Washington, DC Willard Hotel Fire, Apr 1922


500 Guests, Including Prominent Persons in Washington Life, Flee Morning Flames.


Rooms Empties Without Panic, and Peacock Alley Becomes Common Abode of All.


Discovered a Few Hours After Gridiron Dinner Which Harding and Cabinet Attended.

Special to The New York Times.
WASHINGTON, April, 23. - Fire in the Willard Hotel at an early hour this morning caused damage that may reach a quarter of a million dollars. Many prominent people, transient and permanent guests of the hotel, were roused from their slumbers and some of them descended to the lower floors in a state or undress. There was no panic and most of the incidents were of an amusing rather than an exciting character.

The fire was discovered at 6 o'clock this morning by a policeman in the street who saw smoke coming from the top floor of the hotel, and after turning in an alarm, notified the clerk on duty.

Vice President Coolidge, who resides in the hotel, was up at that hour and looked out of his window at the crowd gathering below and the first fire engine to appear, but without knowing that the fire was in the Willard. When he realized that the hotel was on fire, he and Mrs. Coolidge dressed and went downstairs.

It was reported that President and Mrs. Harding had asked the Vice President and Mrs. Coolidge to take up quarters at the White House, but this was erroneous. Brig. Gen. Charles F. Sawyer, the President's physician, and Mrs. Sawyer, who live in the hotel, were invited to the White House and moved their belongings there, but later went back to their apartment in the Willard.

Guests Gather in Peacock Alley.
When the night clerk was notified that the hotel was on fire he sent bellboys to arouse guests, while Miss Margaret Mathewson, a telephone operator, called up the various rooms. Most of the guests dressed calmly and made their way in elevators or on foot to the first floor. The hotel's noted Peacock Ally was soon crowded with people of prominence, most of them fully attired, though a few alarmed ones were in nightgowns or pajamas. One woman in a state of dishabille raced out into the street, but practically all the guests were not alarmed and many of those quartered on lower floors went back to their rooms when they learned there was no danger.

Many of the guests were prominent men from out of town stopping in the hotel after attending the dinner of the Gridiron Club, which was held Saturday night in the Willard ballroom on the tenth floor, where the fire started. The hotel also had as guests a considerable number of women who were in Washington for the annual convention of the Daughters of the American Revolution, which ended yesterday.

The Willard has ten stories and the ballroom is on the top floor. The ballroom had been turned into a banquet hall for last night's Gridiron dinner, which was attended by President Harding, Vice President Coolidge, Secretary Hughes and other members of the Cabinet, the Brazilian Ambassador, Senators and Representatives, public officials and a large number of men prominent in the professions and business in other cities.

An elaborate system of electric wiring had been installed in the ballroom for the Gridiron function, and it is possible some defect in this caused the blaze, but there is no conclusive evidence on the subject. One report was that a lighted cigarette dropped by one of those attending the dinner was responsible for the fire, but there was no smoke in evidence when the night clerk, C. P. Rich and the night watchman visited the ballroom at 5 o'clock, an hour before the fire was discovered. The Gridiron dinner had ended at midnight.

Blaze Difficult to Reach.
All the fire apparatus in Washington was ordered to the Willard, which stands at Pennsylvania Avenue, Fourteenth Street and F Street, a central point. The firemen had difficulty in reaching the blaze, which was confined to the tenth floor. Here the fire burned fiercely, consuming all the tables set for the Gridiron dinner and all the furnishings. The flames licked the roof, but did not destroy it, although all the ornamental cornices were destroyed.

Most of the damage elsewhere in the hotel was caused by water. Large streams came down the stairways and elevator shafts and even to the first floor. Many guests on the ninth floor, just below the ballroom, and on the eighth floor were unable to take up quarters in their rooms again on account of the damage done by water. A banquet of the Knights of Columbus was held as scheduled this evening in one of the dining rooms on the first floor, adjoining Peacock Alley.

The hotel has 400 bedrooms. All these were occupied last night. The register showed that the 400 rooms has 488 guests when the fire was discovered.

Among those who live in the Willard and were aroused by the alarm this morning are Senator William M. Calder and Representatives Ward, Husted, Dunn and Synder of New York. Their families were with them.

Senator Dupont of Delaware, one of the principal stockholders of the Capitol Hotel Company, which operated with Willard; and Senators Lawson of Iowa, McNary of Oregon and France of Maryland also live in the hotel.

Guests at the hotel when the fire started included Madame Olga Petrova, the actress; David W. Mulvane, Republican National Committeeman from Kansas; John Philip Souse of New York, the band leader and composer; Mrs. T. De Witt Talmage; C. C. McChord, Chairman of the Interstate Commerce Commission; W. A. Patterson, of Chicago, President of the Western Newspaper Union; Judge Robert W. Bingham, owner of the Louisville Courier-Journal; Arthur Krock, editor of the Louisville Times; Seymour L. Cromwell, President of the New York Stock Exchange, who had made a speech at the Gridiron Dinner last night; James Karney, editor of the Trenton Times; Judge Joseph L. Bodine, of New Jersey; ex-Congressman Victor Heintz, of Cincinnati; Frank Presbery, of New York, President of the Frank Presbrey Company, advertising agents; John H. Backus of Newark, chancellor of the New Jersey chancery court; Hanford MacNiday, national commander of the American Legion; Adolph Zukor, of New York, the moving picture producer; Harry Chandler, publisher of the Los Angeles Times; W. R. Cole, President of the St. Louis, Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad; E. H. Simmons, Vice President of the New York Stock Exchange; Mr. and Mrs. George Mesta, of Pittsburg; General Charles B. Dawes, Director of the budget; E. B. Doran of the Dallas (Texas) News; Charles T. Bocker, of Ansonia, Conn., President of the Ansonia Brass Company; Mr. and Mrs. Lafayette Young, of Des Moines; John S. Spurgeon, editor of the Philadelphia Public Ledger; Van Lear Black, publisher of the Baltimore Sun; Miss Elizabeth Griswold, of New York; Mr. and Mrs. John S. Garver of New York; A. B. Ashforth of New York; S. F. Streight of New York; Jason Westerfield of New York; Harvey T. White of New York; Julian Mason of New York; John Harris of New York; Mr. and Mrs. G. A. McClellan of New York; the Rev. George A. Kreidel of Yonkers, N. Y.; Mr. and Mrs. G. B. Goodwin and Garden City, L. I.; Mr. and Mrs. H. P. Grant, of New York; D. K. Brower of Brooklyn; A. W. Danziger of New York; Mrs. A. C. Sharman of Brooklyn; Miss M. F. Stevenson of New York; L. J. Jacobes of New York and R. G. Cooke of New York.

Roof Will Be Remodeled.
L. M. Boomer of New York, President of the Capitol Hotel Company, said tonight:
"The only damage from the fire which occurred this morning at the New Willard was on the top or tenth floor, where the ballrooms were located. There was some slight damage due to water on some of the floors below, but this will be repaired within the next few days. The fire, except so far as the use of the ballrooms is concerned, will in no way interfere with the operation of the hotel, which will continue as usual.

"Arrangements are being made to begin work at once repairing the damage caused by the fire. J. J. Pettit or New York, architect for the Boomer Hotels, arrived tonight to take supervisory charge of this work. The flames had not been entirely extinguished today before arrangements were made with Samuel J. Prescott, local contractor, to clear away the debris and begin to remodel that part of the building damaged by the fire.

"While the fire is to be regretted, it will give us an opportunity to remodel that part of the building damaged by the flames into more beautiful ballrooms then heretofore."

Frank J. Hight, managing director of the Willard since it was established in 1901, said tonight that no estimate of the damage could be made for the present. The cause of the fire was, he said, unknown.

Marquis James, of the National Administration of the American Legion, who accompanied National Commander MacNider to Washington, was aroused from bed in the Ebbitt House, opposite the Willard, by a bellboy and told to dress hastily as there was danger from the fire. Mr. James had come to Washington after hasty preparation and had only one business suit with him which he had sent on Saturday night to the valet to be pressed. But Mr. James had a suit of evening clothes along and dressed in these he viewed the early morning scene around the Willard.

The New York Times, New York, NY 14 Apr 1922