FOR THE FIRST 150 years we called it Washington's "Residence of the Presidents" -- until it was left for dead 18 years ago. After that, we called it Washington's "creepiest hotel -- where the bats, rats, birds and other roomers without credit cards can congregate nightly in the lobby, undisturbed by anything other than an occasional false-alarm report of a renovation." But today, thanks to the tenacity of good people at the National Trust for Historic Preservation -- who found ways around federal tax policies that encourage destruction of landmarks -- the Willard is coming back.
Those bats have checked out, and skilled craftsmen have taken over every floor from the elegant main lobby to Peacock Alley and the posh suites where those who bedded down included Presidents Taylor, Fillmore, Buchanan, Lincoln, Taft, Wilson, Coolidge and Harding, as well as Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, Buffalo Bill and even John and Jane Doe. The doors are scheduled to open to the public on Aug. 5, for hotel rooms, offices and stores.
The preservation of the Willard is big news not only because it revives a grand hotel but also because it is the final jewel in a Pennsylvania Avenue crown that includes the Old Post Office Building, the National Press Building, The Shops at National Place and the restored National Theatre. These sites are not "projects" in the dreary sense of empty historical places where only daytime tourists tread. There is visible life downtown these days, nights and weekends -- and it's not limited to monied strangers or shelterless residents. The shoppers, diners, theatergoers and office workers are all in evidence -- flanked by some pretty classy architecture.
In Washington or anywhere else in the country, historic preservation isn't a matter of just trying to save anything that's old and in the way of something newer. It takes a sense of practicality, tax incentives and commitments of money and authority on the part of governments. In the case of Pennsylvania Avenue, it took monumental patience and persistence,too.