People come to the Washington Hilton for many reasons. They come for conferences and concerts, business trips and family vacations, meetings at the White House and the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Architecture aficionados come for the iconic double-arched design. History buffs come to see the site of the 1988 assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan.
So yes, the Washington Hilton has a lot going for it. As the General Manager, Tracy Marks, told Storied Hotels, “The Washington Hilton was built for greatness.” He says, “Since opening in 1965, the legendary Washington Hilton has been linked to historic moments in American history.” From Jimi Hendrix Concerts to the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, we dive into the rich history of the Washington Hilton.
A Historic Hotel on Historic Land
The Washington Hilton is set on six acres of land, overlooking Washington from one of the highest elevations in the city. In the 1700s, the land was owned by Anthony Holmead, one of the original proprietors of the District of Columbia. Eventually the land made its way into the hands Edward C. Dean, president of the Potomac Terra Cotta Company, earning the property the nickname “Dean’s Tract.” In the 1930s, however, it earned a new nickname. Plans were made to build a Masonic temple on these grounds. The plans fell through, but the name stuck. Locals still call it Temple Heights today.
A Ballroom for the History Books
The Washington Hilton’s iconic double-arched design was conceived by architect William B Tabler. It was constructed by Uris Brothers in 1965.
One of the most impressive architectural features is the ballroom, which was the largest in the city to be built without pillars. The 36,000-square-foot space can accommodate as many as 2,670 people. It has a 48-foot hydraulic stage that rises from the lower level. With pre-rigged lighting trusses and high-tech AV capabilities, this ballroom can put on a pretty serious show.
Luckily, the Hilton has never had trouble finding musical acts to take on the challenge. During the 1960s and 1970s, the ballroom hosted some of the era’s most iconic artists. On March 10, 1968, around 4,000 fans packed into the ballroom on to see Hendrix perform alongside Noel Redding on the drums and Mitch Mitchell on the bass. Tickets for this epic performance cost $4 in advance and $4.50 at the door.
The day after the performance, Jim Hoagland wrote a review for the Washington Post. Hoagland writes, “Part of yesterday’s crowd was composed of two planeloads of his fans from New York who were shut out of his sell-out shows there last week. He is, in short, the hottest thing going.”
The story continues, “The 22-year-old guitarist and vocalist, who was born in Seattle, became an instant legend in junior high school classrooms when, in a moment of crowd hysteria, he burned his guitar at the Monterey pop festival. The question kept circulating yesterday, in anguished tones, ‘Is he going to burn it?’ He didn’t. But he didn’t disappoint the crowd either, with his wildly sexual gyrations and to-hell-with-it attitude. He is bad, and teenagers love him for it. He is more evil than Elvis ever dreamed of being, and teen-agers know that it infuriates their parents.”
The Doors played here on November 25, 1967, over Thanksgiving week. At the time, the band was at the height of fame: they had two albums in the top five at once. At the time, the only other bands with this achievement were the Beatles and the Monkeys.
Today, the space hosts more galas than raging concerts. However, the star power is still shines brightly. General Manager Tracy Marks says, “Hendrix and the Doors were certainly historic performances in the late 60’s but the MTV Ball for Barack Obama’s Inauguration had some significant performances of today’s rock stars including Fall Out Boys, Kid Rock and Kanye West.”
Ronald Reagan’s Close Encounter
The Washington Hilton landed forever in the history books on March 30, 1981. Ronald Reagan was two months into his presidency when he stepped out of a side door at the Washington Hilton. As he waved at the crowd, John Hinckley Jr., a troubled 25-year-old man from Colorado, fired six shots at the president.
John Hinckley had taken a bus to Washington DC on March 28. When he saw the president’s schedule was published in The Washington Star, he decided to act.
Reagan was at the Washington Hilton to give a luncheon address to the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), the largest federation of unions in the United States.
In fact, the hotel was chosen because it was considered to be one of the safest venues in the city. The hotel had covered walkway called “President’s Walk” that was built after the John F. Kennedy assassination. The aim was to create a secure place for VIPs to enter and exit the hotel.
Reagan took the “President’s Walk” into the Hilton at 1:45pm, waving to the crowds as he walked in. Reagan often wore a bulletproof vest for appearances, but the precaution was deemed unnecessary as his exposure was so short.
According to reports on that day, no one reported anything abnormal about Hinckley’s behavior. Some witnesses did describe a man as “fidgety,” but it turns out it was another spectator. The Secret Service were watching this other man closely.
When the president exited the Hilton, he was smiling and waving at the group of people who gathered to get a glimpse of the president. Hinckley was standing about 15 feet from the limousine with a .25 caliber handgun in his pocket. According to Del Quentin Wilber, a reporter for the Washington Post and author of the book Rawhide Down: The Near Assassination of Ronald Reagan, Hinckley assumed he would be killed on the spot by the Secret Service agents or the police. Then, he fired six shots in 1.7 seconds.
When the shots rang out, the lead Secret Service agent Jerry Parr acted quickly and pushed the president into the limousine. Jerry Parr decided to drive to the hospital instead of the White House. This decision saved Reagan’s life.
Reagan was critically injured – a bullet had punctured his lung – and he lost a lot of blood in the hospital. He recovered, but his luck was astounding. According to Wilber, “He was a total beneficiary of circumstance.” The bullet was just one inch from the president’s heart.
As legend has it, Reagan’s survival broke a curse. The so-called curse was said to be responsible for the death in office of every president elected in 20-year intervals starting in 1840. The victims were William Henry Harrison, Abraham Lincoln, James A. Garfield, William McKinley, Warren G. Harding, Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy. The next in line was Reagan.
Unfortunately, White House press secretary Jim Brady was not as lucky. He was shot in the head, which led to a brain injury that left him disabled for the rest of his life.
The Hinckley Hilton
While it isn’t the Hilton’s preferred nickname, some locals still know that hotel as the “Hinckley Hilton.” A plaque outside the building commemorates the incident.
The hotel took many measures to ensure an event like this never happens again. The “President’s Walk” was extended to allow limousines to drive up to the door without exposing the passenger to the street. Presidents and other VIPs still use this entrance today.
Inside, there is a waiting area designated for dignitaries, celebrities and, of course, the president. There is an official Seal of the President of the United States etched into the floor. There is usually carpet covering the seal, but they remove the carpet when the President of the United States is visiting.
The White House Correspondents’ Dinner Then and Now
The Washington Hilton hosts many star-studded events, but the most famous is the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Jokingly called “Nerd Prom,” the event is a good-hearted roast of the president over dinner. But the event has a far richer heritage than that.
In 1914, Woodrow Wilson’s White House announced that the president would begin holding regularly scheduled press conferences. But who would they invite? Reporters began hearing rumors that Congress would decide who gets access. To keep this from happening, a group of journalists from different publications established the White House Correspondents’ Association. The aim was “the promotion of the interests of those reporters and correspondents assigned to cover the White House.” As it turned out, the congressional committee story was just a rumor so the White House Correspondents’ Association was not needed.
Several years later, the group decided to host a dinner. In 1924, Calvin Coolidge attended. Since that year, every president has attended at least once during his administration. The 1924 event was held at the Old Arlington Hotel with only 50 guests in attendance. Today, the event has grown into a gala for thousands of journalists, celebrities, politicians and more.
The dinner continued to grow in the 1930s, and shows became more like variety shows. Entertainers would come to perform, like Frank Sinatra, Duke Ellington and Barbra Streisand. In 1983, comedians started to take over the evening’s festivities.
The Washington Hilton has hosted the White House Correspondents’ Dinner annually since 1968. According to General Manager Tracy Marks, “Preparing for this high profile event is a year-round process. The day after the White House Correspondents’ Dinner each year our team meets and starts preparing for the dinner for the upcoming year.”
Marks continues, “Our amazing Executive Chef, Andre Coté, is the mastermind behind the planning and execution of the dinner itself. Andre’s very first day on the job was actually the 2005 White House Correspondents’ Dinner and he has continued to execute the dinner every year since then. On the day of the event our nearly 1,000 hotel and on-call team members are engaged and involved in the execution. Our entire management team is stationed throughout the hotel with to ensure that the event runs smoothly. After hosting this event for 51 years we have our process down to a science. The event generates a great deal of enthusiasm and pride amongst our team members many of whom have been at the hotel for over 40 years.”
The former Banquet Captain, Charlie Ragusa, served the White House Correspondents’ Dinner since 1968. While he was out on medical leave in 2016, he called Marks to apologize for missing the dinner. “The unparalleled level of commitment this team displays is especially highlighted by our former Banquet Captain, Charlie Ragusa,” Marks tells us.
In May of 2007, the property was acquired by CJUF and Lowe in one of the biggest hotel acquisitions in Washington’s history. CJUF is a partnership with Canyon Capital Realty Advisors and former NBA player, Magic Johnson. After the acquisition, the hotel announced a $150 million renovation.
The renovations refreshed the lobby, meeting rooms, restaurants, public spaces and all 1,070 rooms. The new interiors feature a mid-century modern style and up-to-date amenities. The renovation introduced new color schemes, bedding, floors, bathrooms and wall coverings.
The iconic ballroom is also looking better than ever. The space can now accommodate 4,200 people for a standing event and 2,600 for a seated dinner. In addition to revamping the existing meeting space, a new addition called Columbia Hall was added. With moveable walls, the space provides plenty of flexibility for events.
After the three-year project, a grand reopening celebration was held. Washington D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty said, “The District applauds Magic Johnson, Canyon-Johnson and Lowe for honoring their commitment to invest in the District of Columbia, despite the dark economic clouds during this three-year renovation. Not only have they breathed new life into the hotel, but they’ve also secured its role as an economic driver for years to come.”
The Hotel Today
As the years have passed, the hotel as grown up a bit. The ballroom that once held Jimi Hendrix’s screaming fans now hosts galas. Guests and Washingtonians gather for sensible cocktails in the intimate TDL bar. Comfort food is served at The District Line Restaurant. In short, it’s more elegant than ever.
What makes the Washington Hilton so special? According to Tracy Marks, “For over 50 years the hotel has been an integral part of the fabric of Washington, DC. At the heart of these iconic events are our team. The Washington Hilton team is truly what makes this hotel special. We are a collection of 700 passionate, dedicated team members who welcome guests back every year by name and treat them as part of their family.”