"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," wrote Nathaniel Hawthorne in his description of the Willard Hotel during the Civil War. "You exchange nods with governors of sovereign States; you elbow illustrious men, and tread on the toes of generals."
More than a century later, politicians, diplomats and businessmen are still making the Willard their Washington stopover of choice. The hotel's 19th-century feel and Old World service are clearly the reasons why. When you enter the lobby, you feel as though you've stepped back in time, to a turn-of-the-century salon with dripping chandeliers, marble columns and gilt trim.
Since Henry Willard bought the property in 1850, the hotel has hosted every president, as a sleeping guest or at a social function, from Franklin Pierce to Bill Clinton. President-elect Abraham Lincoln stayed at the Willard before his inauguration because of assassination threats. And in February 1861, the Peace Convention of the Civil War was held here.
The Willard was transformed at the beginning of the 20th century into a 12-story building. The hotel's architect was Henry Janeway Hardenbergh, who also designed the Waldorf-Astoria and the Dakota apartment building in New York. Famous guests have included Mark Twain, Gloria Swanson, Walt Whitman, Mae West and the Duke of Windsor.
Cocktail connoisseurs will like the fact that Henry Clay mixed Washington's first mint julep at the hotel's Round Robin Bar. The Willard family sold its interest in the hotel in 1946. Its doors closed in 1968 and the hotel was left to deteriorate until finally, it was purchased and restored to its former glory, reopening in 1986.
The rooms have an opulent feel, with Empire-style chairs, armoires, marble-topped tables and headboards covered in sumptuous blue and white fabric. Period prints and blue and gold carpeting complete the elegant setting. Bathrooms are discreetly furnished in beige marble with soft lighting.
For visitors looking for a combination of historical ambiance, modern amenities and first-class service, the Willard Hotel is a bull's-eye choice.
-- Angela Walker