A team of Oyster reporters spent weeks exploring 61 top hotels in Washington, D.C. We slept in the beds, ate in the restaurants, tested the service, and scoped out the neighborhoods, all with an eye toward selecting the most distinguished properties. Here’s a list of hotels we found with fascinating histories that are our top picks for historic hotels!
A hotel has stood on the site of the Willard Continental, two blocks from the White House, since 1816. But it wasn't until Henry and Edwin Willard purchased the property in 1850 that it first gained fame. President Zachary Taylor stayed at the hotel soon after it opened, and Abraham Lincoln, amid assassination threats, covertly checked in and stayed for the 10 days leading up to his inauguration. Ulysses S. Grant, who often relaxed with brandy and a cigar in the lobby, was approached by political operatives pushing various causes whom he nicknamed "lobbyists." In 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. composed a draft of his "I Have a Dream" speech while staying at the hotel. Today, the Willard continues to host presidents, diplomats, and D.C. power players.
The Hay-Adams was built in 1927, for the not-too-modest sum of $900,000, over the former homes of best friends John Hay (Abraham Lincoln's private secretary and later a secretary of state) and Henry Adams (the author and descendant of John and John Quincy). Supposedly, the ghost of Adams' wife, who committed suicide on this site in 1885, still walks the halls, trailed by the scent of mimosa. In its early years, luxuries like steam heat, circulating ice water (now chilled Fiji), and, in 1930, Washington's first air-conditioned dining room drew such notables as Amelia Earhart, Sinclair Lewis, and Charles Lindbergh. Since, the hotel has been a long-standing host to D.C.'s most powerful visitors -- in 1986, for example, Carl "Spitz" Channell met donors at the hotel to raise money to arm Nicaraguan rebels (leading to the Iran-Contra affair). More recently, Obama stayed at the hotel for two weeks with his family prior to his inauguration.
Built in 1930, the Shoreham Hotel joins the Renaissance Mayflower, the Hamilton Crowne Plaza, and a select few other D.C. hotels registered as Historic Hotels of America (Omni took over the Shoreham in the '90s). Its echoing ceilings, grand chandeliers, and allegedly haunted Ghost Suite (for the full story, you can click here) nod to the hotel's past, but since the vivacious days in the 1950s and '60s, guests have transitioned from Frank Sinatra and The Beatles to Rush Limbaugh, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama (who snagged a presidential suite while still on the campaign trail).
President Calvin Coolidge cut the hotel's ceremonial grand-opening ribbon eight decades ago, and since then, the hotel has been visited by every U.S. president (Reagan had his hair cut there) and numerous celebrities (Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, and Cher) were frequent guests. Howard Hughes kept a permanent suite at the Carlton during World War II. In 1999, the hotel -- formerly known as the Carlton Hotel -- changed hands and became the second St. Regis in the world.
Since opening in 1925, the Mayflower has established an impressive reputation as one of D.C.'s "power hotels" for its inaugural events, high-profile guests, and, more recently, prominent affairs -- the famous photo of President Clinton and Monica Lewinksy embracing at a 1996 campaign event was taken here and New York governor Eliot Spitzer's resignation-inducing prostitute hookup happened in Room 871.
While it might host business power-players by day and dolled-up partiers by night, the W Washington (just opened in July 2009) holds on to some of the iconic design elements of its former self, the Hotel Washington. This landmark Beaux Arts building was built in 1917 (the original hotel signage remains) and has hosted stars like Harrison Ford and presidential galas. Scenes from "The Godfather: Part II" were filmed on the rooftop, now the swanky POV bar, and allegedly, Elvis once asked President Nixon if he could become an FBI agent while staying at the hotel.
The Jefferson made its debut in 1923 as the Jefferson Apartment, a luxury residential building. In 1955, it was converted to a hotel, and has remained one of D.C.'s most prestigious ever since. Incorporating lesser-known aspects of Thomas Jefferson's life, the custom-made toile draperies in the rooms depict scenes from Monticello and other buildings he designed, the library holds an impressive collection of some of his favorite works, and the private dining room includes a working dumbwaiter (a Jefferson invention) that transports wine from the hotel's 1,000-bottle collection in the basement. Also, in the spirit of the Founding Father with such an ignominious sex life, call girl Sherry Rowlands told Star magazine that she regularly met with Clinton strategist Dick Morris at his Jefferson suite, where he allegedly sucked her toes and let her listen in on phone calls with President Clinton.
Built in 1921, the Beaux Arts Hamilton hotel was a glamorous hot spot through the '30s and '40s, and even hosted an inaugural ball for F.D.R. Since this time, the neighborhood went into decline -- for a time, the hotel was owned by the Salvation Army and used as the Evangeline Home for Girls -- but when the Crowne Plaza bought the Hamilton in 1996, it converted it into a more modern business hotel. Still, the space feels stately, with its vaulted ceiling in the lobby that mimics an octagonal design of the U.S. Capitol Building's grand rotunda and it is decorated in Oval Office's blues and golds.
The Marriott Wardman, opened in 1918 after the close of World War I, took part in a fair amount of war-related action in later decades. Before the U.S. joined World War II, a British spy named "Cynthia" used the hotel as her base of operations while sneaking top-secret documents from an operative at the French Vichy Embassy. In the 1940s, Marine Reserves trained in the hotel pool, learning to swim in their clothes. In addition, the hotel got a taste of political action when NBC broadcast its first televised episode of Meet the Press from Wardman Tower in 1947.
Architect Robert Mills, the same man who designed the Washington Monument, first erected this gorgeous Greek Revival building in 1839 to be the General Post Office. Today, it's a National Historic Landmark. When the Kimpton brand took over the building to develop the Hotel Monaco in 2002, it chose to blend the grand historic appeal of its structure with contemporary design flourishes, like bold colors, striking patterns, and fun pendant light fixtures.
About the only interesting thing about this massive convention hotel is its notorious history. As President Reagan was leaving the hotel after a speech in 1981, he received a gunshot wound to the lung at the hand of mentally ill, would-be-assassin John Hinckley Jr., who was attempting to impress actress Jodie Foster. The White House press secretary, a policeman, and a secret service agent were also wounded (although none fatally).