Memories flowed yesterday as a knot of people stood outside the Willard Hotel, gathered to hear an announcement that renovation of the old dowager is beginning.
The "Old" Willard, at 14th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW, dated from 1847. The "New" Willard, on the same site, dates from 1901, with later phases from 1904 and 1926.
Henry A. Berliner Jr., chairman of the government-sponsored Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corp., attended the ceremony and noted that the Willard's redeveloper, Oliver T. Carr Jr., had promised to begin site preparation by July 29--that is, yesterday. ". . . His word was good," Berliner said.
Carr said renovation of the hotel, closed since 1968, will begin immediately, and groundbreaking on a new office and commercial wing will be in December, with a completion date set for 1986. A model of the project is pictured above. The investment will be about $115 million.
The Willard is especially, and even today somewhat embarrassingly, memorable to me. My first out-of-office assignment for this newspaper in 1956 took place there. I was sent to a black-tie Board of Trade dinner honoring retiring District Commissioner Samuel Spencer in its rooftop ballroom. With marvelous lack of foresight, then-Assistant City Editor Seymour L. (Sy) Fishbein failed to give advance notice of the assignment. So I showed up in a Harris tweed jacket, a magenta wool shirt and an Indian-woven tie.
Worth noting is that Carr has severed his earlier relationship with the owners of San Francisco's Fairmont Hotel, under which they would have managed the Willard and renamed it--ugh!--the Fairmont Willard. Instead, the Willard will be managed by the Inter-Continental Hotels, a firm that operates the San Francisco Fairmont's across-the-street competitor and advertises it as: "The Mark Hopkins," and, in smaller print, "An Inter-Continental Hotel." Let's hope the firm exercises equal restraint here and lets our Willard be The Willard.