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Willard Hotel: Elegant landmark in city

- The Washington Times - Friday, August 6, 2004

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.

They visited the Potomac waterfront for fresh fish, then the markets, bakeries and butchers of the Central Market on 8th Street. Everything from fresh milk and eggs to vintage wines and freshly cut flowers arrived at the hotel before most guests were awake.

This routine continued even through the Civil War.

The quiet, business-like Joseph Willard took the role of business manager and bookkeeper. The two partners created an unsurpassed standard of excellence.

In 1859, the Willard Hotel hosted a ball in honor of the departing British ambassador, Lord Napier.

Almost 2,000 attended. Washingtonians would remember this party as the last major social event before the Civil War that included Southerners. Jefferson Davis, Sam Houston and Stephen A. Douglas were among the guests.

In February 1861, representatives from 21 states met at the Willard in an attempt to avert war. Former President John Tyler chaired the conference. To make the hotel hospitable to both Northerners and Southerners, the F Street entrance was reserved for Southerners. The Pennsylvania Avenue entrance served Northerners.

The day of Lincoln's planned arrival in Washington, thousands lined Pennsylvania Avenue between the railroad station and the Willard, hoping to see the president-elect.

They would be disappointed.

Fearing for his safety, detective Alan Pinkerton, serving as a forerunner of the Secret Service, had spirited Lincoln into the hotel in the pre-dawn fog. Lincoln, his family, and several soon-to-be Cabinet members stayed nine days.

Lincoln's first paycheck as president paid his Willard Hotel bill of $773. Visitors to the hotel can see a copy of this bill today, displayed off the hotel's lobby.

Famous guests included Julia Ward Howe, who later told of hearing Union soldiers singing "John Brown's Body." Howe decided a more dignified song was appropriate at such a momentous time and she penned "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" at a desk in her Willard Hotel room -- on Willard Hotel stationery.

During the Civil War, business boomed at the Willard. It was the only hotel of stature in a city crammed with people. Often the Willard hosted as many as 1,000 guests, sometimes three or four to a bed. Still, Henry Willard maintained his standards.

The 1865 edition of "The Strangers Guide to Washington" advised visitors to avoid the south side of Pennsylvania Avenue, an area where "pickpockets, prostitutes and con men abound."

To those more inclined toward refined society, the guide advised, "To see society, go to the Willard."

After the Civil War the Willard Hotel continued as a major lodging, dining and meeting place.

Many believe the word "lobbyist" originated at the Willard. According to Washingtonians, President Ulysses S. Grant favored the lobby of the Willard as an evening locale for cigar smoking and perhaps a libation.

The president used to walk over from the White House. When word got out that Grant frequented the lobby of the Willard, office seekers began to gather in hopes of "lobbying" Grant for favors.

President Theodore Roosevelt's daughter Alice, in one of her many controversial (and sometimes scandalous) exploits, smoked a cigarette in the Willard's formal dining room.

Woodrow Wilson's vice president, Thomas A. Marshall, fretting about the Willard's high prices, coined the phrase, "What this country needs is a good five-cent cigar." He made his declaration at the hotel.

Mark Twain wrote two books at the Willard. Buffalo Bill Cody and P.T. Barnum stayed there. Presidents Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce, Buchanan, Lincoln, Grant, Taft, Wilson, Coolidge and Harding all stayed at the Willard. Martin Luther King wrote the "I Have a Dream" speech at the Willard Hotel.

Of course, the hotel there today is not the structure at the site during the Civil War. In a major renovation at the start of the 20th century, the building we see today went up.

The brainchild of Joseph E. Willard, designed by architect Henry Janeway Hardenbergh of New York and built by George A. Fuller Co., it was declared the city's first "skyscraper" in 1904. A 1925 expansion added 100 rooms.

By the end of World War II, the Willard had fallen on bad times. The Willard family sold the property in 1946. The hotel closed in 1968 and remained vacant for almost two decades.

Restored to its elegance and beauty, it reopened in 1986.

John E. Carey is a writer in Arlington.