It has been 18 years since the manager of The Willard Hotel slipped discreet notes under the doors of the few remaining guests informing them that, as of midnight, the hotel would be closed.
And it has been 18 years of boarded-up windows and crumbling facades, of wreckers at the ready and court fights to stop them, of squabbles between the federal government and the hotel's owners and a presidential commission that wanted to turn the site into what one critic called a "Mussolini-type paved parade ground."
During all the years of struggle, the question asked by countless Washingtonians, tourists, cab drivers and politicians as they drove by the boarded-up Willard has been, "Is the Willard going to survive?" Finally, there is an answer.
On Aug. 5, after a $110 million restoration and reconstruction, the hotel called the "Residence of Presidents" will open its doors again.
"It's been a long and exhausting process," said Washington developer Oliver T. Carr, whose company is now the managing partner in the Willard project. "Some things are worth the struggle and some are not. That [the Willard] is worth the struggle."
The struggle began long before Carr's involvement in the project.
Ever since President John F. Kennedy recognized the seedy appearance of Pennsylvania Avenue during his inaugural parade in 1960, a long line of presidential commissions, preservation groups and developers have wrestled with the issues of historic accuracy and economic viability on "America's Main Street."
In 1972, the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corp., the federal agency formed to shape the street's transformation, became the watchman of the Willard site, where three different hotels have stood since 1818, in which 10 presidents have stayed.
The PADC required the restoration of the hotel's main lobby (where Ulysses S. Grant held court and coined the term "lobbying"); the F Street lobby (the entrance used by southerners in the 1860s); Peacock Alley (where all of Washington society could be seen promenading); and the Willard Room and Crystal Room (where heads of state dined) in order for the Carr company to take advantage of a 25 percent historic-renovation tax credit on the hotel.
Not Completely Accurate
But historic accuracy will not be preserved in all things at the Willard. No longer will there be separate doors for northerners and southerners. And the hotel where Lincoln borrowed house slippers from the proprietor and Julia Ward Howe wrote the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" will allow ladies to drink in the Round Robin Bar.
Things also will be just a bit pricier. In the 1870s, a luxury room at the Willard could be had for the night for $4. At the Willard Inter-Continental's 394 guest rooms, singles will range from $165 to $235 a night, doubles from $180 to $255 and suites from $350 to $2,000.
J. T. Kuhlman, the hotel's general manager, recently surveyed an array of painters, plasterers and artisans scurrying to finish the restoration work on the public areas of the Willard.
He said he expects his guests at the renovated Willard to be potentates and politicians, lawyers and lobbyists. Nonetheless, they will be hard-pressed to match the history that already has been made at the Willard.
In some ways Kuhlman, tall and silvery haired, with the smooth-as-silk voice and easy manner of a diplomat, brings the Pennsylvania Avenue story full circle. He remembers Washington during the Kennedy administration, when his father Thane Kuhlman was deputy chief of protocol, as a "backwater."
There are those who recall Pennsylvania Avenue even before the Kennedy era as a desolate part of town. "I never went into the Willard because it was a seedy old hotel in the late 1950s ," said Richard Nelson, president of the Washington Hotel Association. "The whole area there was seedy. At that time, Pennsylvania Avenue was just a bad part of town."
That bad part of town that extended down Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House to the Capitol is now a vastly changed area. And at its northwestern end, the Willard has been called the final jewel in the crown now that the renovated Old Post Office Building, the National Press Building, The Shops at National Place and the restored National Theatre already are finished.
For the fourth incarnation of the Willard, economics have dictated a notable change. Stuart Golding, the Florida developer first chosen by PADC to develop the Willard, originally proposed a project that included 600 hotel rooms and 40,000 square feet of retail space.
But he ran into problems when investors were reluctant to finance a project with no high-rent office space. So, when the Carr company took over as managing partner of the project, a 12-story office building and 16 retail stores, including the Occidental Restaurant, were incorporated into the plan.
Carr's idea has paid off. More than 60 percent of the 218,000 square feet of office space in the Willard project already is leased at rates of $34.50 to $38 a square foot, according to a spokeswoman for the Carr company.
Those rates are the highest for office space in the city, according to The Washington Studley Report, a survey of office rents.
From private balconies facing Pennsylvania Avenue, some of the tenants of the office building will be able to look out beyond the avenue for a commanding view of the Potomac and the monuments.
"It's not a hard sell," said a Carr spokesman, who said that some of the tenants include Houston law firm Vinson & Elkins, for whom former Tennessee senator Howard Baker works, Washington law firm Hale & Dorr and such companies as Corning Glass and Pfizer Inc.
Kenneth A. Golding, in charge of retail leasing for the Willard Collection, as the shops that will line the courtyard between the hotel and the office building are known, said he looked for "unique" tenants.
Harriet Kassman, a women's designer apparel store, and Neuchatel Chocolates already have signed leases for shops, which rent for an average of about $45 a square foot. By the end of the month, Golding, the son of Stuart Golding and a limited partner in the Willard project, said he expects to sign leases with other retailers.
Those include Liberty, a women's apparel shop; Anne Rothschild, a gift store that sells lace, sable teddy bears and Limoges china; and Jackie Chalkley, a store that sells handmade jewelry and clothing. He also hopes to have a women's shoe store and men's clothing store to add to the mix when the shops open in August, he said.
Asked who will buy the items in the upscale stores, Golding said he expects the shopping plaza to attract hotel guests, office tenants and the nonworking women who shop by appointment at Garfinckel's, just across the street from the Willard.
"In the long run, Pennsylvania Avenue is going to be a gold mine," he said. "It will be like London and Paris. People are waiting."
Early in the saga of the Willard, the waiting often seemed endless.
New York real estate developer Charles B. Benenson was losing a thousand dollars a day when he closed the doors of the disintegrating Willard in 1968; and he said it would cost too much -- as much as $2 million -- to make the necessary repairs to the old hotel.
Yet it was 10 years before Benenson finally settled with PADC on the fair market value of the property. In the interim, the General Services Administration attempted to swap two different parcels of land for the Willard.
In 1969, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) went to Benenson, who was growing restless, asking him not to tear down the Willard.
Moynihan, who was a member of the President's Advisory Council on Pennsylvania Avenue, the predecessor of PADC, said that he begged Benenson not to tear down the Willard, though he knew the government had no money to buy it at the time.
"He said, 'Is it important?' I said, 'Yes, it's important,' " Moynihan said. "I wouldn't be surprised if it cost him $50 million. We never did a damn thing for him; he never asked anything and he never complained. It was a very handsome thing to do."
But in 1974, the D.C. Court of Appeals ruled that Benenson could gut the structure, tear down its facade and replace it with a new building that would leave only the steel girders and joists intact.
The building was saved when the District postponed issuing the permits while a preservation group brought a suit in federal court to save the building.
Finally, in 1978, PADC and the U.S. government became the owners of the Willard after a $4.55 million deposit on a total of $8 million was paid to Benenson and his partner, Robert Arnow, for the Willard. In the next year, Florida developer Stuart S. Golding won the right to redevelop the historic Willard.
Golding had decided that he wanted to be the man behind the Willard when he saw PADC's ad in The Wall Street Journal, he said last week.
"I was excited that this fantastic location in the capital was available," he said. "People didn't understand it; you had to have a feel for the project and some of the historical belief in you."
Golding went to internationally known architect I. M. Pei first, who turned down the job because he did not want to compete with other designs. Then to Philip Johnson, who said he was too old for the project and gave Golding the names of Hardy, Holzman Pfeiffer Associates of New York.
Hardy Holzman did the architectural design for Golding, retaining the Beaux-Arts style used by Henry Hardenbergh, the architect who designed the 1901 structure. That design won PADC's nod in a competition with eight others, including that of the Carr company.
Interest Rates Hurt Golding
But by 1980, Golding's plans ran headlong into interest rates that exceeded 20 percent, and Golding asked the PADC for a six-month delay in the project.
At one point in the hearing, Golding pulled four bottles of pills for a heart condition from his pocket, lined them up on the podium and said: "If you think this is an easy project. . . . "
When Golding was brought down by high interest rates ("The prime rate was 21 percent in 1980," he said. "Anyone who can start construction at that rate would have to have his head examined."), Carr was waiting in the wings to take over. He was the only man in town with a line of credit that met the needs of the project.
"I see him as an eagle, rather than a vulture," said Henry A. Berliner Jr., chairman of the PADC.
"We were persistent, if nothing else," Carr said.
"When you can't lick 'em, you're better off joining together to give it more strength," said Golding. "I just wish Carr and I had become friends a couple of years sooner."
The project is now owned by The Willard Associates, with the Oliver T. Carr Co. as managing general partner and Stuart Golding and Intercontinental Hotels Corp. as partners.
The Carr company has a 99-year lease deal with PADC and a 20-year agreement with Intercontinental Hotels to manage the hotel.
PADC allowed Carr to use his own architect, Vlastimil Koubek, though he has retained the integrity of the original Hardy Holzman design while incorporating the office space. Carr began construction on Jan. 1, 1984.
Since 1981, PADC has been receiving $800,000 a year in rent for the site, which includes the hotel, office building and shops. Once the project opens, in addition to the $800,000 rent, PADC also will receive 25 percent of profits after the Willard Associates get a 20 percent return on investment, according to Al Milin, director of finance for PADC.
In addition, PADC will receive a percentage of commercial and beverage sales, Milin said.
Hotel industry experts say that Carr will not get rich from his investment in the hotel. "Obviously, the money's in the commercial real estate," said one.
All agree that the Willard is entering a hotel market already glutted with luxury rooms.
"I don't think all of us are going to be able to stay in the luxury market," said general manager Kuhlman.
However, he believes the Willard has a special place in Washington that other hotels can't match. "There's a very special feeling for the Willard in Washington," he said. "We have a lot to live up to."
There are reasons, some say, for the way people feel about the Willard.
Then-Sen. Jennings Randolph (D-W. Va.) wrote to the editors of The Washington Post in 1973, when the fate of the Willard was still in doubt: "It is difficult to imagine how a 'National Square' could offset the loss to our Capital of the stately old Willard Hotel as a historic landmark . . . . Mrs. Randolph and I share an added interest. We had our happy honeymoon in the Willard in February 1933."