The last major social event in Washington before the Civil War that included Southerners was at the Willard Hotel.
A desperate conference among representatives of 21 states attempting to avoid war took place in its meeting rooms, chaired by a former president. Abraham Lincoln, as president-elect, spent his first nine nights in Washington in the hotel, due to safety concerns. Generals such as Ulysses S. Grant, William T. Sherman and George B. McClellan stayed here. Its public rooms, restaurants and tavern were the crossroads for generations of congressmen, as well as leaders from around the globe.
The Willard Hotel was a landmark of social elegance and grace in the heart of the capital. As war ignited and blazed across the land, Washington became a city of hotels, boarding houses, brothels and travelers.
The city teemed with soldiers and merchants seeking lucrative contracts by day. At night, the city became the playground of revelers.
Yet the Willard maintained its stature and reputation as Washington’s premier hotel. One might go to the Willard simply “to see and be seen.” Only the best known or the fortunate could manage to obtain a room.
Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote in the Atlantic Monthly: “[T]he Willard Hotel has been a central gathering place for the great, the near-great, and those who aspire to greatness. … This hotel, in fact, may be much more justly called the center of Washington and the Union than either the Capitol, the White House or the State Department.”
Hawthorne added: “You exchange nods with governors of sovereign states; you elbow illustrious men, and tread on the toes of generals; you hear statesmen and orators speaking in their familiar tones. You are mixed up with office seekers, wire pullers, inventors, artists, poets, prosers until identity is lost among them.”
Located at 14th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, just one block from the White House and a short walk (or carriage ride) to the Capitol, the War Department and other Washington centers of government and business, the Willard was, and is, a valued home away from home for travelers.
The property, originally part of the David Burnes farm, gained its first buildings in 1816 when John Tayloe erected a row of six two-story houses. By 1818, a hotel was in operation. It became known as the City Hotel and began to serve a long list of the rich and famous. Charles Dickens, for one, stayed there in 1842.
Senators and members of Congress began to use the Willard at a time when serving as an elected representative was not considered a full-time job. Office seekers and those in search of all kinds of favors flocked to the Willard in their wake. Samuel F.B. Morse frequented the hotel to explain his telegraph and seek government money to develop it.
In 1847, Benjamin Tayloe leased the structure to Henry A. Willard (1822-1909) and his brother Edwin. Edwin left the business in 1849. He didn’t see eye to eye with his younger brother.
Another brother, Joseph Clapp Willard (1820-97) became Henry’s business partner. Joseph had recently failed to find gold during the California gold rush, and he needed work.
The brothers’ hotel prospered. By 1853, they had bought the entire row of houses from the Tayloe family and started the first of many renovations and reconstructions.
In 1858, they expanded again, buying the southwest corner of 14th and F streets from Col. James Kearney, where they built a six-story addition to the hotel. They bought a church on F Street and converted it into a meeting space known as Willard Hall.
The partners divided up their work and diligently tended to excellence in service and the comfort of their guests. Each morning, Henry Willard arose before 3, joined a staff member who had already prepared a horse-drawn carriage, and headed out for the daily stocking of food.