Washington DC is known for back-room political deals and scheme-ings at its famous hotels — making certain Washington DC hotels a tourist attraction in themselves — and the most interesting, historic and beautiful of them all is The Willard Hotel near the White House.
Famously, detective Allan Pinkerton smuggled President-elect Abraham Lincoln into The Willard Hotel on February 23, 1861, amidst several assassination threats. Lincoln lived at The Willard until his inauguration on March 4th, conducting business from his room on the 2nd floor and holding meetings in the lobby.
It was at The Willard Hotel where General Ulysses S Grant — just put in charge of the Union forces by President Lincoln — un-assumedly walked into the lobby with his son to book a room, and went unrecognized. A famous story.
It was at the Willard Hotel where Grant later — when President of the US — sat daily in its lobby — relaxing over a cigar and whiskey while so many people came to him for favors that the term “lobbying” was popularized! (Although the term dates back to the 1640s in British Parliament.)
There’s a lot more — the history that has been made at The Willard is amazing — see below — and the hotel, built in Beaux Art style with a Parisian influence — is gorgeous to boot.
My picture of the main lobby above does not do the hotel justice. Here is a picture of the lobby provided by the hotel:
1. Where the US Presidents Have Stayed
Before Lincoln and Grant, President elect Franklin Pierce lived at The Willard prior to taking office from 1853 to 1857. That began a tradition where elected Presidents have often stayed at the Willard prior to taking office.
It is written that every president since Franklin Pierce has either slept in or attended an event at the hotel at least once.
2. Short List of Amazing History at The Willard
The Skinny on just some of the things that have occurred at The Willard:
- All Presidents since Franklin Pierce have stayed here, some for extensive periods of time conducting business in The Willard — most famously Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S Grant — see above.
- Julia Ward Howe wrote the lyrics to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” while staying at The Willard in November 1861. That was the first Willard Hotel building (see below).
- Author Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote in the 1860’s 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.” This was also at the first Willard Hotel building (see below).
- Plans for The League of Nations took shape at the Willard Hotel at meetings that President Woodrow Wilson held in 1916. This was at the current Willard Hotel building (see below).
- Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in his hotel room at the Willard the night before the Jobs and Freedom march on August 28, 1963.
- And on and on.
Read more at these great sources of history for The Willard Hotel:
3. The Original Willard & the ‘Renovated’ Willard
There are actually two Willard Hotel buildings that have occupied the same location since its inception in the early 1800’s. The original Willard Hotel — the one that Grant and Lincoln stayed at — was either significantly renovated or completely knocked down in 1900 to build a brand new Willard Hotel that opened its doors in 1901. The sources on this vary.
This is what the original Willard Hotel looked like:
The renovated Willard Hotel that was erected in 1901 looks like this:
Of the many sources of information on the internet about The Willard Hotel — there are some sources that say the hotel was just ‘renovated’ in 1900:
- Example: HistoricHotels.org says The Willard “was shut down to undergo an extensive series of renovations in 1900. It finally assumed its current appearance when it relaunched roughly a year later.”
- Clio definitively says “old hotel was demolished in 1900 and a new, bigger building was built in its place.” Clio lists their sources as the same ones we examined and those sources do not say the old Willard was demolished.
This is the Willard Hotel today — photographed on October 19, 2023:
The present 12-story Willard Hotel was designed by famed hotel architect Henry Janeway Hardenbergh, who also designed The Waldorf Hotel in NYC (in 1893) and the adjoining Astoria Hotel (in 1897) in NYC, both just before he designed the new Willard Hotel.
PS those two hotels — The Waldorf and The Astoria in NYC — were demolished in 1928 to make room for the Empire State Building. The current Waldorf-Astoria in NYC is on 49th and Park Avenue and was built in 1931, designed by architects Schultze and Weaver. It is Art Deco. But that’s another article for another time.
Down Years in 1960’s thru 1985
The Willard Hotel closed without warning on July 16, 1968. The building was vacant for years. Plans were devised for its demolition, but community groups and historians fought for that not to happen.
The Willard Hotel’s Rebirth in the 1980’s
The hotel fell into a semi-public receivership in 1975 and was sold to the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation. They held a competition to rehabilitate the property and awarded the contract to the Oliver Carr Company and Golding Associates, who then brought in the InterContinental Hotels Group to be part owner and operator of the hotel. The group then restored The Willard — making it beautiful like new and adding an office building as a wing. The hotel was reopened with great fanfare in August, 1986.
4. A Night at the Willard Is Not Cheap
A quick look on Expedia shows that a night’s stay at the Willard runs just under $500 a night if you book it a month in advance. That price is for a Classic Room or Premier Room — with either a King or 2 Queen beds. A Suite goes for $1,000 a night.
HOWEVER, you can get a Classic or Premier room for as little as $365 a night if you book it 2.5 months in advance. And that is a more typical hotel price for downtown DC. I’ve even seen special deals for less than that — in the $250’s — in an internet search.
If you are not staying at The Willard, you can still check out its lobby. It is a must-see if you are in Washington DC. The Willard again, is 1 block from the White House.
You can pick up a Cappacino at a lovely coffee joint right next to The Willard — in fact you can get to this cafe by walking behind the front desk of The Willard to its bathrooms — just before the bathrooms hang a left and you walk into the cafe. The cafe is named Cafe du Park.
You can then take your coffee to go and sit at any one of the many quaint tables with chairs in the hotel lobby or the long hallway that cuts from the lobby through the center of the hotel. You can admire the many paintings.
My picture of the hallway (below) isn’t as nice as the one provided by the hotel itself (above). When you are there in person — the picture above is what I remember seeing.
There is also a bar in the hotel.
6. Have a Cappuccino Outside The Willard’s Lobby
Or you can have the cappuccino just outside the cafe at one of the many tables on the sidewalk.
A wonderful experience awaits you. And the espresso drinks at the cafe, including the cappuccino, are top notch.