Hotels with presidential cachet

  • Article by: GARY A. WARNER , Orange County Register
  • Updated: December 1, 2012 - 1:25 PM

Hotels made famous by U.S. chief executives, from the California spot where the Nixons wed to the Washington hub that gave us the term "lobbyist."

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In its former glory, the Mission Inn in Riverside, Calif., was the hotel of choice for Benjamin Harris, William McKinley, William Taft, Warren G. Harding and other presidents.

Photo: Michael Goulding, Mct

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"Warren Harding died here" doesn't quite have the tourist draw of "Washington slept here," but for the Palace Hotel in San Francisco, the distinction of being the only hotel where a president of the United States drew his last breath is enough to put it into the pantheon of presidential sleep spots.

Scores of hotels around the country can lay claim to a little White House luster, having bedded down famous men before, during or after their stints in the White House. Most will tack the term "Presidential Suite" onto the spot and start charging the highest rates in the house.

But there are a handful of places nationwide that have earned a tighter tie with presidential history. Two gave us political terms we still use: "lobbyist" and "smoke-filled rooms." Another might have cost one man the presidency and later could have cost a president his life.

The places on this short list are, not surprisingly, big, old luxurious hotels in key cities -- which means that with or without the bit of chief executive cachet, they're worth checking out.

The Willard, Washington, D.C.

The nation's capital is crammed with hotels containing presidential lore. The Hay-Adams, near the White House, was built on land that once held the homes of John Adams' grandson and Abraham Lincoln's private secretary and is where Barack Obama moved in for two weeks before his inauguration. Until recently, another hotel in town was synonymous with political corruption: The Watergate now houses offices and condominiums. But for a true slice of American history, nothing can beat the Willard.

A couple of doors down Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House, the Willard has hosted presidents going back to Zachary Taylor. Lincoln snuck into town after his 1860 election (Washington was basically a Southern town and many in the capital were friendly to the secessionist cause) and used the Willard as his pre-inauguration headquarters. But the hotel's place in the dictionary was cemented by Ulysses S. Grant, the great Civil War general turned not-so-great president. Grant occasionally strolled to the Willard to enjoy a cigar. Men seeking to influence legislation or gain political appointments would hang out, hoping they could elbow their way to the president to make their case. Those who loitered in the lobby were dubbed "lobbyists." The term has stuck for advocates of all types who seek to bend laws and regulations by plying the halls of Congress, the party circuit and, yes, occasionally a hotel lobby -- including the still-sparkling Willard.

The Willard Intercontinental Hotel, 1401 Pennsylvania Av. NW., Washington, D.C.; 1-202-628-9100; www.washington.intercontinental.com. Rates from $180 per night.

The Blackstone Hotel, Chicago

No smoking is allowed at the Blackstone on the south end of downtown Chicago, an ironic policy given that plumes of cigar, cigarette and pipe smoke gave the hotel its place in presidential history. The 1920 Republican Party presidential nominee was decided not at the nearby Chicago Coliseum, where the official convention was held, but in rooms at the Blackstone Hotel. After conventioneers deadlocked at the Coliseum, the party's influential gathered behind closed hotel room doors to horse-trade federal jobs and money for votes. On the 10th ballot, Warren Harding -- who had received a scant 65 votes on the first ballot -- was proclaimed the nominee. Raymond Clapper, a reporter for the United Press wire service, wrote that the victory had not come on the convention floor, but in the "smoke-filled rooms" of power brokers. The term became synonymous with decisions made out of sight.

By the end of the past century, the Blackstone had fallen into disrepair and the urban issues of its neighborhood made it a less desirable address for business and leisure travelers. It closed in 2000 but reopened as a Renaissance property in 2008 with fewer but larger rooms, modern amenities and an emphasis on the business trade and community events.

The Blackstone Renaissance Hotel, 636 S. Michigan Av., Chicago; 1-312-447-0955; www.black stonerenaissance.com. Rates from $164 per night.

Palace Hotel, San Francisco

In 1923, this hotel hosted President Warren G. Harding, the onetime Ohio newspaper publisher whom historians rank with Grant as among the worst presidents in our nation's history. Harding had been ill with flu-like symptoms when he left for a trip to the Northwest, which included playing golf in Vancouver and making speeches in Seattle. He was scheduled to go to Yosemite, but instead, the weak chief executive was taken to San Francisco and installed in room 8064, a high-floor suite overlooking Market Street. While his wife was reading to him, Harding passed away, most likely from a heart condition. It's not completely known, because Mrs. Harding would not allow an autopsy.

Decline dropped the Palace out of the top ranks of the city's hotels, but it has been reborn under the Starwood Luxury Collection brand as one of the city's finest. Its Pied Piper bar is famous for an illuminist painting by Maxfield Parrish.

The Palace, 2 New Montgomery St., San Francisco; 1-415-512-1111; www.sfpalace.com. Rates from $229 per night.

Menger Hotel, San Antonio

The Alamo is practically a holy site in Texas, the place where Davey Crockett, Jim Bowie and a small knot of others held out against a superior force of Mexican troops until they were finally killed in a bloody siege. Across the street from the Alamo is an old hotel that in some ways is just as important to American history as the Alamo -- and you can still check in. With its beautiful, cool-blue tiles and handsome cream-colored Corinthian columns, the Menger Hotel is where former Assistant Navy Secretary Theodore Roosevelt stayed while assembling his Rough Riders to fight the Spanish in Cuba. Roosevelt trained his troops on a makeshift parade ground that's now Roosevelt Park. In part because of his success in Cuba, Roosevelt was selected as William McKinley's running mate in the 1900 election. A year later, Roosevelt became president when McKinley was assassinated.

The Menger, 204 Alamo Plaza, San Antonio; 1-210-223-4361; www.mengerhotel.com. Rates from $129 per night.

Mission Inn, Riverside, Calif.

At the Mission Inn, with its Spanish-Moroccan-Asian mix, you'll find a copy of the chapel in Assisi, Italy; a huge Buddha where Raquel Welch once cavorted; and a massive, carved wood chair with sturdy legs and bowed armrests that Miller had built for a visit by President William Howard Taft. Though generations of hotel visitors have taken their turn in the seat -- sometimes three at a time -- the 300-pound-plus Taft reportedly declined to use a chair so obviously designed to accommodate his girth.

In the late 1940s, the hotel bar was a meeting and reception room -- the least expensive to rent in the place. It's where Richard Nixon from nearby Whittier married his girlfriend, Pat. The room was later converted into the Presidential Lounge, with portraits of the many presidents who have visited over the years hung on the outside (they are all Republicans, with the exception of John F. Kennedy). You can now have a cocktail in the room where the Nixons tied the knot.

The Mission Inn Hotel and Spa, 3649 Mission Inn Av., Riverside; 1-951-784-0300; www.missioninn.com. Winter rates start at $229 a night.

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  • Palace Hotel in San Francisco

  • FAMOUS PLACES

    The Willard, Washington, D.C.

    The Blackstone Hotel, Chicago

    Palace Hotel, San Francisco

    Menger Hotel, San Antonio

    Mission Inn, Riverside, Calif.

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