|The Willard Hotel, circa 1910 (author's collection).|
Construction took place in two phases so as to allow hotel operations to continue uninterrupted. The first part of the new hotel—the southern section on Pennsylvania Avenue—went up between 1900 and 1901, while guests stayed in the northern part of the old hotel opening on F Street. The hotel's sumptuous new main lobby on Pennsylvania Avenue opened for business in October 1901. After guests moved into the new structure, the rest of the building went up between 1902 and 1904.
Like the Raleigh, the new Willard included a lavish ballroom and private dining room on the top floor with magnificent views of the city. At street level were the restaurants. The main restaurant on the first floor was "one of the largest and most elegant dining halls to be found anywhere," according to The Washington Times. "With its richly decorated ceiling and great columns it is a sight worth looking upon." Across the long main corridor, which in time would be called Peacock Alley, was the so-called Pompeian Room, a "dangerous" place in some people's minds, because men and women could mingle there, and women were allowed to smoke. Overlooking all this activity was a balcony designed to accommodate the hotel's in-house orchestra.
|The 10th floor ballroom arranged for a banquet. Photo by Frances Benjamin Johnston (Source: Library of Congress).|
|The dining room, photographed by Frances Benjamin Johnston (Source: Library of Congress).|
Peacock Alley, or Alimony Avenue, it may be stated for the benefit of benighted persons who do not live in Washington, is the corridor that runs through the Willard Hotel from Pennsylvania avenue to F street.... It is a gorgeous tunnel, carpeted in red, lined with gilded mirrors and hung with tapestries. The price tags have been removed from these articles, but it is believed the figures they bore were almost as large as those now on the dinner menus in the adjoining dining rooms.
Some haughty-looking chairs and divans, carved, upholstered and inlaid, stretch in front of the mirrors and invite such as feel they are worthy to sit on them. Opening off these exclusive and Oriental precincts are the dining rooms, in which aristocratic and expensively dressed waiters glide about among diners almost as aristocratic and expensively dressed, to the music of an expensive orchestra, playing the most expensive tunes to be heard anywhere....Late one night in April 1922, a devastating fire broke out in the top-floor ballroom, where just hours before the Gridiron Club had held their annual banquet. "Perhaps not in years has Washington seen so spectacular a fire," the Washington Post commented. "Standing on a hill, the Willard is easily within sight of outlying portions of the city and when the flames ate their way through the roofing and leaped high in the air the gigantic torch made a spectacle that could be seen for miles."
|The 10th floor ballroom after the fire (Source: Library of Congress).|
The hotel had been filled to capacity, with many notable guests attending the Gridiron Club dinner or an assembly of the Daughters of the American Revolution that was also underway. Vice President Calvin Coolidge and his wife Grace were living at the hotel at the time, and were among those roused from their sleep by the commotion. Coolidge remained unfazed by the incident, socializing in the lobby and passing out cigars to newspapermen. In the end, the damage from the fire was cleaned up, the great ballroom rebuilt, and the Willard saga went on.
As a luxury hotel, the Willard struggled during the Great Depression but managed to stay afloat. In 1930, a decision was made to save money by eliminating the dining room orchestra, but there was such a hue and cry from wealthy patrons that a new, much-smaller orchestra was reinstated at a sharply-reduced cost. Nevertheless, amidst the economizing, improvements and modernizations continued. In 1934 air conditioning was installed, and in 1937 bathrooms were added in every room. When the war years came, business suddenly boomed, and it became hard to find a room at the Willard. Several floors were leased out to the British government and other war-related agencies.
|A matchbook cover from the 1950s (author's collection).|
|The barber shop in the 1950s (author's collection).|
With patronage down and the government wanting to raze the building, the Willard's last straw came when the April 1968 riots precipitated a swift and dramatic decline in the old downtown. In July the hotel abruptly shut down with no advance notice. Bookings were canceled, guests sent on their way, and staff laid off. From veteran employees who had spent their careers at the hostelry to the bartender who had been hired the previous day, all were suddenly out of work.
|The Willard lobby in 1969, before the big sale of furnishings and fixtures (Historic American Buildings Survey).|
Even before the old building was stripped, a protracted struggle was underway over what to do with it. At one point the General Services Administration suggested a land swap: unwanted federal property—Miller Field on Staten Island or the old Navy barracks on Columbia Pike in Arlington—in exchange for the hotel. Negotiations dragged on for years but ultimately went nowhere. The hotel's owners, two investors from New York and California, became frustrated and filed suit in 1969 for the right to tear down their empty hotel and replace it with an office building. The Fine Arts Commission blocked that option as incompatible with the Pennsylvania Avenue Plan.
|A stairway photographed in 1976 for the Historic American Buildings Survey.|
|The empty building in the 1970s, photographed for the Historic American Buildings Survey.|
|Restoration work photographed by Carol M. Highsmith (Source: Library of Congress).|
|The refurbished Willard photographed by Carol M. Highsmith (Source: Library of Congress).|
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Sources for this article included: Richard Wallace Carr and Marie Pinak Carr, The Willard Hotel: An Illustrated History (2005); Dean R. Montgomery, "The Willard Hotels of Washington, D. C., 1847-1968" in Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Vol. 66/68 (1968); National Capital Planning Commission, Downtown Urban Renewal Area Landmarks (1970); The Report of the President's Council on Pennsylvania Avenue (1964); documentation for the National Register and Historic American Buildings Survey; and numerous newspaper and magazine articles.