Civil War to Civil Rights
— Downtown Heritage Trail —
"This hotel, in fact, may be much more justly called the center of Washington and the Union than either the Capitol, the White House or the State Department. . ."
Nathaniel Hawthorne, Civil War reporter for the Atlantic Monthly
At 6:30 a.m. in late February 1861, President-elect Abraham Lincoln and his security team headed by Alan Pinkerton slipped into what was then called Willard's Hotel, an earlier version of the hotel now at this site. Assassination threats dictated this quiet arrival. The Lincoln family stayed there for ten days prior to the inauguration on March 4th. Willard's was hosting an unsuccessful peace conference at the time, a last ditch effort by delegates from 21 states to avert war.
Julia Ward Howe, a hotel guest during the war was awakened one night to the sound of Union troops marching by, singing as they went. Then and there she penned the words of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, the song that became the Union anthem.
Later, President Ulysses S. Grant popularized the word "lobbyist" in this hotel. The president frequently enjoyed relaxing with a brandy and a cigar in Willard's lobby. As word spread about his nightly ritual, many men congregated there, waiting to approach him about their causes. Grant called them lobbyists and the label has remained.
There has been a hotel on this site since 1816; young Henry Willard became manager in 1847 and bought it with his brother in 1850. During the Civil War, rooms cost between $2.75 and $4 per night and included lavish meals. In August 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. finished work on his famous "I Have a Dream" speech in his suite at the Willard.
When it was built in 1901, the current Willard Inter-Continental Hotel was one of Washington's first skyscrapers. The Beaux Arts structure was designed by Henry Hardenbergh whose work includes the Plaza Hotel and the original Waldorf-Astoria in New York.