Restoring the Willard. Historic hotel again reflects its glittering past

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

When the historic Willard Hotel reopens in August, President Lincoln's slippers will be waiting at the concierge's desk. The Willard, nicknamed ``the residence of presidents,'' has just undergone a two-year, $78 million restoration that has transformed it from a derelict, cream-colored limestone shell into a Beaux-Arts grand hotel that graces newly redeveloped Pennsylvania Avenue.

The original Willard, which opened in 1850, was home to Abraham Lincoln the night before his inauguration. J. T. Kuhlman, general manager of the new Willard Inter-Continental, tells this story: ``When President Lincoln stayed here, it was a cold night, and he got out of bed and didn't have any slippers. He called down to the concierge's desk and asked if there were some slippers available. Well, it was late at night and Abraham Lincoln had very big feet. And they looked all around and finally they did find a pair that fit him. And they were Mr. Willard's [hotel owner Henry Willard]. And Mr. Willard lent the President his slippers. They happened to have the same big feet. And the slippers are still with us.'' A lot of the old Willard is still with us, too.

You can almost sniff the history along with the plaster dust and damp stone as you stroll through the restoration now underway. Workmen hammer, drill, saw, and paint away amid tubs of cement and plaster; wires hang from the ceiling and the piercing whine of the security system sounds periodically. Though many weeks remain until the mid-August ribbon-cutting, the 394-room luxury hotel sprouts signs of opening. By the time the crystal chandeliers and all the velvet, bronze and marble are in place, the Willard will again reflect its glittering past.

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For the Willard has seen more history than Will and Ariel Durant together. Although it had been a hotel in some form since 1816, it was Henry Willard who bought it in 1850 and literally cultivated greatness to make it famous. Among the famous who stayed there were several US presidents, including Franklin Pierce, Millard Fillmore, Ulysses S. Grant, and Lincoln (and in the 20th Century, Calvin Coolidge slept there). President Lincoln held staff meetings in front of the Willard fireplace, and Julia Ward Howe wrote the Battle Hymn of the Republic there. Rooms then went for $4 a night. The historic Peace Conference was held at the Willard in 1861 in a last desperate attempt to avoid civil war. Among the others who stopped at the Willard: Jenny Lind (``the Swedish nightingale''), P. T. Barnum, Daniel Webster, and Charles Dickens.

The old Willard was torn down in 1900, and the family built a new version over it the following year. If the Willard resembles the Plaza Hotel in New York, it's because they shared the same architect -- Henry Janeway Hardenbergh, who also designed the Waldorf-Astoria. The 19th-century classic style he chose, French Second Empire Beaux-Arts, is a romantic one that gave the Willard its mansard roof, bull's-eye windows, and elegant pavilions.

After World War II, the Willard begain its long slide downhill until its doors closed in 1968; in 1969, owner Charles Benenson applied for permission to demolish it. Permission was denied. But many of the priceless antiques and fixtures inside were sold at auction.

Mr. Kuhlman (whose grandmother spent her honeymoon at the hotel), describes the boarded-up state it was in when restoration began: ``During the 18 years it was abandoned, a big steel girder had fallen down here and smashed this whole stairway. This Peacock Gallery was mostly crumpled and was nothing but rubble, rats and standing water.'' One wall was missing and had to be duplicated in the long gallery the FBI had once used to train rookies in shadowing suspects.

The new restoration wears the patina of history as well as a hefty price tag. It is part of a larger complex that includes a brand new office building and a series of retail shops, all sheathed in an echo of the Beaux-Arts style of the original hotel. The entire complex, including the hotel, cost $113 million, and was built by Oliver Carr -- the Washington developer whose don't-tear-it-down attitude helped place the landmark hotel on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.

The opulent hotel is full of marble; 34 different kinds have been used in the hotel and complex. Kuhlman points to the floor of the lobby, a mosaic reconstructed with the same marble as that used in l901 from a long-closed quarry north of Florence, Italy. (The restorers persuaded the owner to reopen.) Over 700,000 square feet of mosaic had to be restored by artisans like Nicholas Milanese, a New York mosaic artist.

In the crystal room, designed for splendid state dinners, Kuhlman points out that the restorers took original paint chips and analyzed them in an electromicroscope to determine the authentic colors: gold, silver, and two shades of olive green.

``So much of this is carried out in the tradition of the Willard going back to the 1850s. But . . . behind the gold leaf and the marble is a hotel that's state of the art,'' he says, with computers and security systems.

Singles at the upscale Willard, which is part of the Inter-Continental Hotels Corporation, start at $165, doubles at $180, and suites at $300 a night. The presidential suite goes for $2,000, without slippers.

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