The Willard Hotel
Photo courtesy of the DC SHPO
American author Nathaniel Hawthorne observed in the 1860s that “the Willard Hotel more justly could be called the center of Washington than either the Capitol or the White House or the State Department.” From 1847 when the enterprising Willard brothers, Henry and Edwin, first set up as innkeepers on the corner of 14th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, the Willard has occupied a unique niche in the history of Washington and the nation. The site upon which the Willard stands was originally part of the farm of David Burnes. In 1816 John Tayloe built a row of six two-story-and-attic houses as an investment . By 1818 the corner was being used as a hotel. In 1847 Benjamin Ogle Tayloe leased the establishment to Henry A. Willard and his brother, Edwin. Edwin withdrew from the management, to be replaced by his brother Joseph C.Willard in 1849. In 1853 the brothers purchased the entire row of houses from Tayloe’s heirs, uniting the buildings architecturally in a major remodeling. In 1858 the Willards expanded again, purchasing the property of Col. James Kearney on the southwest corner of 14th and F Streets. They demolished the Kearney Mansion and built a six-story addition to the hotel. Next an adjoining Presbyterian Church on F Street was acquired and converted to an auditorium known as Willard Hall. In succeeding years, as business increased, the roofs of the conglomerate hotel were raised to allow for verticle expansion. Finally, at the turn of the century, the Willard underwent a massive transformation.
“Across the Avenue” depicts the Occidental Restaurant, still in operation today, and the Willard Hotel just prior to WWI.
Painting by Washington artist Frank Wright, 1986.
The new Willard, designed by New York architect Henry Janeway Hardenbergh and erected by the George A. Fuller Company, was hailed at its opening as Washington’s first skyscraper. Completed in 1904, the new building saw an addition of 100 rooms in 1925, broadening the F Street facade by about 49 feet. The property remained in the Willard family until 1946, closed in 1968, and underwent extensive renovation, again opening its doors in 1986.
Presidents Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce, Buchanan, Lincoln, Grant, Taft, Wilson, Coolidge and Harding stayed at the Willard. Other notable guests have included Charles Dickens, Buffalo Bill, David Lloyd George, P.T. Barnum, Lord and Lady Napper and countless others. Walt Whitman included the Willard in his verses and Mark Twain wrote two books there in the early 1900s. It was Vice President Thomas R. Marshall, irritated at the Willard’s high prices, who there coined the phrase “What this country needs is a good 5-cent cigar.”
The Willard Hotel is located at 1401-09 Pennsylvania Ave., NW. For further information call 202/628-9100. Metro stop: Metro Center