I’m generally a very loyal Hyatt patron, but there are exceptions. Washington, DC is one such exception. In the District, my favorite hotel is not one of the three Hyatt properties, but the Willard InterContinental.
I first stepped into this hotel in 2005, not as a guest, but as a tourist. I was a Capitol Hill intern and would spend my weekends getting acquainted with America’s capital city. One day, as I was walking around the White House, I decided to check out the hotel because I loved the building’s exterior architecture so much. Little did I know that it would unleash a love affair with this hotel.
The memory of my first visit is so clear to me. The palm trees in the lobby and beautiful ceilings. Ornate furniture. And the ashtrays. Everyone was smoking. As a Californian, where indoor smoking had been banned over a decade earlier, I was amused to see ashtrays littered throughout the lobby. More on that in a moment.
Pictures from my first visit, circa-2005:
An Amazing History
While the hotel’s beauty is what first attracted me, what really sent me over the edge was the hotel’s rich history. Although my bachelor’s degree is in political science, I studied enough 19th Century U.S. history to earn a minor. I love studying U.S. history and this hotel has played such a key role in it.
- Author Nathaniel Hawthorne stated, “the Willard Hotel more justly could be called the center of Washington than either the Capitol or the White House or the State Department.”
- A 34-state Peace Congress met at the Willard in 1861 in an effort to avoid civil war.
- Julie Ward Howe wrote the lyrics to the Battle Hymn of the Republic while staying at the Willard in 1861.
- Due to assassination threats, Abraham Lincoln was “smuggled” into the Willard in February 1861 where he lived, protected by guards, until he moved into the White House on March 4, 1861.
- The hotel’s Round Robin Bar served as a watering hole for Union leaders during the Civil War.
- General (and later President) Ulysses S. Grant enjoyed cigars and brandy in the hotel lobby. There, men would come up to him try to sell him on something. Grant detested this, derisively referring to these people as “lobbyists”. Hence, a new word in the American political lexicon.
- This fact is debated and the term likely originated in the House of Commons in London.
- Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote his I Have A Dream speech from the Willard hotel in 1963, where he stayed before the historic March on Washington.
- Robert Kennedy ordered FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to tap King’s room, where he was caught having an extramarital affair.
- Every U.S. President since Franklin Pierce has either stayed at the Willard or held an event here.
- Donald Trump, however, has his own hotel down the street…
You’ll notice a pair of placards outside the hotel that reads:
My Own History
So a rich history indeed. But let’s return to my own story. When my uncle came to spend a few days with me toward the end of my two-month internship, I wanted to take him to three proper “Washingtonian” eateries for the three nights he was in town. We ate at Old Ebbitt Grill the first night and The Prime Rib on K Street the second night. On the third night, we dined at the Willard Room, the hotel’s fine dining restaurant.
I remember that night so clearly. We enjoyed amazing rack of lamb, but what really stood out to me was the unparalleled service. Our waiter was so good…it simply blew me away. I returned to the Willard Room a year later to have dinner again and guess what? The guy remembered my name. I was simply floored. Another thing I loved about this restaurant was that men had to wear jackets and ties. How cool is that in this casual new millennium?
Sadly, the Willard Room closed… the beautiful dining room is now a banquet room. A new restaurant called Cafe Du Parc opened instead. The food is great there, but the ambiance and elegance does not approach the Willard Room.
Just past the lobby is a red-carpeted hallway called Peacock Alley. You might recognize it from the Minority Report movie. There were so many afternoons or evenings I sat there people watching. I remember one evening former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich was standing there alone. We had a nice chat. One evening the Iraqi Delegation was in town and the smoke so was thick I just walked out.
There’s nothing like Christmas in the Willard lobby:
The furniture in the lobby has evolved over the years:
Now, I never have smoked a single cigarette in my life and don’t plan on ever doing it. But I loved the red standing ashtrays in the Willard lobby (see top picture, from the hotel’s re-opening in 1986). When the District of Columbia banned indoor smoking in 2007, I wrote to the Willard GM and asked him if I could buy one of the standing ashtrays, as a memento of the hotel. Honestly, I was not expecting a reply, but I quickly received one! He told me to stop by and pick one up that very evening. It now stands proudly in my office, a visible reminder of this hotel.
I’ve only stayed at this hotel a few times over the years, but it always remains my hotel of choice. The only time I stay at Hyatts, like for the last presidential inauguration, is when the Willard is sold out or too expensive to justify. When I took my wife to DC, I was much more keen to take her to the Willard than to monuments or museums.
So that’s my Willard story. Next week I’ll publish a review of an amazing suite upgrade I received at the hotel when I was an IHG Royal Ambassador. But now you have some context on why I like this hotel so much.