Abe Lincoln slept here, Calvin Coolidge stayed here for years, and it’s where the word “lobbyist” was coined. The Willard Hotel in Washington D.C., an Intercontinental Hotel, is a place where it’s a pretty sure bet that someone who had an effect on the course of history slept in your bed.
Built in 1818 and situated right behind the White House, this “residence of presidents” has been the closest hotel to the Oval Office. Rebuilt and expanded several times over the years, it’s also been the host of many of those dinners and cocktail parties you’ve seen depicted in TV shows and who knows what nefarious deals have been hashed out in the clubby cocktail bar over a mint julep. The word “lobbyist” first came up here as a derisive term coined by Ulysses S. Grant, referring to gnats who kept bothering him while he was trying to enjoy a cigar and brandy.
It doesn’t stop there though. This is where Julia Ward Howe wrote “The Battle Hymm of the Republic” lyrics, where the National Press Club was formed, where Calvin Coolidge stayed for his whole vice-presidential term, where Martin Luther King put the final touches on his “I Have a Dream” speech. Oh, and in 1944 you could have bought it for $2.4 million, when it changed hands. It actually closed for 17 years in the 1970s and ’80s when there were plans to build a park where it stands and the building went into limbo. It re-opened in 1986.
The current building went up in 1901 and cuts and impressive facade on Pennsylvania Avenue between the Capitol and the White House. The outdoor French-inspired cafe, with its umbrellas and trees, is a great spot to have a drink or meal and eavesdrop on the power brokers in suits. When the weather doesn’t suit, the indoor part serves all meals to the expense account crowd.The lobby inside is as grand as you’d expect, with bellmen at the ready, gilded high ceilings, detailed tile floors, and a retro reception desk with key slots.
There’s an informal cafe right off the lobby that serves good coffee to go in the morning. Room service runs 24 hours. The circular bar is cozy to the point of getting claustrophobic if more than 20 people are in it, so if the weather is good it’s better to head outside or take a walk down the street to the many other options nearby. You can enjoy afternoon tea and finger sandwiches in the Peacock Alley hallway between 1:00 and 4:00.
Rooms here employ a mix of historic uniqueness and chain hotel sameness, but thankfully the former wins out in most respects. Thanks to several renovations, rooms here are larger than at many historic properties, the smallest ones being at least 375 square feet. As you go up the categories you get more space, more furniture, or a better view—in some cases that’s the Washington Monument. Suites provide a separate sitting area and executive suites have a full desk.
All rooms have luxe amenities like robes, slippers, large cable TVs, high-end linens, and Agraria Lemon Verbena bath products.
There’s a well-equipped health club on site, a spa, and a business center. The concierge can arrange anything from show tickets to gift buying to limo rentals—but not a meeting at the White House. Despite a mix-up on the date of my reservation, the front desk staff patiently worked through it and resolved the problem with no fuss. Service is polished, discreet, and professional throughout.
Rates are as high as you’d expect when the President and Congress are in town, but can level off to more reasonable levels starting at $205 when there’s a government recess. Since this is part of the IHG chain, you can cash in loyalty points for a splurge. Book direct at the hotel website or check rates online at Expedia.