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Capital Caravanserai

July 2024
2min read

Everyone slept here but Washington. For nearly as long as there has been a national capital in the District of Columbia, there also has been a hotel on the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and Fourteenth Street. The first was Fuller’s City Hotel, which was built in the early 1830’s and entertained the likes of Henry Clay, Martin Van Buren, John Tyler, Zachary Taylor, and Millard Fillmore. In 1850, Fuller’s was purchased by onetime steamboat steward Henry A. Willard and his brothers, who rebuilt it, gave it their name, and reopened it with a suitably gala banquet; one of the speakers was the renowned Edward Everett, who intoned what must be one of the most intelligent remarks ever heard upon such occasions: “There are few duties in life,” he said, “that require less nerve than to come together and eat a good dinner.”

For the next half-century, the Willard Hotel stood at the heart of Washington life. Franklin Pierce slept here the night before his inauguration; so did Abraham Lincoln—guarded against assassins by Allan Pinkerton himself. It was at the Willard that Julia Ward Howe wrote the lyrics to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and it was the Willard’s lobby and bar that frequently attracted Ulysses S. Grant during the years of his Presidency. Nathaniel Hawthorne, who stayed there frequently in the 1860’s, said that the Willard could “more justly be called the center of Washington and the nation than either the Capitol or the White House or the State Department. … At Willard’s, you exchange nods with Governors of sovereign states. You elbow illustrious men, and tread on the toes of Generals. You mix here with office seekers, wire pullers, inventors, artists, poets, editors … long-winded talkers, clerks, diplomats, mail contractors, railway directors—until your identity is lost among them!” And to soften the impact of such identity crises, he noted, one always could “adopt the universal habit and call for a mint julep, a whiskey gin, a gin cocktail, a brandymash, or a glass of pure old rye. …”

In 1901, amid cries of “Vandalism!” from Washington traditionalists, the old Willard was ripped down and a great stone edifice put up in its place.

And for well over another half-century the hotel continued to entertain Presidents and poets and celebrities—among them, Woodrow Wilson’s Vice President, Thomas R. Marshall, who, so legend has it, was so outraged over the prices at Willard’s tobacco counter that he was driven to remark that “what this country needs is a good five-cent cigar!”

But as the Washington Post put it, “A hotel cannot live on its history, not even a history as illustrious as that of the Willard.” By the 1960’s, competition from newer, slicker hotels was cutting into business, and on July 15,1968, the 150 guests who had chosen to stay at the Willard in spite of bad plumbing and worn carpets found notes slipped under their doors. They had to be out of the place by eight o’clock the next morning, the notes said; Willard’s was closing. Thank you for your patronage, and please pay your bill before leaving.

The owner first announced that the hotel would be torn down for a park, and later that it would be remodeled for use as an office building. Both plans were scotched because of the hotel’s status as a National Historic Landmark. In 1974 the National Trust for Historic Preservation financed a rehabilitation and feasible-use study of the Willard, which found that continued use of the building as a hotel could be profitable. In the meantime, Congress had moved to create the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation, a public agency devoted to the restoration and preservation of several historic blocks on Pennsylvania Avenue; in January, 1978, the PADC purchased the Willard and invited design proposals from potential buyers. The winner, announced on December 15, was a partnership between the Fairmont Hotel Corporation of San Francisco and a Florida financier. The design for rehabilitation—done by the New York firm of Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates—calls for the creation of three hundred modern rooms within the shell of the old Willard, with another three hundred in a new, adjacent building that will echo the original hotel’s arches and turrets. Completion of the complex is expected for late 1982 or early 1983.

The Willard will live again, it seems—with or without brandymash.

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