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A Salute To 13 Historic American Hotels

Travel back in time to these patriotic properties from sea to shining sea.

If you want a history lesson that comes with room service, check into some of America’s most venerable hotels. While not one of these patriotic properties boasts that George Washington slept here, they are still packed with plenty of all-American lore. 

During the Cold War, for example, The Greenbrier in West Virginia built a secret bunker as an emergency shelter for Congress. When Julia Ward Howe sat down to write the rousing “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” she did so at the Willard in Washington, D.C. And in 1923, President Warren Harding checked out for good—from apparent heart failure—at San Francisco’s Palace Hotel.

In honor of America’s 244th birthday, the editors at Forbes Travel Guide have rounded up a selection of historic U.S. hotels that boast awe-inspiring architecture, celebrity clientele and of course storied pasts.

This 1818 institution in Washington, D.C., has played a continuous role in the nation’s history. Just two blocks from the White House, the Willard served as a temporary residence for Abraham Lincoln before his inauguration. And Calvin Coolidge lived there during his vice presidency. 

And if you admire its spectacular lobby, you’re not alone. The word “lobbyist” originated at the Willard—Ulysses S. Grant coined the term to describe the people who approached him for favors as he tried to enjoy a cigar and brandy. Nearly a century later, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sat in that same lobby to finish his momentous “I Have a Dream” speech, which he delivered just hours later at the Lincoln Memorial.

The Willard is a stone’s throw away from The Hay-Adams, another historic hotel built in 1928 across the street from the White House, as well as the infamous Watergate Hotel, where America’s greatest political scandal—which led to President Nixon’s resignation in 1974—unfolded.

The acclaimed St. Regis brand began with this iconic midtown Manhattan property named after Francis Regis, a saint known for extending hospitality to travelers. John Jacob Astor IV opened the hotel in 1905 with then-lavish amenities, such as telephones in each room, and the 19-story structure was the tallest New York hotel at the time. 

After Astor died aboard the Titanic in 1912, the hotel sailed on to new glory. Bartender Fernand Petiot mixed the original Bloody Mary recipe there in 1934, but the name was deemed too vulgar for polite society, so it was rechristened “The Red Snapper.”  You can still find it at the legendary King Cole Bar.

Built to rival Europe’s grandest properties, this San Francisco landmark opened its doors in 1875 as the world’s largest hotel. Unfortunately, much of it came crumbling down during the 1906 earthquake. But the Palace was rebuilt and reopened 1909. 

The Beaux-Arts hotel’s centerpiece is The Garden Court, a carriage-entrance-turned-restaurant that sits under a stained-glass dome and ornate Austrian crystal chandeliers. 

The hotel has hosted a number of politicians throughout its 145-year history. President Woodrow Wilson gave a speech on the Treaty of Versailles there. And both Kalakaua, king of the then-independent Hawaiian Islands, and Warren Harding died at the hotel (the latter under curious circumstances).

Boston’s grande dame has ties to Massachusetts’ most famous political family. Ever since President John F. Kennedy’s mother, Rose Fitzgerald, made her social debut at the hotel in 1912, the year it opened, the Kennedys have held numerous events there.

One look at the opulent property and you’ll understand why. Architect Henry Janeway Hardenbergh—who also designed the Copley’s sister hotel, The Plaza in New York—adorned the façade with French and Venetian Renaissance touches. Inside, you’ll find gilded, coffered ceilings covered in trompe l’oeil paintings and antiques throughout the elegant spaces.

And JFK hasn’t been the only American leader to visit; the Copley has hosted every president since William Howard Taft.

After John Michael Kohler invented the bathtub in 1873, a factory was erected in Kohler, Wisconsin, and immigrants were recruited to produce many more of them there. But they needed a place to live. So in 1918, a dormitory was built across the street from the factory to house the workers and their families—and it included a dining room, pub, bowling alley and barbershop. 

Today, Kohler remains a leader in the bath business, but the brick Tudor dormitory has been converted into a luxury hotel with a Five-Star spa. 

In 1927, John D. Rockefeller Jr. was driving through the South and stopped in then-deteriorating Williamsburg, Virginia. A professor at William and Mary proposed that the American financier restore the town’s colonial buildings to create a living history museum. Rockefeller embraced the plan, and 10 years later he added this stately inn next to the historic area to accommodate Colonial Williamsburg’s visitors.

The inn adopted the 19th-century Regency-style look, and the interior designer collaborated with historians and archivists to get the period details right, from the Audubon prints on the wall to the gold-leaf cornice boards. 

Opened during the Revolutionary War, in 1778, The Greenbrier and its 11,000 pristine acres are nestled in White Sulphur Springs among West Virginia’s Allegheny Mountains. Travelers used to flock there for the area’s natural mineral springs and continue to do so today for the property’s mineral spa. But the grand hotel’s allure extends well beyond the town’s healing waters. 

After the resort was used as a hospital during World War II, heralded designer Dorothy Draper arrived and injected bold, bright prints to give the spaces a more dramatic look. It’s home to America’s only private casino (jackets are required in the evening) and championship golf courses. Despite its many upgrades, The Greenbrier—now owned by the state’s billionaire Governor Jim Justice—still upholds the genteel Southern elegance of yesteryear. 

Before it was a riverfront boutique hotel, Napa River Inn was the Historic Napa Mill, a National Registered Landmark. Captain Albert Hatt operated a shipping business along the water and built the complex in 1884 to use it as a warehouse to store supplies and wines for local vineyards. To make it a community hub, Hatt added a skating rink and to this day, white rock maple planks from it now line the floors in the hotel’s Captain Hatt Suite. 

In the 1990s, the inn was among the first hotels to move into downtown Napa, helping to revitalize the area with its restaurants, gourmet market, day spa, bakery and candy shop. 

Elvis Presley attended his prom at this 1869 hotel and later signed his record contract on Peabody stationery.

But the Memphis establishment is perhaps best known for its flock of resident ducks. Every morning at 11, the five mallards waddle down the red carpet to the lobby fountain to swim until 5 p.m., when they march back to their rooftop abode. Crowds have shown up to watch the spectacle since 1933.

The fowl are also its mascots—there are rubber ducks in the bathrooms and their images are engraved on the bar’s copper mugs. And these fine-feathered guests are likely why the hotel’s Chez Philippe may be the only French restaurant in the world that doesn’t serve duck.

The “Grande Dame of the Rockies” made her big debut in 1918. Entrepreneur Spencer Penrose envisioned making the Colorado Springs hotel a destination in its own right. He bought land in the Pikes Peak region and built a steep dirt highway up to the summit. Penrose also created an annual race—now called The Broadmoor Pikes Peak International Hill Climb—that’s the second-oldest U.S. car competition (behind the Indianapolis 500). And he kept building, adding a zoo, an observation tower, an ice skating and hockey arena and much more for what would eventually become the 5,000-acre Western playground.

Now owned by billionaire Phil Anschutz, The Broadmoor is also the longest-running Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star hotel in the world, earning the rating for 60 consecutive years.

Sprawled across 220 acres of Southern California’s Topa Topa Mountains, the Spanish Colonial-style resort is an artist’s haven. The 1923 inn was the winter home of Ohio glass manufacturer Edward Drummond Libbey, and it also became a Hollywood escape, drawing the likes of Clark Gable, Judy Garland and Walt Disney. 

The hotel has had its own star turns. Director Frank Capra used the area to represent Shangri-La in his classic Lost Horizon, and it was featured in Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn’s 1952 romantic comedy Pat and Mike.

In 1942, the inn was used as an army base and then a navy facility. But it had a Hollywood ending with its return to an operating hotel in 1946.

The 11-story Venetian Gothic landmark stands in stark contrast to its across-the-street-neighbor Millennium Park and its modern marvels, including Frank Gehry’s Jay Pritzker Pavilion and Anish Kapoor’s shiny bean-shaped sculpture. The CAA launched in 1893 in advance of the World’s Columbian Exposition as an exclusive private club with top-notch fitness facilities. There were 3,000 original members and a 10-year waiting list.

The CAA remained a private club until it closed in 2007. Eight years later, it was reborn as a hotel and debuted to the public for the first time in its history. Great care was taken to restore the original craftsmanship, including the Italian columns, gilded doors, intricate woodwork, stained glass, Carrara marble floors and Turkish baths. 

William Penn, who lends his name to the state, conceived of Rittenhouse Square (along with four other public squares) as a green haven in Philadelphia. The square is named for David Rittenhouse, a respected 18th century astronomer and the first director of the U.S. Mint. 

Although the interiors of this 12-story hotel have a contemporary, minimalist aesthetic, AKA Rittenhouse Square kept its original 1912 Beaux-Arts façade, one of the best examples of the classical architectural style in Philadelphia—where something remarkable happened on July 4, 1776.

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