As historical as many of the buildings are in Washington, the one building I have always admired is the Willard Hotel–even in its latest iteration. The Willard is a Beaux-Arts style luxury (5 stars!) hotel located at 1401 Pennsylvania Avenue NW in downtown Washington, DC., two blocks east of the White House. It currently houses such wonders as the Round Robin Bar and high-end shops at its lobby level. Still, nothing modern can hold a candle to the history associated with The Willard, going back to 1847, when brothers Henry and Edwin Willard rented out six buildings on the corner of 14th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. The buildings were combined into a single structure, then expanded upward into a four-story hotel. The property was eventually purchased by Henry Willard in 1864.Few hotels have survived as long as the Willard. It left the care of the Willard family in 1946, and due to mismanagement and severe decline in the area, the hotel closed without notice on July 16, 1968. The original buildings remained empty for several decades but were never demolished. Eventually, the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation held a contest to rehabilitate the historic property. Oliver Carr Company and Golding Associates teamed up with the InterContinental Hotels Group to become co-owners and operators, restoring the Willard to its original elegance, adding a few office buildings as well. Several U.S. Supreme Court justices and senators attended a grand reopening party in 1986, but the final restorations were not completed until the end of the 1990s. That year saw the completion of a $73 million restoration project overseen by the National Park Service.
Most restorations of historic structures fall into one of two categories: either an attempt is made to recreate as faithfully as possible what once was, or use inventive interpretations based on the original architecture. According to New York Times architecture critic Paul Goldberger, the Willard Hotel is both. The hotel area itself is a “respectful restoration” of the original, designed by Henry Hardenbergh. Sixteen coats of paint were scraped off the woodwork to verify the hotel’s actual colors in 1901. The site also contains offices, shops, a public plaza, and a new ballroom for the hotel.
In case readers have forgotten, the Willard’s ties to the Civil War are enormous.
- In the 1860s, author Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote that “The Willard Hotel could more aptly be called downtown Washington than the Capitol, the White House, or the State Department.”
- From February 4 to 27, 1861, the Peace Congress, made up of delegates from 21 of the 34 states, met at the Willard in a final attempt to avoid civil war.
- Later that year, hearing a Union regiment sing “John Brown’s Body” as they walked under her window, Julia Ward Howe wrote the lyrics to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic “ during a stay at the hotel in November 1861.
- On February 23, 1861, Detective Allan Pinkerton smuggled Abraham Lincoln into the Willard amid several assassination threats.
- Lincoln and his family lived there until his inauguration on March 4, holding meetings in the lobby and doing business from his bedroom.
- Not-yet-colonel Elmer Ellsworth and his friends John Hay and George Nicolay lived there when Ellsworth got the measles from the Lincoln boys immediately before his trip to New York City to form the 11th New York Fire Zouaves.
- General Ulysses S. Grant and his son, Fred, stayed there when Lincoln invited Grant to the capital and made him lieutenant general, commanding all Union armies.
Other famous guests from the Civil War era include entrepreneur P.T. Barnum, Walt Whitman, General Tom Thumb, Samuel Morse, Emily Dickinson, Jenny Lind, Mark Twain, and Charles Dickens. And lest we forget, such luminaries as New York’s Thurlow Weed, Senator Roscoe Conkling, and Marcy “Boss” Tweed stayed there as well. An older Fred Grant was seen attending meetings of a group that reportedly leased oil reserves to private companies at low rates near Teapot Dome, Wyoming. After all, the scent of politics has a heavy undernote of sulfur.
From the 1860s forward, except for the decades it was closed, the hotel has kept up with politics and the arts. Over the years, it has been the gathering place for presidents, politicians, governors, literary and cultural figures. For example, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his famous “I have a dream” speech in his hotel room at the Willard in the days leading up to his August 28, 1963, march on Washington. As a result, it has been claimed that the hotel is teeming with some memorable ghosts!
Ironically, the Willard Hotel is once again in the news. According to books and newscasts, several well-known men checked into the Willard on or before January 5-6, 2021. Former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani and former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon were among the group. Joining them at various times were then-President Trump’s former National Security Advisor, retired Army General Michael Flynn, and Trump political confidant Roger Stone. At some point, John Eastman joined the group. Eastman was scheduled to be one of the speakers at the “Save America” rally to be held outside the White House on January 6. He was the author of a memo to Vice President Mike Pence outlining Pence’s supposed constitutional power while presiding over the January 6 joint session of Congress called to officially count the Electoral College vote results, to override the vote as certified by state officials.
By midnight, crowds outside the Willard were becoming rowdy. Capitol police clashed with far-right militia types and members of the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers, arresting five people on assault and weapons charges. Men moved into and out of the current incarnation of the grand old Willard, and any stick or stone left from “before” must have recognized the scent of political energy from having sniffed it earlier–much earlier, in some cases.
President Trump effectively set up a “war room” at the Willard Hotel. Bannon and Giuliani plotted with Republican federal and state lawmakers, ex-Trump officials, and far-right militia leaders in a conspiracy that culminated in the storming of the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. No matter how you might personally feel about these actions, the fact is clear: the War Room existed at the Willard Hotel. I suppose Trump and company could have plotted anywhere they wanted, including Trump’s own Washington hotel. The results probably would not have changed a whit.
Nevertheless, for those of us who picture Hay, Nicolay, and Ellsworth at breakfast at the Willard some long-ago Washington morning, or who picture young Fred Grant looking up at the corniced ceilings of the Willard as his dad, the General, pulled him along the halls to their room, it was nice to read about the Willard Hotel being–once again–at the center of the action.
 The White House Historical Association. https://www.whitehousehistory.org/the-willard-hotel
 Landmark West! “Hardenburgh the Hotel Master.” https://www.landmarkwest.org/hardenbergh-the-hotel-master/
 The Most Famous Hotels in the World, “The Willard Washington.” https://famoushotels.org/news/the-willard-washington
 Bob Woodward, Robert Costa. Peril. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2021). 233-234.