Hotels That Shaped History: Then Vs. Now

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Did you know Mark Twain wrote two of his books in The Willard Washington D.C. hotel? Or that The Plaza in New York City was the setting for Barefoot in the Park, with a young Jane Fonda and Robert Redford? Some of the coolest, most historic hotels still stand today. While some of them have undergone drastic cosmetic alteration, many, surprisingly, have hardly changed at all.

Please note: All historic photos can be credited to the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs database.

The Willard Washington D.C.

It’ll be hard to find a more interesting historic hotel in the States. It was in this very hotel that Mark Twain wrote two of his books in the early 20th century. A staple in D.C. culture, The Willard used to be referred to as the “center of Washington” by American author Nathaniel Hawthorne. In 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. created a draft of his “I Have a Dream” speech while staying in a room here. Other notable guests include Charles Dickens, Buffalo Bill, and multiple presidents.

Liberty Hotel, Boston

Imagine staying in the building where Malcolm X and Sacco and Vanzetti served some jail time. Built in 1851 as the Charles Street Jail, Liberty Hotel now occupies the building. The jail closed in the late 1900s after the U.S. District Court ruled that the jail violated the prisoners’ constitutional rights by overcrowding. Now, the hotel plays on the incarceration theme in unique, fun ways by incorporating celebrity mug shots, “Solitary” key rings on doorknobs instead of “Do Not Disturb” signs, and an exhibit showcasing the building’s history and restoration details.

Fontainebleau Resort Miami Beach

Back in the ’70s, the Black Tuna Gang — an American marijuana-smuggling organization — operated from a suite in this hotel designed by Morris Lapidus. That being said, the Fontainebleau Hotel is one of the most historically and architecturally important hotels on Miami Beach. The swimming pool was a setting for a scene in the 1959 film A Hole in the Head, with Frank Sinatra. Sinatra also videotaped a special in 1960 to welcome back Elvis Presley from a two-year military service in Germany.

The Plaza, New York City

When The Plaza opened in 1907, a room cost a mere $2.50 per night, which equals about $60 to $70 today. Now a room can cost more than $900 per night. The Plaza has long been a New York City landmark, The Beatles stayed here during their first visit to the U.S. in 1964. The hotel is also being the setting for scenes in multiple novels and films, including Kay Thompson’s Eloise, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and (modern day) Bride Wars.

Renaissance Mayflower Hotel, Washington, D.C.

Franklin Roosevelt lived in Suite 776 before being inaugurated, and delivered one of his most memorable speeches here. Does “We have nothing to fear but fear itself” ring a bell? President Harry Truman also lived here throughout his first 90 days as president. Another interesting fact is that Washington’s first blackout drill was staged at the Mayflower in 1942, after air raid sirens and first aid stations were installed on each floor.

Palace Hotel, San Francisco

Although the original Palace Hotel, built in 1875, was demolished after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the “New” Palace Hotel opened in 1909 and quickly resumed the landmark’s role as being a staple in San Francisco culture. Some interesting events have occurred here, including the opening session of the United Nations in 1945 and the death of President Warren G. Harding in 1923.

Congress Plaza Hotel, Chicago

Known for its supposed paranormal activity, some claim that Al Capone, who reportedly once owned the hotel and used it as his headquarters, haunts the halls of this Chicago budget hotel. Opened in 1893, the hotel has undergone multiple renovations and expansion over the years. The hotel has hosted various notable guests, including presidents, celebrities, and foreign dignitaries.

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