Tuesday, September 18, 2018

The grand Willard Hotel DC, some historical surprises

Most people here in DC know of the Willard: one of the grand dame hotels of the city which one assumes have been there forever.
However what most probably don't know (I for one did not) is that the current hotel is actually mostly a recreation of the historic space!
We recently hosted a tour of the hotel with our ICAA chapter and the hotel historian had some eye opening surprises for us.
Many of the beautiful details which appear to date to the hotel's rebuilding in 1901 when the beaux arts style hotel was built actually date to 1986!
Lets back up here. Yes the hotel is historic. Like many hotels however it has been renovated and rebuilt almost continuously since its founding in 1818 (the year is a stretch but is when a hotel was first built on this site). Above is the lobby as it appeared in 1950. One recognizes the overall space but decoration and mid-centuryisms are the focus.
And above is how the lobby appeared in 1984! This area of Washington suffered greatly during the 1968 riots and after being ransacked the hotel was closed and practically abandoned.
 Finally in 1984 work began under new ownership to rebuild the luxury hotel.
 Above is the famous Peacock Alley, both before and after renovation, where society once had afternoon tea and today you can again as well.
It is said that the term 'lobbyist' was originated in this very hotel. Abraham Lincoln would cross the street from the White house to smoke cigars and have a brandy in the lobby as his wife did not approve of such behavior, and he would be accosted in the lobby by people asking favors; hence the term lobbyist was coined!
 Above the same area before restoration. As many of the fixtures appear to be original and everything in such good 'olde' condition I had assumed the hotel has sat this way for generations.
One of the oldest appearing rooms is known as the Crystal Room which features the original gas (now electrified) chandeliers. The building time period of this hotel was known as the gilded age after all!
 And below the Crystal Room as it appeared prior to the renovation. One can recognize the room by the beautiful plaster ceiling.
 All of the 'marble' pilasters and columns throughout the hotel are faux painted or scagliola (an Italian technique of creating faux marble) done in 1986 (recreating the former faux marble).
 Beautiful crisp plasterwork.
The former grand dining room features mahogany paneling. Sadly the restaurant closed during the recession but is still available for events.
The dining room was the site of a murder by a crazed congressman who shot his waiter in 1856 (read about that here for a good time).
The lower paneling is a recreation of the original as only the upper paneling survived but looks a pretty close match although less ornate.
The hotel also claims to have been where the Mint Julep made its original debut in the famous Round Robin bar(more about that here).  One can still order one in the bar today which I highly recommend!
The restoration of the hotel is a lovely recreation and modernization of this iconic hotel -so successful that no one on the tour had any idea it wasn't all original!
 All is not preserved however. During the renovation the original ballroom on the top floors of the hotel was moved into the basement, seen below, and the upper floors split into additional meeting and guest rooms with a few additional stories added to the hotel.
My favorite part of this renovation however is that the craftsmen still exist to create such intricate detailing.
If you are in the Washington metropolitan area I hope you will considering joining us on one of our many tours or perhaps considering joining the organization! Check out our website's Calendar of events and our facebook page which are constantly updated.
 And if not I hope you will add tea or a drink at the Willard hotel to your Washington visit.
All historic photos provided by the Willard Intercontinental hotel while all present day photos my own.

4 comments:

Magnaverde said...


Stefan, I had forgotten about all the press on the Willard's rebirth in the 1980s, but you're right: unless you were already aware of it, you would never know that almost everything in the place is a re-creation. Just one note: the amazing echoes of that 1992 article in the linked-to piece with today's sex-&-politics scandal are unnerving. I had to go back and see what the original date of the article was.

ArchitectDesign™ said...

@Magnaverde - I find it comforting that some things never change..... so it's no the end of the world, haha. Also comforting that someone still reads my blog -thank you!

Chronica Domus said...

Interesting story of how the term "lobbyist" came about, thank you. I had no idea. And, wonderful to read about the details that one would naturally assume predate the 1980's.

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't actually call the the hotel rebirth in the 80's a "recreation". The "before" photos show an enormous amount of original details intact. As with most restorations, missing plasterwork is recast from existing pieces by molds and reinstalled. The "before" photos show extensive original fabric which was retained and where not possible due to damage, vandalism or loss, it was rebuilt or replaced, but I wouldn't consider this entire hotel, with exception of the facade, entirely recreated, not by a long shot. NYarch