Vice President Calvin Coolidge Evacuates the Willard Due to Fire … and an Awkward Encounter

Calvin Coolidge laying the corner stone of the Geo. Wash. memorial, Alexandria, Va., Nov. 1st, 1923 (Library of Congress)
Calvin Coolidge laying the corner stone of the Geo. Wash. memorial, Alexandria, Va., Nov. 1st, 1923 (Library of Congress)

This one made me laugh. This would never happen today … at least I hope it wouldn’t. It’s a story about Calvin Coolidge’s time here at Vice President under Warren Harding.

Coolidge and his family arrived in Washington as the new Vice President and needed to find a suitable home. Unfortunately for the Coolidge clan, Calvin felt the housing prices in the city were to high for his taste, especially on his $12,000 annual salary. An old friend of his, Frank Stearns, offered to offer him a favorable lease, but Calvin felt this was inappropriate, turning down the offer.

Calvin and Grace Coolidge opted to send their sons away to boarding school at Mercersburg Academy up in Pennsylvania and moved into the Willard Hotel suite vacated by the departing Vice President, Thomas Marshall.

The accommodations in the hotel were quite comfortable, having two bedrooms, a lovely dining room and a reception room in which to greet guests. It was more than sufficient for mild-mannered Coolidge and his wife, while they could remain in close proximity to the White House and entertain small parties at a fashionable Washington address.

Coolidge was known to be an extremely quiet man, who kept a surprisingly low profile for a man a heartbeat away from being president — of course, we all know what happened to President Harding in 1923.

I came across a great story in Donald R. McCoy’s 1967 book The Quiet President. It takes place in April of 1922 and below is the excerpt.

There was a small fire at the New Willard Hotel and, for safety’s sake, all the guests were ordered down from their rooms. After it appeared that the danger had passed, Coolidge started up to his suite.

A fire marshall challenged him. “Who are you?”

“I’m the Vice President,” responded Coolidge.

“All right, go ahead,” he was told.

Before taking more than a few steps upstairs, Coolidge was again challenged by the marshal. “What are you vice president of?”

The answer was, “I am Vice President of the United States.”

“Come right down,” declared the fire official. “I thought you were the vice president of the hotel.”

What would Biden or Cheney’s reaction have been?

The fire happened in the early morning after the spring banquet of the Gridiron Club, held in the top floor ballroom.

The Willard Hotel in 1922 (Library of Congress)
The Willard Hotel in 1922 with scaffolding on top to repair fire damage (Library of Congress)

The future president was a good sport about it and sent a letter of thanks to the District police department the following day.

THE VICE PRESIDENT’S CHAMBER,
Washington, April 24, 1922.

MAJ. DANIEL SULLIVAN,
Police Department, Washington, D. C.

MY DEAR MAJOR SULLIVAN: I want to express my appreciation of the efficiency and courtesy of your officers during the fire in the Willard. There was a sergeant at the corner of F and Fourteenth Streets who was especially kind. Several inspectors and patrolmen and Mr. Kelly of the detective department assisted in looking after my rooms. I wish you would express my thanks to all of them.

Very truly yours,

CALVIN COOLIDGE.

He may have been a little quiet and slightly weird, but he was clearly quite kind and grateful. Several other prominent residents were in the building at the time and forced to evacuate, including four senators and John Phillip Sousa.

The Baltimore Sun reported on the event the next day.

Discover of the fire was made by a passer-by who saw smoke coming from the windows of the top floor. He pulled a nearby fire box, ran inside and informed the clerks on duty. The entire staff of the Willard was put to getting the guests of the hotel out of bed. Five fire alarms were sounded and brought all the apparatus from the downtown companies.

The clatter of their gongs woke Vice-President Coolidge, who, upon going to a window, saw the apparatus drawing up across the street. He called Mrs. Coolidge, remarked that there was a fire in the neighborhood and suggested that they go out to see it. While they were dressing they learned that the fire was in the hotel. Leaving their apartment on the third floor, they descended to the lobby, and Mrs. Coolidge was sent to the home of the Vice-President’s secretary, Edward T. Clark.

Vice-President Coolidge also was in evidence, but as an onlooker. He smoked a cigar, joked with newspaper men and awaited the completion of Mrs. Coolidge’s toilet, while most of the others hurried from their rooms and suites.

Bandmaster Sousa also was among those whose self-possession was in harmony with that of the Vice-President. Senator William E. Calder, of New York, and members of his family also made an orderly retreat.

Well, not only was he quiet, he apparently had a good sense of humor and remained calm and orderly in potentially chaotic situations.

Willard Hotel ballroom fire damage April 23, 1922 (Library of Congress)
Willard Hotel ballroom fire damage April 23, 1922 (Library of Congress)

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