Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Willard Hotel

The Willard – originally built in `1815 and rebuilt twice since – sits like an anchor on one end of Pennsylvania Avenue. At the other end sits the U.S. Capitol.

When Henry Willard bought the property in 1850, the hotel's history as a major force in the social and political life of Washington began. “This hotel, in fact, may be much more justly called the center of Washington and the Union than the Capital, the White House or the State Department,” wrote Nathaniel Hawthorne while covering the Civil War for The Atlantic Monthly.

The Residence of Presidents

Called “The Residence of Presidents,” the hotel has hosted every president, as a sleeping guest or a guest at a social function, from Franklin Pierce in 1853 to Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s.

In 1861, rumors of assassination prompted the Pinkerton detectives to hide President Abraham Lincoln at the Willard. Lincoln held staff meetings in the lobby and borrowed slippers belonging to the Willard family during his stay. He stayed until his inauguration on March 4 and returned to the Willard to watch his inaugural parade. When Lincoln received his first paycheck as president, he paid his Willard bill of $773.75.

Time magazine reports that the Willard placed a leather chair in a secluded part of the lobby for President Ulysses Grant. Grant often used the Willard lobby as a refuge from the daily pressures of the White House. Still Grant, while enjoying his brandy and cigars, was pestered by people seeking the president’s ear. President Grant coined a word that endures today when he labeled this uninvited entourage of would-be power brokers “lobbyists.”

The Willard became the official presidential residence for nearly a month in 1923. Calvin Coolidge took up residence at the hotel while he was vice-president and remained there while the newly widowed Mrs. Warren Harding packed her belongings. The presidential flag flew in front of the hotel during that time. That same flag was flown when President Reagan was a dinner guest at the Willard Inter-Continental in September 1986.

In 1916, Woodrow Wilson held the meetings of the League to Enforce Peace, the predecessor to the League of Nations, at the e Willard. Wilson’s vice-president, Thomas Marshall, in criticizing the price of cigars at the hotel new stand, said, “What this country needs is a good five-cents cigar.”

Historical Significance

In 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry sailed his fleet to Japan. In an effort that continues today, Perry’s trip was America’s initial attempt to pry open the Japanese market. Perry negotiated the first commerce treaty between Japan and the Untied States. In 1860, a Japanese delegation came to Washington and the Willard Hotel to sign the new treaty. One member of the delegation wrote, “The house of the Secretary of State is not as fine as the hotel.”

These foreign guests caused great excitement in the District of Columbia. Great throngs of tourists, journalists, and the curious lined the street to watch the sword-carrying Japanese delegation in their brightly colored costumes and close-cropped hair. It was the first trip aboard by an official group of Japanese to a foreign destination.

The Japanese did not use pillows but preferred a block of wood. One Japanese official could not find his block of wood, so he used a white ceramic bowl instead. In the morning, the stewards were shocked to see the Japanese sleeping with his head on a chamber pot.

The Willard has also witnessed war. In 1859, Jefferson Davis, soon-to-be president of the Confederacy, attended a party at the hotel with 1,800 guests. Garnett Laidlaw Eskew, in his book Willard’s of Washington, writes this was the last party attended by Northern and Southern leaders before the American Civil War broke out. Later the hotel was the site of the Peace Conference from February 4 to 27, 1861. Delegates from 21 of the 34 states met in a last desperate attempt to avoid the Civil War. A plaque from the Virginia Civil War Commission, on the Pennsylvania Avenue façade of the hotel, pays tribute to this courageous effort.

Most American children know by hear the lines, “mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord,” from “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” In 1861, Julia Ward Howe, playwright, poet, and essayist, wrote the words to this anthem on
Willard Hotel stationary. Ward wrote as she looked down from her window upon marching union troops who were singing a tune upon which this anthem is based. Julia sold the anthem text to the Atlantic Monthly magazine for ten dollars.

Notable Guests

When Charles Dickens made a voyage to the Untied States in 1842, he stayed at the Willard Hotel. This Englishman thought little of American culture and even less of the capitol city. He mockingly called Washington “The City of Magnificent Intentions” instead of its renowned title, “The City of Magnificent Distances.” From his hotel window, he could see dogs frolicking in the dirt, pigs rolling about the courtyard, and the Capitol and the Washington monument both halfway finished.

According to Smithsonian magazine, when Mark Twain stayed there he promenaded about, accompanied “by a horde of twittering females.” Statesman and orator Henry Clay mixed the first mint julep in Washington in the Willard’s Round Robin Bar.

The Willard also played host to these famous guests: Emily Dickinson, Jenny Lind, P.T. Barnum, Walt Whitman, Tom Thumb, Samuel Morse, the Duke of Windsor, Flo Ziegfield, Harry Houdini, the Barrymores, Mae West, Gloria Swanson and Gypsy Rose Lee.

The Willard family sold their interest in the hotel in 1946. The hotel continued to operate until July 1968 when its doors were closed. The renovated Willard Inter-Continental Hotel opened in 1986 after the building lay empty for 18 years.

This article originally appeared in Pest Management magazine.

No comments: