I want to apologize for writing an obibuary that appeared on the front page of The Washington Post -- almost 18 years prematurely. It turns out that the patient has been resuscitated, you might even say raised from the dead. I refer to the Willard Hotel, today glearning anew as the final refurbishing touches are being added for its grand reopening.
You see, I have always been something of a romantic about Washington and especially about the Willard. And with reason. The first time I saw the hotel, and the only time I ever slept there, was back in May of 1918 -- yes, 1918, when I was a kid of seven. Dad brought me along on the train from Pittsburgh when he was trying to enlist in the military dental corps. He was 42 and had been voluntarily examining draftees' teeth. The army medical corps had written him that "enough dentists have already been commissioned for an army of over five million men," but he refused to accept that "no." And thus I came to Washington for the first time.
The Willard seemed colossal; the high-ceilinged bedroom magnificent. And in the vast lobby, with its marbelized pillars, seated in a huge overstuffed chair, smoking a cigar, as dad whispered to me, was the vice president of the United States: Thomas R. Marshall. (Marshall's footnote in history consists chiefly of "what this country needs is a good five-cent cigar," uttered in outrage at the prices at Willard's counter.)
Not until the fall of 1933, half a year after Franklin D. Roosevelt had become president, was I again in the Willard. By now I was a cub reporter for The Post, then located half a block to the east, where the new Marriott hotel now stands, on what then was just plain E street but now is pretentiously labeled Pennsylvania Avenue North. In those early New Deal years the only meals I had upstairs in any of the banquet halls, most especially in that vast ballroom on the top floor, were the lucky freebies that came with a Post assignment to cover a luncheon or dinner meeting.
The dandy strutters' parade route was Peacock Alley, a carpeted and potted-palmed path of steps and landings that ran, parallel to 14th Street, the length of the hotel from the F Street entrance to the Pennsylvania Avenue lobby. I can't remember buying a meal in the great dining room, between Peacock Alley and 14th, with linen, crystal and what surely seemed like' silver, until I took my fiancee there in the spring of 1941.
You must remember, of course, that the hotel I'm talking about is the "New Willard." It dates, as a structure, only from 1901 (the F Street section opened in 1925) and probably its most famous occupant was Calvin Coolidge, in residence as vice president and then during the sad days awaiting the departure of the widow of President Harding from the White House. But the Willard, as an institution, goes back to 1847 when Henry Willard came to town to manage, and then own, a hotel composed of a series of connected rowhouses.
Franklin Pierce was the first president to stop at the Willard, and Lincoln stayed there from Feb. 23 to his first inauguration on March 4, 1861.
Jenny Lind, "the Swedish Nightingale," sang in what originally was called Willard's Hall, which stood behind the hotel, about where the F street entrance soon will reopen. And for three weeks in February 1861, in that hall delegates from 21 of the then 34 states, with ex-president John Tyler presiding, had tried fruitlessly to find a way to avoid war. It was Julia Ward Howe that same year, while staying at Willard's, who heard Union troops singing that haunting tune, "John Brown's Body lies a mouldering in the Grave," and who sat down in her room to write new words to the music. America has sung it ever since as "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."
And then there was Walt Whitman. Maybe he never stayed there, but he surely was in and out. He mingled with the crowd at Willard's famous bar following word of the Union disaster in Virginia at the first Bull Run. And then he wrote;
There you are, shoulder straps, but where are your companies? Where are your men?
Speak, blow, put on airs in Willard's sumptuous bar, or anywhere!
No explanation will save you. Bull Run is your work!
Presidents perhaps were the hotel's most prestigious catches, but the place must really have sparkled with such guests as Mark Twain, P. T. Barnum (who brought Jenny Lind), Sam Ward, king of the lobbyists, Victor Herbert and anyone else who was anybody.
Carl Sandburg called the hotel "the coversational Capital of the United States." Helen Nicholay, daughter of Lincoln's secretary, recorded that "dining at Willard's was like taking one's place temporarily on the page of history." Most of the leading Union generals stayed there at one time or another and, as president, U.S. Grant used to walk over to Willard's and sit somewhere near the main desk, partially hidden by a screen, to smoke and watch the crowds.
But in time newer hotels, better dining rooms and, eventually, the general drift of the city to the northwest lessened the Willard's importance. World Wars I and II both jammed the hotel again, but the Great Depression between those wars and finally the more recent deterioration of Washington's downtown, coupled with the 1968 riots after Martin Luther King's assassination, simply were too much. The hotel closed that July.
And so I wrote that loving obituary.
But changing times, a changing city, the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corp. (a President Kennedy legacy), determined preservationists, some fortunate compromises and an imaginative builder in the end combined to produce the resurrection. Of course it won't be the same. It will even be called the Willard Intercontinental. But if they've done it as right inside as they've restored the outside, then the Avenue once again will truly shine, Politicians and lobbyists, songbirds and shysters, perhaps even presidents, will enjoy this reincarnation of those good old days.
I ended that obituary 18 years ago with "Ave atque valel" This time I'll skip the fancy hail and farewell stuff in favor of a hearty, thank God you're back!