Here’s a history of the hotel author Nathaniel Hawthorne said “more justly could be called the center of Washington than either the Capitol or the White House or the State Department.”
The hotel itself has an only-in-Washington origin story, involving a precedent-setting Supreme Court case. Though a humble hotel comprising six connected rowhouses began there as early as 1817, it didn’t take the name Willard’s City Hotel until 1847, when Henry Willard took over the lease. Soon, he replaced the rowhouses with a four-story building, making it the perfect hangout for politicos. In 1854, he agreed to buy the land, though he didn’t actually make the purchase for another 10 years, toward the end of the Civil War, when U.S. bank notes were wildly depreciated. The resulting contract dispute went all the way to the Supreme Court; ultimately, the court ruled that Willard had to pay in gold, but he walked away with his hotel.
In 1856, a congressman killed an Irish-born waiter at the hotel restaurant after a dispute ostensibly about ordering breakfast at lunchtime, but with heavy anti-immigrant sentiment added into the mix. Incredibly, the congressman was acquitted at trial. Eight years later, he died fighting for the Confederacy.
The hotel played a central role during the Civil War era. In February 1861, former president John Tyler convened a peace conference at the hotel to try to find a way to prevent war (and preserve slavery). Joining him there were dozens of retired statesman for what the press dubbed the “Old Gentleman’s Convention.” Not far away, President-elect Abraham Lincoln had to sneak into the hotel, out of fear he would be assassinated; he didn’t leave the building until his inauguration 10 days later.
Peace may have failed at the Willard, but later that same year, war went off like a song. Abolitionist Julia Ward Howe was staying at the hotel on Nov. 16, 1861, when, she later wrote, “I awoke in the gray of the morning twilight; and as I lay waiting for the dawn, the long lines of the desired poem began to twine themselves in my mind. Having thought out all the stanzas, I said to myself, ‘I must get up and write these verses down, lest I fall asleep again and forget them.’” She wrote “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
In the 1870s, President Ulysses S. Grant would sit in the hotel lobby with a cigar and brandy to relax. Soon he found himself surrounded by all manner of influence-peddlers, buying him drinks and asking for political favors. Thus, the Willard website claims, Grant “popularized the term ‘lobbyist’” — though Merriam-Webster traces its origins back to at least 1842.
In 1901, the Willard was torn down and rebuilt as the 12-story Beaux-Arts building that now stands.
In 1916, during a speech at the Willard, President Woodrow Wilson threw his support behind an intergovernmental organization that would maintain world peace. This would later become the League of Nations.
Vice presidents didn’t start living at the Naval Observatory until 1977. Before that, many chose to live at the Willard, including the vice presidents to William Howard Taft, Wilson, Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge.
In 1922, while Coolidge was still vice president, he had to evacuate his hotel apartment when there was a fire in the top-floor ballroom. According to historian Donald R. McCoy in “The Quiet President,” when he tried to reenter, a fire marshal asked him who he was. When he replied, “The vice president,” the fire marshal then challenged, “What are you the vice president of?” Coolidge got a kick out of the story and loved to tell it.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the organizers of the 1963 March on Washington had rooms at the Willard and the Hilton, and they chose to hammer out the final edits of King’s speech in the Willard’s lobby. “We met in the lobby rather than in a suite, under the assumption that the lobby would be harder to wiretap,” King aide Clarence B. Page wrote later. “Tables, chairs and plants acted as a cordon of privacy.” The editing sessions did not go well, according to Page, but that didn’t matter in the end; the most famous section of King’s speech, when he repeats the refrain, “I have a dream,” was improvised.
President Richard M. Nixon will forever be associated with a different Washington hotel, but during the 1968 campaign, United Citizens for Nixon-Agnew rented the entire Willard for its headquarters. The hotel was available because it had fallen into disrepair and closed suddenly months earlier. The campaign set up huge banners out front, and, according to The Washington Post’s coverage at the time, there was also an “open mic to Nixon and Agnew” booth, where anyone could drop in and record a three-minute message for the candidates.
The building stood vacant for more than a decade before it was renovated and reopened in 1986 under its current name, the Willard InterContinental Washington D.C. Hotel. By the next year, it made political news again when D.C. Mayor Marion Barry admitted that he stayed in one of the Willard’s $1,500-a-night suites free. In fact, he told The Post, he and his wife had been offered complimentary rooms at all of the city’s hotels, and as long as he wasn’t performing official duties, he didn’t see a problem.
“We have done it in the past and will do so in the future,” he said.
A few years later, when he was caught on tape using cocaine in a hotel room with a woman who was not his wife, it was not at the Willard.
In 1991, future president Trump posed for paparazzi photos outside the Willard after attending the wedding of his friend and future presidential-pardon recipient Roger Stone. Hours later, Trump was seen arguing in the lobby of the Four Seasons with then-girlfriend Marla Maples, who threw her stiletto heels at him, shouting, “I’ll never marry you!” By the next afternoon, however, The Post reported the couple were seen sharing a happy brunch in the Willard dining room.