WASHINGTON — Eighteen years ago, the doors were closed on the hotel once described by Nathaniel Hawthorne as the "center of Washington and the Union."
Thanks to a major, painstaking restoration the historic Willard Hotel will be reopened in September to become what its justifiably proud developers describe as the "crown jewel of Pennsylvania Avenue."
It took nine years of planning and three years of intensive, costly restoration to reclaim the beaux arts-structure completed in 1901, whose history includes residence by President Calvin Coolidge in 1923, when he was waiting for the newly widowed Mrs. Warren G. Harding to vacate the White House.
At the same site, only one block east of the White House, earlier Willard structures had seen the opening of the first soda fountain in Washington, Henry M. Stanley recounting at the Willard Bar how he found missionary David Livingstone in Africa. Julia Ward Howe wrote the words to the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" while she was staying at the old Willard in 1861--the same year President Abraham Lincoln stayed there, as a security measure, before his inauguration.
Redone and expanded by an ownership group that includes the Oliver Carr Co. as managing general partner, the new Willard Inter-Continental will represent a $120-million investment, including a 12-story new office building overlooking much of historic Washington. The classic old Willard's bulls-eye windows and mansard roof have been incorporated into the new structure.
The hotel, located just across 14th Street from the 60-year-old National Press Club (recently redone), will have 461 rooms and suites and a ballroom for 600 persons. The retail section will include boutiques and restaurants, fountains and greenery.
Veteran Washington realtor Justin Hinders said the Willard rebirth represents another Washington realty milestone. "That prominent, glorious building was a downtown albatross for 16 years, and everyone associated with its reclamation deserves an Oscar from this community and this nation--because the Willard is really a national treasure," Hinders said.
The Willard's rebirth on a site that has served as some form of hostelry since 1816, sparked a sifting of its history. One Henry Willard bought the property in 1850, and with brothers Edwin and Joseph, merged old row houses into a four-story, 100-room hotel. The astute Willards cultivated the presence of politicians.
Franklin Pierce was the first of a long line of Presidents to enjoy the Willard, one of the first U.S. hotels to have bathrooms installed on each floor before the Civil War.
In its eearly days, the Willard guest list included famed singer Jenny Lind, P.T. Barnum, statesman-orator Daniel Webster, the first group of Japanese ever to leave their island kingdom, and Sam Houston of Texas fame.
Ulysses S. Grant was welcomed to the Willard when he arrived in Washington to take command of the Union forces during the Civil War. Later, as President, he reportedly left the White House at the end of a busy day to stroll into the Willard lobby. Some historians wouldn't doubt that Grant might have found his way into the bar too.
After World War II, the Willard lost prestige, and the family sold it in 1946 for an estimated $5 million. New owners made some improvements and tried to revive interest in the once posh hostelry. But the timing wasn't right.
The Willard was closed in 1968, and its interior was gutted. Furnishings were sold at auction and the place was boarded up for 15 years--"a high profile embarrassment to everyone who really cared about downtown Washington--especially people in the real estate industry," according to Hinders, who watched the Willard decline.
Now it remains to be seen if the reconstituted Willard can compete with this city's other prestigious "power-base" hotels. Developer Carr is confident the Willard will regain the stature described by Nathaniel Hawthorne in the Atlantic Monthly during the Civil War as "a gathering place for the great, the near-great and those who aspire to greatness . . . and a place where you exchange nods with governors of foreign states; you elbow illustrious men and tread on the toes of generals and hear statesmen speaking in their familiar tones."