Every theatrical performance requires a cast and a set. In the never-ending drama that is our nation’s capital, the Willard Hotel has served as one of the sets for Washington’s cast of politicians, generals, and lobbyists for well over 150 years, but perhaps most dramatically since the years leading up to the Civil War. People inside the Washington Beltway and Civil War buffs probably are familiar with the luxury hotel, which sits two blocks east of the White House. Most other Americans probably are not.
I spent three years working in Washington as a young attorney, and I recall the first time I saw the Willard in 1978. I was one of fifteen passengers in a vanpool that operated between D.C. and Columbia, Maryland. One evening, our driver drove past a massive, twelve-story Beaux Arts-style structure that I thought was beautiful but needed some work. I asked another passenger about the building and he said “It’s a dump full of nothing but rats.” I later learned he was not exaggerating.
The current hotel was built in 1901. Its predecessor was a four-story structure built in 1847 (which was preceded by a collection of six buildings built in 1816). The Lincolns lived in the Willard for ten days before Mr. Lincoln’s inauguration on March 4, 1861. (The Twentieth Amendment, adopted on February 6, 1933, changed the inauguration date to January 20. Inauguration takes place on January 21 if the 20th falls on a Sunday.)
In February 1861, the Willard hosted the obviously unsuccessful Peace Convention, held by delegates from 21 states, in hopes of averting war.
The Willard also served as U.S. Grant’s lodging in March, 1864, when he went to Washington to accept his promotion to Lieutenant General, commander of all the Union armies. In my novel, New Garden (Chapter 76, “A Third Star”), I include a scene where the protagonist, Major Jack Grier, accompanies Grant to the Willard, where Grier meets an old friend, Senator Eli Monroe.
Grant’s registration at the Willard is humorously depicted in Shelby Foote’s three-volume opus on the Civil War (Volume 3, Red River to Appomattox, pages 3-4):
A short, round-shouldered man in a very tarnished major general’s uniform, he seemed to a bystanding witness to have “no gait, no station, no manner, … as if he was out of office and on half pay, with nothing to do but hang around the entry of Willard’s, cigar in mouth.” *** Still, bright or tarnished, stars were stars; a certain respect was owed, if not to the man who wore them, then in any case to the rank they signified; the clerk replied at last that he would give him what he had, a small top-floor room, if that would do. It would, [Grant] said, and when the register was given its practiced half-circle twirl he signed without delay. The desk clerk turned it back again, still maintaining the accustomed, condescending air he was about to lose in shock when he read what the weathered applicant had written: “U.S. Grant & Son – Galena, Illinois.”
Needless to say, the clerk abruptly changed his attitude. He suddenly found that he could upgrade Grant and his son to the same suite the Lincoln family had enjoyed four years earlier.
The Willard has hosted many celebrities and politicians over the years, including Jenny Lind, Julia Ward Howe, General Pershing, and Martin Luther King, Jr., among others.
Now, back to when the Willard fell on hard times. The hotel closed in 1968, but was restored to its prior grandeur and reopened on August 20, 1986, as the Willard InterContinental. It’s nice to see I’m not the only one who thought it was a magnificent building well worth preserving.
For more information about the Willard, please go to the hotel’s website at http://www.washington.intercontinental.com. Additional information may be found at www.historichotels.org. The hotel is also used as a backdrop for many scenes in Gore Vidal’s historical novel, Lincoln.