Washington Hilton
Photograph ©2015 by Brian Cohen.

A Tour of the Historic Washington Hilton

Y ou could see the eyes of Kristin Adderson light up, as the effervescent manager of marketing and communications for both the Washington Hilton and the Capital Hilton hotel properties gave a private guided tour of the historic Washington Hilton — which has been the site of prestigious gatherings hosted by presidents of the United States, world leaders and other prominent figures since its grand opening in 1965 — highlighting its place in the history of the District of Columbia with interesting facts recited completely from memory.

No one can doubt that she loves her job as she showed off important features of the hotel property — from the precise spot where Ronald Reagan was shot while he was president of the United States by John Hinckley; to the famous International Ballroom where the most recent annual dinner of the White House Correspondents’ Association occurred on Saturday, April 30, 2016.

History of the Washington Hilton

Listed as a place of significance within the Washington Heights neighborhood on the National Register of Historic Places, the iconic hotel property stands — proudly, it seems, with all of its 1,070 guest rooms — atop approximately six acres of land on one of the highest elevations in the city within the historic section known formally as Washington Heights; its location at what was once the original district line separating Washington City and Washington County during the development of the District of Columbia.

Washington Hilton tour
Oak Lawn is one of the meeting rooms in Columbia Hall, located in the Washington Hilton hotel. Photograph ©2015 by Brian Cohen.

The land itself is historic. Anthony Holmead was one of the original proprietors of the District of Columbia and owner of a large portion of the Washington Heights tract in the early 1700s; and Thomas P. Morgan — a officer of the Union during the Civil War of the United States who was best known for his accomplishments as a businessman, councilman and alderman of Washington — also owned the land after purchasing it in 1873. The area was often referred as the nickname “Dean’s Tract” after Morgan sold the property to Edward C. Dean, who was president of the Potomac Terra Cotta Company.

Greater than 150 foreign embassies house their diplomats in this area, which was named Temple Heights in 1930 when plans were announced to build a Masonic Temple on the parcel of land on which the Washington Hilton sits today — but although the plans for the temple ultimately failed, the area is still familiarly known as Temple Heights today.

The unique double-arched design of the hotel itself was conceptualized by architect William B. Tabler and developed by the Uris Brothers in 1965. According to this article written by “..the hotel was built with the needs of the President in mind, and the architect consulted with the Capital Hilton during the design phase to learn what worked and what didn’t.”

Today, the Washington Hilton offers a contemporary urban retreat set on upper Connecticut Avenue near neighborhoods such as Dupont Circle, Adams Morgan, U Street Corridor, Embassy Row and the National Zoo, which I visited and wrote this trip report and review.

International Ballroom

With the distinction of having been designated the largest ballroom in the city, there are no pillars or supporting columns in the cavernous 36,000 square feet of space which can hold up to 4,200 people for a reception and 2,600 people for a seated dinner; so all attendees of any event in the International Ballroom have an uninterrupted view of the focus of attention — including the unique 48-foot hydraulic stage which rises from the lower level, giving dignitaries a private means of entering and exiting the ballroom; and equipped with two 40-foot pre-rigged lighting trusses and modern audio visual and technical capabilities.

There is also “a separate entrance to the meeting space downstairs, along with separate escalators, stairs, and elevators to reach other floors, help manage traffic flow”, according to the aforementioned article written by 

The International Ballroom complex served as the site of the only official inaugural ball for Barack Obama, who is the current president of the United States.

The Doors performed on the stage in this ballroom back in 1967; and approximately 4,000 fans crowded the space on Sunday, March 10, 1968 to see Jimi Hendrix perform Purple Haze — among other songs — in concert. Other legendary artists have performed on this stage.

I was fortunate to attend a concert when Neon Trees and Elliot Root performed several months ago as part of the Hilton concert series which is produced by Live Nation. It was just outside of that ballroom where I posed as a poor impersonation of Elton John in the photograph you see at the top of this article — along with Jeff of Indulge the Wanderlust; Keri Anderson of Heels First Travel; and Ric Garrido of Loyalty Traveler — after attending the concert.

Washington Hilton International Ballroom
Photograph ©2015 by Brian Cohen.

“During the Washington Hilton guided hotel tour Scott MackenzieBrian Cohen and I had an amazing view of the fully open International Ballroom with its kind of 60s French modern-Star Trek roof style”, according to this article written by Ric Garrido of Loyalty Traveler. “Colored lighting illuminated different areas of the ceiling in brilliant colors around the large ballroom during the minutes we were standing on the 48-ft. hydraulic stage, apparently for lighting tests. Workers were setting up for the evening’s formal ball that night. International Ballroom holds 4,000+ people in an open space room.” Ric Garrido felt that “there was a psychedelic element to the ballroom space’s architecture and colored lights.”

The annual dinners of such organizations as the White House Correspondents’ Association and the Radio and Television Correspondents Association have occurred for years at this hotel property, as has the National Prayer Breakfast, which is held on the first Thursday of February each year.

Washington Hilton tour
These are the entrances to gain access to the meeting areas of the hotel. Photograph ©2015 by Brian Cohen.

The International Ballroom — which is currently one of the largest column-free ballrooms on the east coast of the United States — is part of the massive greater that 110,000 square feet of function space, which includes a new 30,000 square foot multi-purpose addition equipped with a network of moveable walls named Columbia Hall.

Where John Hinckley, Jr. Shot Ronald Reagan and Others

Known to locals as the Hinckley Hilton, the Washington Hilton maintains a history rich with late twentieth century culture.

Washington Hilton Reagan
Photograph ©2015 by Brian Cohen.

It was the site of the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan on the afternoon of Monday, March 30, 1981 by John Hinckley, Jr., who was only approximately ten feet away from Reagan when he shot him with a .22 revolver loaded with exploding bullets.

Washington Hilton Reagan Plaque
Photograph ©2015 by Brian Cohen.

Others who were wounded in the incident included James Brady, who was the press secretary of the United States for Ronald Reagan and was confined to a wheelchair as a result; Timothy McCarthy, who was an agent of the Secret Service; and Thomas Delahanty, who was a law enforcement officer in the District of Columbia.

Washington Hilton tour
This is another angle of the spot where the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan occurred, as seen from the inside of the hotel. Photograph ©2015 by Brian Cohen.

Increased Security Measures

As a result of the assassination attempt, a separate entrance with an enclosed driveway for the president of the United States was constructed on the side of the hotel, with doors on either side to provide safe passage into the hotel — and dignitaries and celebrities may use this entrance as well.

Washington Hilton tour
The solid doors with no handles on the outside through which dignitaries, world leaders and celebrities use to gain access into the Washington Hilton hotel. Photograph ©2015 by Brian Cohen.

Security features include two solid metal doors with no handles on the outside, as they can only be opened from the inside; and once inside, thick curved walls comprised of reinforced concrete form the hallways and rooms.

Washington Hilton tour
Mark Weinstein — who is the senior vice president and global head of loyalty and partnerships for Hilton Worldwide — is the second person on the right in this photograph. Kristin Adderson — who conducted the private tour of the hotel — is the woman wearing the dark red dress towards the left. On the left is one of the members of the security force of the Washington Hilton hotel who opened the solid door from the inside to enter the area where presidents of the United States enter the hotel since the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan back in 1981. Photograph ©2015 by Brian Cohen.

There is a dedicated waiting room for the president of the United States — as well as an area where dignitaries, celebrities and others can meet before attending the main event held upstairs — but we were specifically asked not to take any photographs of this space during this part of the private tour for security reasons.

Washington Hilton tour
Photograph ©2015 by Brian Cohen.

We were permitted to photograph the official Seal of the President of the United States engraved into the floor — one of only six official seals in existence — as they partially peeled away the carpet which covers it. The only time this seal is exposed is when the president of the United States is visiting this area of the hotel.

Washington Hilton tour
Beyond one of only six official Seals of the President of the United States in existence, you can see a hallway with curved reinforced concrete walls. Just beyond to the left is the official private waiting room for the president of the United States. Photograph ©2015 by Brian Cohen.

The hotel property maintains its own security force.


Because the most recent annual dinner of the White House Correspondents’ Association occurred on Saturday, April 30, 2016, I thought it would be a good time to give some insight into the building where the event is hosted: the Washington Hilton hotel, which has been considered a target for terrorist activity.

Listening to Kristin Adderson not only give historical facts about the hotel but also information pertaining to the development of the city of Washington itself resulted in a very interesting tour. If you have the chance to tour the Washington Hilton, by all means take advantage of that opportunity.

As for the hotel itself, I stayed there as a guest for two nights, which I intend to document in a trip report and review in a future article.

All photographs ©2015 by Brian Cohen.

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