J.T. Kuhlman, general manager of the Willard Inter-Continental Hotel, thought he was home to stay when he arrived in 1985 to oversee the opening of the restored hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue.

After eight posts around the world in 13 years with Inter-Continental, Kuhlman moved into a house a few blocks from his boyhood home in Bethesda. On his new job, he walked into the dust, construction and empty rooms of the Willard.

But now, Kuhlman is moving on to become Inter-Continental's regional chief executive for France and the Mediterranean. From a base in Paris, he will supervise 11 hotels in cities including Cannes, Athens, Lisbon, Madrid, Paris and Geneva.

Despite the siren song of such cities, Kuhlman talks about the April 1 move with more than a hint of reluctance. "We had really begun to put down roots," he said.

After being away from Washington for 24 years, the city was quite a surprise. "It was amazing to see the changes -- the rebirth of downtown, the tremendous surge in the quality of life," he said.

Kuhlman, the son of Thane Kuhlman, deputy chief of protocol during the Kennedy administration, said he also has noticed a change in the coming together of the three spheres of Washington's professional community -- the diplomatic, political and business worlds -- to make it a more unified city than it once was.

As the Willard's general manager, Kuhlman has watched the hotel go from an empty shell to a fully operating entity. He has put his imprint on everything from the hotel's china pattern, which he chose, to the staff, which he hired.

He said the highlight of his tenure at the Willard has been watching the reaction of both the guests and the city to the hotel.

When the Willard opened in August 1986 after a $110 million renovation, it was often crowded with local residents walking through Peacock Alley to see the restoration of the historic hotel of presidents that had been closed for 18 years.

In addition to local residents' interest in the building, the hotel has attracted more guests than management predicted for the first full year, according to Kuhlman. Occupancy levels were about 65 percent during that time, Kuhlman said.

"One of the things I wanted was for the Willard to have a future like its past -- with the president coming over, heads of state, people talking about it years later," Kuhlman said.

In that, his wish has largely been granted. Seventeen heads of state have slept, eaten or spoken at the Willard so far, according to Willard officials, including President Reagan (a dinner guest), Queen Sophia of Spain, President Mobutu of Zaire, Prime Minister Nakasone of Japan (for a news conference) and President Vigdis Finnbogadottir of Iceland (a dinner guest with a long placecard.)

Asked about the most difficult aspect of working at the Willard, he pauses. "The hardest thing, really, is leaving," said Kuhlman, whose job will be filled by Graham Jeffrey, now the general manager of the Inter-Continental Hotel in London.

Not that he's unhappy about going to Paris, which he calls "an interesting city" with the studied understatement of a man who has lived in Switzerland and Spain, Rio and Maui. But, after all, "few people have an opportunity to open a hotel like this one," he said. "It's a hotel man's dream."