- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 18, 2001

Pre-Civil War Washington was not a joy for travelers. Such hotels as it offered were little more than seasonal boardinghouses — filled with politicians when Congress was in session but operating below capacity for much of the year. Food was plentiful but generally unappetizing.
Indoor plumbing was rare and private baths almost unheard of in the city. Individual room keys had been introduced at the Tremont House in Boston but were virtually unknown in Washington. The pervasive habit of chewing tobacco — a vice among American men — made for brown stains on the carpets of any hostelry.
Hope appeared a dozen years before the Civil War, with the arrival of the first of the Willard brothers. Henry Augustus Willard, 25, had been born in Vermont. He was working aboard a Hudson River steamboat when he caught the eye of Benjamin Tayloe, a prominent Washington businessman. Tayloe had long deplored the absence of a good hotel in the nation's capital, and he hired young Willard to run his string of boardinghouses along Pennsylvania Avenue. Two years later, Willard bought the property and by 1853 he and his brother, Joseph, were proprietors of Willard's City Hotel.
Their establishment was by no means pretentious, but the brothers sought to make it special. They bought an adjacent church and turned it into a meeting hall. "Bathing rooms"—one for ladies, one for gentlemen—were installed on each floor. Servants were available to bring hot water.
The most impressive of the utility rooms was the great kitchen, which extended along the rear wall of the hotel. At busy times, its multiple fireplaces were all in use, casting eerie shadows over the army of cooks and helpers who tended the spits. It was the dining room that the Willard brothers counted on to make their reputation. According to one account, Henry Willard "rose at three a.m. and hied himself to the market to select the finest fruits, vegetables, and meats for his guests." At a time when Washington residents depended on wells for their water, the Willards found a well that yielded some of the sweetest water in town.
As Washington expanded to the west, the Willard's location convenient to the White House and the Treasury Department made it a favorite of politicians, lobbyists and foreign dignitaries. The Willard's kitchen became the best in the city, and much of the government's business was said to be transacted in the Willard's ornate dining room and bar.
In January 1861, with Abraham Lincoln the president-elect and seven Southern states out of the Union, Virginia issued a call for a conference aimed at heading off civil war. Asked to host what became known as the Peace Conference, the Willard brothers offered their meeting hall as the conference site. Under the chairmanship of ex-President John Tyler, the peace delegates spent much of February in an 11th-hour attempt to resolve the sectional conflict. Ultimately, they voted some compromise resolutions that had little influence on the political crisis. But the delegates agreed that they had been handsomely treated by the brothers Willard.
The Civil War, more than any other event, conferred celebrity status on the Willard Hotel. It was there that Lincoln went, on Feb. 28, 1861, having traveled the last leg of his trip from Illinois in disguise because of a threat of assassination. To foil plotters, Lincoln slipped into the capital a day ahead of schedule, with the result that a New York businessman was hastily evicted from Parlor No. 6 to make room for the president-elect.
Nor was Lincoln's early arrival the only crisis. As the presidential party unpacked, it appeared that Lincoln's favorite slippers had been left behind. Henry Willard's son would recall how his father borrowed slippers from a relative who was staying across the street. The Willard kin "was most delighted to lend his slippers to such a distinguished personage and, as he had a good large foot, the slippers were found to fit Mr. Lincoln well."
According to the hotel ledger, the Lincoln party was charged $2.75 per room for a multiroom suite and three meals a day. Among the additional items billed to the president-elect were $50 for champagne, $8 for liquor, and a total of $100 for room service. White House credit was good, and Lincoln did not pay his bill until six weeks after his inauguration.
That summer, the first Battle of Manassas — also called Bull Run — sent the Union Army reeling back to Washington, and a byproduct of the defeat was considerable reeling at the Willard. The hotel had become such a watering spot for Army officers that an outraged Walt Whitman brought it into one of his poems:
There you are, shoulder straps, but where are your companies? Where are your men?
Speak, blow, put on airs in Willard's sumptuous bar, or anywhere!
No explanation will save you. Bull Run is your work!
Whitman's verse was not the hotel's only brush with literature in these stirring times. A group of Bostonians, riding back to town after an Army review, passed the time with choruses of a song then known as "John Brown's Body." One of the party, Julia Ward Howe, thought the words unworthy of a splendid melody. Early the next morning, she awoke in her room at the Willard, seized a pencil and wrote in the morning light the stirring words of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."
As 1863 turned into 1864, Washington manifested all the aspects of a boomtown. Its population, not counting men in uniform, had risen from 73,000 in 1860 to about 350,000. Telegraph wires were everywhere, connecting the War Department with the Capitol, the Navy Yard and outlying encampments. Every hotel and boardinghouse was filled — with contractors, clerks, embalmers, petty thieves and just plain cranks. The streets rang with the clatter of Army wagons and the oaths of teamsters. A sense of disorder was prevalent.
But not at that bastion of privilege, the Willard. As the war went on, society in the capital devoted itself to shameless rounds of balls, receptions and theatricals. The war did little to inhibit conspicuous consumption. Guests at the Willard could begin their day with a breakfast that included such delicacies as fried oysters, steak and pate. An equally gargantuan midday meal was followed by dinner at 5 p.m., tea at 7:30 p.m. and a light supper at 9 p.m. Visitors from England — no dainty eaters themselves — expressed wonder at the quantity of food consumed by their American hosts.
In the midst of the war, capital society took time to wonder at the midget "General" Tom Thumb and his bride on their honeymoon. They stayed at the Willard, of course, where Thumb was resplendent in a black suit, patent leather boots, white gloves and a cravat complete with breastpin. The bride wore a white, satin gown decorated with green leaves and carnations.
Fire was a constant threat in 19th-century cities, and the danger in Washington was heightened by the city's large number of smokers. A famous Union regiment, the Fire Zouaves, helped put out one fire at the Willard, but the threat was constant.
By the end of the war, the Willard brothers were rich. They were also weary of the hotel business. They leased their famous hotel to a succession of management firms and went their separate ways. Henry continued to live in Washington, where he was active in civic affairs. Joseph also remained in the capital but, unlike Henry, became something of a recluse.
Joseph Willard died in 1897, his brother in 1909. Majority interest in the hotel passed to Joseph's son, who was interested in building a new hotel on the site of the old. Competition in the hotel business was keen, and the jerry-built old Willard, with its straggling roofline, had become a period piece. Construction of a new Willard, 12 stories high, was begun early in 1901 and completed within the year.
The new hotel was a thing of splendor. Its arcade, which ran the length of the building from Pennsylvania Avenue to F Street, came to be known as Peacock Alley, not only for its decorations but for the extravagantly dressed promenaders who came to see and to be seen. It was at the Willard's tobacco shop that Vice President Thomas Marshall summarized the state of the Union with the bon mot, "What this country needs is a good five-cent cigar."
The Willard prospered in the 1920s and 1930s, but there were warning signs even then. The city's carriage trade was expanding to the northwest, where other luxury hotels challenged the Willard. The advent of the automobile, moreover, made the Willard's proximity to government offices less important.
The decades after World War II brought challenges to most downtown hotels: crime, inadequate transit, urban blight. The Willard's pre-eminence delayed its demise, but in July 1968 the hotel closed its doors. A few remaining tenants were unceremoniously evicted.
Then, the Willard took a turn for the better. The Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corp., chartered by Congress to oversee the restoration of Pennsylvania Avenue, financed a rehabilitation of the Willard.
The result was a structure whose Edwardian elegance would have flabbergasted the Willard brothers. Still, the "founding brothers" would have been pleased to see the name carried on.

John M. Taylor is the author of numerous books on history and biography. He lives in McLean, Va.

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