Washington’s famed Willard Hotel has been a political gathering place for nearly 200 years.
By Donna Evers
Although lobbyists seem to be out of favor these days, it is interesting to know that the term is said to have originated in the lobby of the old Willard Hotel. The story goes that President Ulysses S. Grant used to slip out of the White House and visit the neighboring Willard to enjoy brandy and a cigar. As soon as Washington power brokers found out about his forays, they started frequenting the lobby as well, hoping for an opportunity to secure favors for themselves and their clients. While history books claim that the term came from England a half century earlier, Grant is widely credited with coining the term “lobbyist” to describe those who stalked him in his favorite hangout.
The Willard’s ornate lobby would have made Grant and other 1860’-era visitors feel right at home, although the current hotel bearing the Willard name is very different from the original. While there had been an inn on the site since 1816, the Willard brothers didn’t come onto the scene until 1850, when they bought a row of townhouses and began renting out rooms. The family enterprise grew, and in 1904, architect Henry Janeway Hardenbergh was retained to create the capital’s first “skyscraper,” which soon became famous for its luxurious rooms, its electric elevators and serving the first ice cream sodas in town. After the Willards sold the hotel in 1946, it fell into bankruptcy before closing in 1968. Finally, the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation, the Oliver Carr Company and Intercontinental Hotels reopened the Willard in 1986 after spending about $120 million to restore it to Gilded Age splendor.