In a ninth-floor room high above Pennsylvania Avenue and only three blocks from the White House, two pigeons fly from their roost above a doorway, veering toward the dim sunlight shining through the dirt-streaked window of the building that is their home.
For a moment, their wings beat against the windowglass. It is the only sound to be heard in the old, now ravaged, Willard Hotel, once Washington's grandest hosterly. Today, what was known in its better days as the "residence of Presidents" is just a giant refuge for wayward birds.
Closed and left idel for almost a decade, the landmark hotel has been claimed by birds while a covey of lawyers representing the U.S. Justice Department, the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation (PADC) and the hotel's private owners try to sort out its future.
Now, apparently, an interim solution is imminent. Negotiations are expected to be completed next month that would allow the PADC to begin restoration of the Willard before a final title change settlement is reached in court.
Since it was shut down nearly 10 years ago, the Willard has remained an imposing presence along historic Pennsylvania Avenue, at the corner of 14th Street NW.Once scheduled for demolition, then saved for history's sake, the Willard has become - on the map and in every other sense - the cornerstone of hopes andplans for revitalizing Pennsylvania Avenue and redeveloping the old downtown.
Renovating the Willard has had to wait while the Justice Department, the PADC and one of the workers, who closed the hotel in 1968, have attempted to decide the terms under which title to the property will change hands.
Nearly a year ago, the United States was rules the owner of the decaying hotel, but title to it has remained in a kind of legal limbo because the old owner New York real estate man Charles B. Benenson, and the government could not agree on a proper financial settlement. The interim agreement now being negotiated would allow the PADC to make a type of downpayment on the building and begin its restoration while the government and Benenson pursue final settlement claims in court.
PADC officials and others who have seen the building are anxious to avoid any future delays in its restoration. Leaks have developed in the hotel, and time, weather and vandalism have taken a heavy toll.
"A building that is kept in an unheated condition will rapidly deteriorate," said architect Arthur Cotton Moore, who has restored similar buildings, including the Cairo Hotel, and who once was associated with a group of American Indians who wanted to buy and renovate the Willard.
"Plus, there are several leaks," Moore explained. "Plus, it has been professionally and amateurly vandalized." What Moore called professional vandalism was the work of an auctioneer who sold the contents of the Willard in 1969.
Everything removable, from the fancy doorknobs to the hotel's ornamental plaster, which was chisled off, was stripped from the building and sold. Drifters did the rest of the damage, slipping past security guards to sleep in the buildings or to pry up saleable metals.
Visitors to the boarded-up hotel walk through its high ceilinged lobby, pass under a telephone wire draped from column to column like on old New Years's Eve decoration and step past shattered plaster and empty whiskey bottles.
Touring the Willard today is a jarring experience Like a ghost town, the hotel can only provide a hint of its former self; its former grandeur can only be imagined.
The magnificent stairway still is there, but whole marble steps and old wrought iron banisters are missing. The long hallways reveal flaking paint that has fallen on faded flowered carpet. The rooms are scavenged.
In the gray light of a winter afternoon, it takes a flashlight to make out details in the half-dark rooms. The flashlight picks up the small white skeleton of a pigeon lying across the threshold where it fell, and turns long shadows on the walls into strips of peeling wallpaper.
Doorknobs, light fixtures and mahogany molding from around the entryways to the rooms are all gone. "Chandelier in this room $60," and similar signs painted on the doors and walls, testify to what was carted away during the auction.
"The stuff went all over the country," said Enever E. Limerick, the owner's representative. "A lot of the chandeliers went to Georgia homes. One is in a Connecticut Avenue office building."
In the 11th floor ballroom, the parquet flooring, once polished by dancers' feet, has been pried up and sold.
"You have to remember that at one point the building was slated to be demolished," said Limerick. "So what looks like meaningless, cruel demolition, at one time wasn't."
Out of business as a hotel since 1968, when Benenson evicted the Willard's operators for slow payment of rent, the old hotel still has callers. Vandals leave behind empty liquor bottles, cleaning fluid cans and pried-apart elevator machinery.
The other visitors to the Willard are developers who leave their cards with the PADC, the agency that ultimately will decide which of them gets to renovate and reopen the hotel.
"I would say I have conducted about 200 tours of the building," Limerick said. He described the offical visitors as mainly "developers and entrepeneurs."
These visitors include Washington developer Oliver Carr Jr., who has been through the building several times. So have "all his family and departmet heads and estimators," said Limerick. Carr is one of three developers known to be interested in restoring and operating the hotel.
Plans call for the government to lease the Willard to a private developer for conversion into a first class hotel. Restoring it may cost more than $22 million.
In a feasibility study done in 1974 for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Carr talked about reopening the Willard in the same style as when it first existed at the turn of the century. Peacock Alley, a row of shops on the ground floor of the hotel, could be re-opened "much as it was in earlier years," he said.
Possibilities that Carr discussed in the report included converting the 11th floor ballroom into duplex units, which coul be used either as hotel suites or leased out to more permanent users. The new hotel outlined in the study would include 487 rooms.
The Carlson Company, now restoring the Sheraton-Cadillac Hotel in Detroit after restoring the Muehlebach Hotel in Kansas City, also is interested in restoring and operating the Willard. Carlson is the parent company for the Radisson hotel chain.
"We think we can renovate it into a fine hotel," said Carlson vice president for real estate Ronald Eastman.
A third group includes MAT Associates, a Chicago firm that bought and refurbished the Shoreham, and a British firm that owns the Travelodge chain and the Pierre Hotel in New York. This group also includes Welton Becket Associates architects, and George A. Fuller & Co., a construction firm that built an addition to the Willard about 1920.
The group's intention is to restore the Willard as much as possible, although it expects to have to completely redo the hotel rooms. "Public space, the ballrooms, lobbies and so forth, we would think to restoring to what they were," said Steve Ticho of MAT Associates.
Architect Moore, who has been through the building often with prosepctive developers, has its own ideas about what might be done.
"I always felt that, in conjunction with the Washington Hotel, the whole block should be brought together - made into a significant hotel facility with real parking," he said. The Willard, which has no parking facilities, is at 14th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW, on the southeast corner of the block. The Washington, privately owned and operated, is at the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and 15th Stree NW.
For anything to happen, the title must first change hands. The PADC lobbied through the executive branch to get the Justice Department to agree to try to work out a transfer of title before the financial settlement is complete.
The trick is to work out an agreement that neither the Justice Department nor Benenson, feels prejudices their cases on how much money is owned for the hote."
"We're at the point that if we can resolve this stipulation that dictates the rights of the parties, we can wrap it up and arrange for a settlement date," said PADC counsel Peter Meszoly. "But, there always remains the possibility that on some point, negotiations will collapse. If we cant extricate the property from the court case, there would be a (restoration) delay of over a year."
Since Moore's first visit to the Willard shortly after it closed almost 10 years ago, the building has deteriorated markedly, according to Moore. "The last time I went in there, it was very sad," he said. Because the building has a steel frame, the leakage that has developed poses the threat of rust. "There are a lot of little pieces of steel that can rust and cause failure," said Moore.
"It's a grand old building. It's amazing it's held up as well as it has," said Limerick, the property manager, who also is an engineer. Even attempts to set fires in the building (there have been eight tries), have left little mark on the solid masonry edifice.
Limerick said the building is structrually sound. The only damage is cosmetic, he said. Although there are leaks, they are only around the edges of the roof where metal flashing has given way. Whatever other damage the leaks may or may not have caused, they have stained and buckled hardwood floors on the ground floor of the building.
The present Willard, designed by the same architect who designed the Plaza Hotel in New York City, was completed in 1901. It replaced another building, dating from the 1830s, where presidents, including Abraham Lincoln, had stayed.
The end was abrupt, although not unpredictable. About 3 p.m. on July 15, 1968, a mimeographed notice was slipped under guest room doors informing the occupants that the hotel would be closed at midnight. Financial difficulties were said to have been compounded by the city's riots and the Poor People's campaign.
Another problem was a proposal that had been hanging over the hotel for about six years.
The Temporary Commission on Pennsylvania Avenue, which became the PADC, at that point wanted to demolish the hotel to create a huge, open "National Square." The existence of the proposal made it difficult for the hotel's operators to borrow money for renovation, said Benenson and the hotel's last manager.
Citizen opposition to proposals to raze the Willard and efforts of the District of Columbia government helped save the hotel. The PADC's grand plan for the avenue, developed in 1974 and later adopted by Congress called for its restoration.
While the building's fate remained unsettled, Benenson who controls two firms that own the Willard, discussed land swaps with the U.S. government and possible sales with others. In 1970, he was asking $6.7 million for it.
While he was prevented from making changes he wanted in the property, Benenson was losing money holding the hotel, he has said. Property taxes are about $100,000 a year, according to Limerick. Benenson as estimated his daily loss at $1,400.
There are some compensations: Benenson was abel to watch the Carter inaugural from the top of the Willard, vantage point that was probably one of the best and most expensive in town.
The views from the top of the hotel, from the 11th floor ballrooms, are spectacular. The best view of all is from a former powder room off one of the ballrooms. The window looks down on Pennsylvania Avenue stretching toward the Capitol and the city's old downtown, a part of Washington that the renovated Willard may be the key to redeveloping.
There also is perfect view into the windows of the District Building, cater corner across the intersection of 14th and Pennsylvania. A police sharpshooter watched the District Building from the vantage point during the Hanafi siege.
Four rotting oranges and a MacDonald's bag are reminders of that episode.