The president slept here
"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
Across the street from the famous 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. It has beautiful, cool-blue tiles and handsome cream-colored Corinthian columns in the atrium. 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.
Roosevelt was selected as William McKinley's running mate in the 1900 election, and a year later became president when McKinley was assassinated by an anarchist in Buffalo, N.Y., and the rich-boy bureaucrat who remade himself into a tough-talking, risk-taking warrior-politician while staying at the Menger was on his way to having his face memorialized on Mount Rushmore with Washington, Lincoln and Jefferson.
Mission Inn, Riverside, Calif.
The Mission Inn, the amazing citadel of the Inland Empire with its Spanish-Moroccan-Asian mix, has drawn more than a century of Republican politicians. You'll find a copy of the chapel in Assisi, Italy; a huge Buddha where Raquel Welch once cavorted; and staircases and walkways that seem to be geometrically improbable.
Frank Miller, the colorful founder, used to greet the train from the East Coast in full Franciscan monk's garb and lead the procession of guests back to the hotel. Roosevelt was the first president to stay the night, in 1903. Two of the country's most interesting presidential artifacts are on display.
First is 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 to be seated -- sometimes three at a time -- in the seat built for the 300-plus-pound Taft, there are reports that the chief executive himself declined to use a chair so obviously designed to accommodate his girth.
The second spot is the hotel's bar, which in the late 1940s 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 Ryan. The room was later converted into the Presidential Lounge, with portraits of the presidents who have visited over the years hung on the outside (note 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.
Other presidential sleep spots
Some other notable hotels around the country have presidential ties. The Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix is where Sen. John McCain gave his 2008 concession speech. It has hosted several presidents. The Brown Palace is the Denver hangout for every president since Theodore Roosevelt in 1905 -- with the exception of Calvin Coolidge and Barack Obama.
More than two dozen presidents have stayed at The Greenbrier, in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., a popular cool mountain getaway from Washington's summer. But its greatest mark was a secret underground nuclear bunker created to serve as the secret gathering place for the U.S. government in event of atomic war. You can stay at the hotel and tour the bunker.
The turreted Windsor Hotel in Americus, Ga., was the unofficial headquarters of the White House during the presidency of Jimmy Carter, who came from the tiny nearby town of Plains. Now affiliated with Best Western, it's across the street from the headquarters of the Carter-founded Habitat for Humanity headquarters.
The Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles has been a Democratic Party favorite for decades. Robert F. Kennedy often barked orders from his hotel room bathtub to underlings working on his brother John's convention campaign in Los Angeles in 1960. The hotel is where Lyndon Johnson decided to give up his powerful job as Senate Majority Leader to run with Kennedy as vice president.
One of the best photos of a president is of the taciturn Calvin Coolidge wearing a full Indian headdress while on tour in the Western United States. You can still sample part of "Cool Cal's" vacation destinations at the State Game Lodge, the 1927 "summer White House" in Custer State Park, S.D. It's famous as a jumping-off point to see bison. Dwight Eisenhower also stayed there in 1953.
Waldorf Astoria, New York City: Every U.S. president since Franklin Roosevelt has stayed at the Park Avenue palace. The train lines into Grand Central Terminal run underneath the street and presidents at one time could disembark from a secure special platform adjacent to the hotel.
Carlyle Hotel, New York City: John F. Kennedy's favorite haunt in Manhattan, it's where he met Marilyn Monroe after she sang her infamous "Happy birthday, Mr. President" tune at Madison Square Garden. On Monday nights, Woody Allen still plays with a Dixieland jazz band at the hotel.
Before Barack Obama put Hawaii on the presidential vacation map, George H.W. Bush was fond of the Grand Wailea on the sunny southwest coast of Maui. The Best Western Gettysburg Inn was the former operations center when President Dwight Eisenhower stayed at his nearby farm while president.
For all hotels, note that prices rise sharply during peak periods, particularly in Washington and San Francisco. Book as far in advance as you can. Rates are often lower on the weekend than during weekdays.