Sometimes I like to take a break from sneaking around abandoned and condemned structures around town, and spend an evening sneaking around ornate and exclusive buildings around town. Just off the corner of 14th and F, I snuck past a pair of doormen, and stepped down into a hall called Peacock Alley. It should be noted here that every visible inch of the Willard Intercontinental’s grand halls radiates gold.
The hotel is one of the oldest in the city. Just after the War of 1812, as the city was slowly rebuilding itself after the Burning of Washington, John Tayloe III built up a series of row houses to be used as a hotel. The hotel changed hands and changed names several times over the first few decades, and were never quite “up to code.” Charles Dickens stayed at the hotel in 1824, and wrote:
The hotel in which we live is a long row small houses fronting on the street and at the back upon a common yard in which a great triangle Whenever a servant is wanted somebody beats on this triangle from one up to seven according to the number of the in which his presence is required. And as all servants are always being wanted, and none them ever come, this enlivening engine is in performance the whole day through: Clothes drying in the same yard; female slaves cotton handkerchiefs twisted round their heads, are running to and fro on the hotel business; black waiters cross and recross with dishes their hands; two great dogs are playing upon mound of loose bricks; in the centre of the square a pig is turning up his stomach to sun and grunting “that’s comfortable!” Neither the men, nor the women, nor the dogs, the pig, nor any created creature takes smallest notice of the triangle, which is tingling madly all the time.
Two centuries later, the Willard has undergone some changes. By the mid-19th Century, the hotel’s business was struggling (more than usual). John Tayloe’s son, Benjamin Ogle Tayloe, leased the six buildings to Henry Willard in 1847, whose name has been on the building ever since. He converted the six structures into one building, built an additional three stories on top of it all, began turning a serious profit, and eventually bought the building from Tayloe (after a long legal battle, which ended in a Supreme Court Decision).
Over the next 75 years, the hotel thrived as a hotspot in the District. The Willard hosted every US President from Pierce to Coolidge prior to their inauguration, flying a blue flag that bore the Presidential Seal when the President was on premises. Lincoln’s dinner bill is on display; his party rang up a $700 tab. Ulysses S. Grant would frequent the hotel’s bar and lobby during his post-war/pre-presidential years to enjoy a brandy and cigar.
I would like to make plain to our readers that this IS NOT the origin of the word “lobbying,” contrary to what some misinformed tour groups may have you believe.
The Willard also claims John Philip Sousa, Mark Twain, P.T. Barnum, and Samuel Morse as guests. Subtle nods to their presence are found all over the Hotel. A copy of Morse’s The House of Representatives is found in a transept between the lobby and the Café du Parc. It is also widely maintained that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his famous “I have a dream” speech when he stayed there in 1963, just before the March on Washington.
By 1968, the hotel began to fall apart. Mismanagement, economic decline, and an outright lack of investment caused them to close their doors for nearly twenty years. It sat closed, and completely in disrepair until the early 1980’s, when it suddenly sprang back to life. I was curious about the missing years of the Willard, even more curious as to how a hotel that size could bounce back after being closed for so long, and couldn’t get a straight answer out of anyone… Until I walked into the Concierge’s office, and spoke with Monsieur Guillaume Tourniaire.
He explained that the process was quite simple: The Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation held a competition to rehabilitate the hotel, awarded the job to two companies (Oliver Carr and Golding), who in turn partnered with the InterContinental Hotel Group, and proceeded to put $73,000,000 of early-80’s real estate money into the hotel’s revitalization.
Tourniare also told me that a good number of the original craftsmen who helped to build the original hotel’s lobby and halls had children who went into the same trade. The ones who helped replace tiles in the mosaic floor during the 1980’s renovation were the children of the original builders. The development and construction teams did exhaustive research on the history of the structure, and made molds and templates from pieces of the original work. The coffered ceiling, which boasts a series of State Seals, was re-built by set designers from the Metropolitan Opera.
Walking the halls that Whitman once walked, strolling through the spacious lobby where countless dignitaries shared ideas, and venturing below to the surprisingly claustrophobic conference rooms (in the windowless basement), the Willard’s connection to its past is palpable. It feels as though they are not trying to reenact their history, but stand proudly on their accomplishments, and carry their hotel into the 21st Century.
And, as my friend, Monsieur Tourniare will tell you, they intend to do this with all of the class, pomp, and circumstance they can.