"Warren Harding died here" doesn't quite have the tourist draw of "George 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, where the famous men have bedded down 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 around the country 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.
It's not surprising that the majority of the places on my short list are big, old, luxurious hotels in a few key cities. Washington, Chicago and New York are on the list. San Francisco has two. Here's my collection of must-stay presidential hotels, with a list of also-rans.
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 the site of homes of John Adams' grandson and Abraham Lincoln's private secretary. Along with introducing air conditioning to the sweltering summer capital, it was used as a fundraising spot related to the Iran-Contra Affair during President Ronald Reagan's term. Barack Obama moved in for two weeks before his inauguration when the usual guest lodging, Blair House, was unavailable.
But for a true slice of American history, nothing can beat the Willard. A couple of doors down Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House, it 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. Lincoln's bill is on display in the hotel's small museum.
But its place in the dictionary was cemented by Ulysses S. Grant, who had the habit of making irregular strolls 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. The crowd that 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 offices on K Street, the party circuit and, yes, occasionally a hotel lobby -- including the still-sparkling Willard.
The Blackstone Hotel, Chicago
No smoking is allowed at the hotel on the south end of downtown Chicago, an ironic policy given that it was plumes of cigar, cigarette and pipe smoke that gave the hotel its place in presidential history. Chicago was a frequent choice for political conventions before World War II, hosting 26.
With many of the conventions going on at the old Chicago Coliseum, the Blackstone was frequently the center of the wheeling and dealing that went on in the days before political conventions were a just-for-TV advertisement for each political party. The hotel's pinnacle came during the 1920 Republican Party convention. On the first ballot, the leader was retired Army Gen. Leonard Wood with 287 1/2 votes. Illinois Gov. Frank Lowden was second with 211 1/2 votes. The convention remained deadlocked, and the action moved to a group of power brokers who gathered behind closed doors at the Blackstone 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. A reporter for the United Press news service wrote that the victory had not come on the convention floor, but in the "smoke-filled rooms" of the power brokers.
By the end of the past century, the Blackstone had fallen into disrepair. 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.
Palace Hotel, San Francisco
The hotel was brand new when the 1906 earthquake struck, sending the most famous opera singer of the day, Enrico Caruso, running into Market Street, reportedly in his bedclothes.
The hotel was gutted by the fire that raged after the earthquake. Three years later it reopened as the city's premier hotel address. In 1923, it hosted President Harding, the handsome Ohio newspaper publisher whom historians rank with Grant as among our worst presidents. Harding had been ill with flulike 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. 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.
After decline dropped the Palace out of the top ranks of the city's hotels, it has been reborn under the Starwood Luxury Collection brand as one of the city's finest.
St. Francis Hotel, San Francisco
In many cities, different parties tended to hunker down at different hotels. In San Francisco, the Democrats more often stayed at the Fairmont atop Nob Hill, while Republicans preferred the St. Francis, just off Union Square. The St. Francis was part of two dark moments for Republicans -- the most famous being the attempted assassination of President Gerald Ford by Sarah Jane Moore randomly aiming a handgun across the street outside of the hotel. Ford survived unscathed, which can't be said about Charles Evans Hughes, the Republican nominee for president in 1916.
In a political route that's hard to imagine today, the former New York governor left a seat on the Supreme Court to run for president as a Republican. He ran as a Roosevelt-style progressive.
Hughes destroyed any chance at success with bad moves while in California. He didn't show up for an appointment with the governor and attended a banquet at the St. Francis, despite a strike by the hotel's unionized kitchen staff. Progressives were appalled, and Hughes lost the state and its 13 electoral votes by just over 3,000 votes, sending Woodrow Wilson back to the White House for a second term. The St. Francis is famous for the clock in the lobby where generations of visitors have "met at the clock" before going out on the town.
Menger Hotel, San Antonio