and patrons never know what conversation might be within earshot.
“Sometimes,” she says, “I’m sitting here and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, am I supposed to be hearing this?'”
Bahny recalls the time when the film “Minority Report” was being shot in the Willard’s dining room when, amid a haze of cigar smoke, she met Steven Spielberg, Tom Cruise and Bill Clinton, seated together, chatting. While the Willard may lack the whiffs of scandal and free-based cocaine one could find at some of Washington’s other hotspots, it possesses something much rarer in politics – class.