- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 18, 2009

Inaugural visitors began flocking into the District on Saturday, checking into luxurious Georgetown hotels, snapping photos of the swearing-in stage at the Capitol and lining up in the biting cold for a meal at the suddenly famous Ben’s Chili Bowl restaurant.

Barack [Obama] is going to be our first black president, and I’m going to be there the second he takes office. I think that’s awesome,” said Toya Williams of Birmingham, Ala., who stood at the foot of Capitol Hill to watch a dress rehearsal of Tuesday’s swearing-in ceremony.

Mrs. Williams, 37, said she had brought her two children to Washington so they could be a part of history.

Authorities are expecting between 1 million and 2 million people - potentially the biggest crowd in the city’s history - for the extended inauguration weekend, despite bitter chill and forecasts for snow.

Hotel managers said the flow of visitors since Friday had been more like a trickle and that the cacophony of valet whistles and calls of “bellhop” would not begin until Saturday night or Sunday.

“This is just the calm before the storm,” said Tom Wernecke, a general manager at the Washington Marriott for the past eight years.

He said the hotel, on 22nd Street Northwest, has 20 additional employees on duty at least through Tuesday and had sent letters and e-mails to arriving guests warning of potential delays. The hotel had a few of its 470 rooms still available for Saturday night but was solidly booked for Sunday and Monday.

At the Willard Intercontinental Washington Hotel, spokeswoman Barbara Bahny-David said the influx of guests was slow and steady and that they were being greeted with such amenities as chocolate reproductions of the White House.

“The excitement is palpable in the lobby,” she said. “Our doormen are in their tuxedos, and everyone’s spiffy.”

Planning for the extended weekend at the Ritz-Carlton, on 22nd Street Northwest, began about a year and a half ago.

“This is our Super Bowl,” manager Kari Koskela said.

Long waits at restaurants and subway stations began Saturday and will only grow worse, exacerbated by unprecedented security measures. Bridges from Virginia into the city will be closed to private vehicles, as will much of the downtown area. More than 100 police agencies, some coming from as far away as Los Angeles, will provide security.

Toris Young, 32, a pastor from New Orleans who arrived Saturday at the Marriott, plans to use Metro subway cars and said nothing would stop him from seeing the swearing-in ceremony.

“We’ve got pretty good seats,” said Mr. Young, who has one of the coveted 240,000 tickets to the ceremony. “I think this is a great moment for America as a whole and really good for the world. It shows that the U.S. can still lead.”

The line outside Ben’s Chili Bowl, the U Street restaurant that Mr. Obama visited last weekend, extended half a block by midafternoon.

Among those waiting in single-digit temperatures were Ellysa May and Tabitha Bowling, both 36, from nearby Logan Circle.

They knew the line would be long but wanted to bring friend Kimberly Penharlow, visiting from New York City.

“We heard Mr. Obama had lunch here and really enjoyed it,” Ms. May said. “We love Ben’s.”

Visitors arrived at the Lincoln Memorial throughout Saturday to get a peek at the massive staging effort for a gala free concert Sunday that will feature a visit by Mr. Obama. The scheduled performers include Bono, Bruce Springsteen and Beyonce; there will also be readings by Martin Luther King III and actors Denzel Washington and Jamie Foxx.

“I’ve never been to an inauguration before, so this is going to be a great experience,” said Toni Chavis, 34, while standing at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial.

Mrs. Chavis and husband Tony traveled from Greensboro, N.C. Though the couple did not have tickets, they planned to arrive at the Mall early Tuesday morning to get a decent view of the inauguration.

“We’ll probably get here at around 8 a.m., nice and early so we get the best view in the house,” Mrs. Chavis said.

Authorities, however, have said they expect crowds to begin filling the Mall as early as 5 a.m.

While the Chavises basked in history, event crews hustled to put the final touches on two massive soundstages at the base of the memorial.

“It’s getting pretty intense as the events get closer. There’s definitely an ebb and flow to our workloads, depending on what we’re working on,” said Jim Reed, 31, a sound-and-lighting technician.

Chicago resident Bret Caldron, 28, was a little disturbed that his view of the monument was obstructed by the work. He said it was disappointing “to come all this way, then to see all this construction” in front of the monument.

“But I’ll take what I can get,” he said jokingly.

Union Station, where Mr. Obama arrived early in the evening, was bustling all day with arriving visitors. An Amtrak spokesman said trains were running about 35 minutes late, in part because of logistics involving the “Obama Express.”

Metropolitan Police Department cruisers and officers could be seen everywhere in the city, though officials reported no problems Saturday or on Friday night - the first night of extended hours at bars and restaurants.

At the Washington Court Hotel, on New Jersey Avenue Northeast near Union Station, guests also received inaugural gifts - ranging from wrapped chocolates to photographs of the White House. Each gift included a quote from one of Mr. Obama’s speeches.

“We’re very excited about this week, and the staff is just jazzed,” spokeswoman Sheila Hession said.

She said the inauguration has been a real boon amid the global recession.

“We are definitely getting a bit of a pick me up,” she said.

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