Back Page: Suite Enough for a President

  • Sheila Gibson Stoodley

No historical records indicate which American hotel opened the first presidential suite, but the concept probably was borrowed from the royal suites of European hotels. Joe McInerney, president and CEO of the American Hotel & Lodging Association in Washington, D.C., surmises that presidential suites first appeared at the turn of the 20th century and flourished in the years  before the 1929 stock market crash.
 
“Usually, the presidential suite is the best suite in the house,” says McInerney. And it usually is the priciest, although at $15,000 a night, each of the two new presidential suites at the Four Seasons New York, which are featured in this issue (“The Height of Luxury,” page 114), will cost half as much as the hotel’s penthouse suite will when it opens in March. “Suite Dreams,” Robb Report’s October 1987 survey of the world’s most expensive hotel suites (the top price of $5,000 a night belonged to the penthouse suite at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco), included the presidential suite at the Willard InterContinental Washington, a hotel for which the term “presidential” is particularly relevant. Every U.S. president since Franklin Pierce has stayed at the property or attended a function under its roof. Many believe the lobby is responsible for a most dubious contribution to American politics, which arose during Ulysses Grant’s two terms in office. He liked to unwind at the Willard, which sits two blocks from the White House, but had difficulty escaping his presidential obligations at the hotel, as he constantly was approached by people promoting their pet causes. These petitioners were nicknamed “lobbyists.”

Like the Willard, New York’s Waldorf-Astoria hotel, whose presidential suite also was featured in the 1987 article, has been a favorite of commanders in chief. Every president since Herbert Hoover has stayed there. The suite is located in the Waldorf Towers, a hotel within the hotel occupying floors 28 to 42, and features decor resembling that of the White House.

But the most intriguing presidential amenity at the Waldorf-Astoria is hidden from view. Since its 1931 debut, the hotel has had access to a Grand Central Terminal platform known as Track 61. The platform is often described as abandoned, but it was used occasionally by Franklin Delano Roosevelt and other notables. When George W. Bush paid a two-day visit to New York in September 2003, the Secret Service reportedly arranged to have a train at the ready 24 hours a day at Track 61 in case an emergency forced the president to flee the city.
 
Such contingencies serve as a reminder that the vice president is, as the saying goes, a heartbeat away from the presidency, although the position and the person do not always receive their due respect. Such was the case for Calvin Coolidge when he lived at the Willard as Warren Harding’s VP. During a fire-related evacuation one night, Coolidge tried to reenter the hotel, explaining to a fireman that he was the vice president. “What are you vice president of?” asked the fireman, who, upon hearing Coolidge’s reply, instructed him to remain outside. “I thought you were the vice president of the hotel,” the fireman said.
 
When Harding died—in the presidential suite of San Francisco’s Palace Hotel—in 1923, President Coolidge remained at the Willard for a month to allow his predecessor’s wife time to get her affairs in order. We assume that during this period Coolidge enjoyed better treatment from the Willard staff than he had received from the local fire department. 

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