A Once-Tired and Untrendy Washington Hotel Offers A Dip in Times Gone By
By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 15, 2009
Morris Lapidus -- the late, great Googie master of South Beach-style architecture -- was hired to design the Skyline Inn motor hotel in 1961, which is why it looks so spaceshippy, like it crash-landed six blocks south of the U.S. Capitol and failed utterly in its mission of alien invasion. By the 1970s, the hotel was thought of as ugly and so was the neighborhood.
This exact kind of ugly is perfect now.
But not retro!
The present owners? The somewhat famous Rubell family? They'll tell you how they hate putting quotation marks -- a knowing (") with a (") -- around what they're doing to the Capitol Skyline Hotel. They hate putting quotation marks around fun. That's the worst, when people act too cool, when there's a VIP list, when cocktails at a hotel pool get jacked up to $14 apiece and the DJ thinks he's the oonce-oonce-oonce messiah. They know there's a fine line here -- they're from Miami -- when the decor and atmosphere go too far toward the stylized. That's what the Rubells didn't want to happen here.
"It was a Best Western," says Jennifer Rubell, 39. "And there was nothing wrong with that. We liked it that way. . . . When we bought the hotel, it was a little bit like those English manor houses, where people end up living in the two rooms left that function? There were parts of the hotel that [the former owner] had just closed off -- the banquet rooms, the restaurants -- shut down, not functioning. If there was ever a problem in a room, then they would just close that room down and not use it."
The pool? It was huge but sad. Guests swam in it forlornly, in perfunctory laps. There were cracks all over the concrete deck, which was painted the standard chlorine greeny blue of YMCA pools. (People griped about it in their one-star reviews at online travel sites.)
"We were waiting for the neighborhood," says Jennifer's mother, Mera Rubell. "That's what you do, you wait for it. You wait for that moment where everything starts to happen."
This is what we talk about over ginger-rose sangria by the Skyline's completely refurbished, totally Lapidus, smartly decorated swimming pool and patio. There are rows and rows of brand-new lounge chairs, each adorned with a bright orange towel.
This is a few days before everyone found out about the Rubells' pool and the Skyline became cool again.
This is when summer in Washington started to happen.
The hotel pool! It's a transporter device. Not for hard-core swimming, not for athleticism, but for feeling, for glamorous repose on the (somewhat) cheap. Reading magazines by the hotel pool. Ordering drinks by it. Pretending to be a model by it. Pretending it's anyplace else, anytime else, because it is.
Hotels hardly build them like that anymore, except at faraway resorts. When you're a corporate hotel chain, a big pool is just a personal-injury suit waiting to happen. Your guests, who are all Type-A business travelers, want to get up at 5 a.m. and swim 50 laps in those little, rigid rectangles before they raid the breakfast bar. Those kinds of guests at those kinds of hotels ruined the whole concept of big, happy pools.
Washington has a small archipelago of those great old kind of pools, acres of polished concrete, arranged rows of outdoor chaises and umbrellas, surrounded by a high, well-trimmed ficus hedge. Neighbors in Kalorama have baked for years beside the pool at the Hilton Washington, a clubby family of the supertanned. Your aunt and uncle had a membership at the Omni Shoreham. The fashionables took over the Washington Plaza pool one summer, about seven years ago. Memberships are expensive. The drinks are weak. Lately it seems as though everyone goes to the roofs of luxury apartment buildings where friends-of-friends live.
To find your way into a pool now would be like finding a little piece of paradise.
Mera Rubell, who is 65, believes in a certain strain of magic. It involves art and bad neighborhoods and fixing up old hotels and sitting by pools and meeting the most interesting people. Mera and her husband, Don, an OB-GYN, have been married 45 years. They live in New York and Miami. Don's brother was Steve Rubell, the colorful Studio 54 impresario (and hotelier, with his business partner Ian Schrager). Steve died in 1989.
Don and Mera Rubell are among America's most voracious modern-art collectors, along with their children, Jason and Jennifer. They love discovering the provocative stuff, shelling out for works no one's heard of yet. They've thrown big parties during the Whitney Biennial. They make the scene at Art Basel. (The Venice Biennale: "Are you going?" Mera asks, so sweetly, as though everyone's going to Venice for the Biennale, as if she's going to take you with her, in her luggage.) Eventually, the Rubells bought a 45,000-square-foot building in Miami -- a former Drug Enforcement Administration warehouse for seized properties -- and turned it into a museum to show their art.
And they like old hotels. The more sketchy the neighborhood, the more they seem to dig it. "When I go somewhere," Jennifer says, "I always like to stay in the hotel that is the most blown-out hotel in town, the most affordable hotel, because that's where you always see the most interesting people walking into the lobby. They don't care, you know?"
The Rubell family began buying hotels in the 1990s. Jason oversees construction and designs; Jennifer acts as a kind of aesthetic visionary of the right vibe (she's written books on entertaining). In Miami the family bought and restored the dilapidated Albion and Greenview hotels in South Beach, and then the Beach House Bal Harbour (they've since sold the last two).
About a decade ago, on visits to Washington to make the rounds at the Hirshhorn or Corcoran Gallery, Mera began wishing aloud for a hotel to buy in the city, maybe a neglected property, off the path. Someone pointed her below the Southeast-Southwest Freeway. There it was: the Best Western Skyline Inn.
Morris, Mera said when she saw the rounded windows on the concrete facade. It's one of Morris's hotels.Mera and Morris Lapidus were chums. He'd go with her to the opera and the ballet in Miami, because Don didn't like to. "I found one of your hotels," she says she told him, after putting an offer down on the Skyline. Lapidus remembered the place. He had designed more than 200 hotels, not all of them still standing. It would take a few years and court kerfuffle to finally close on the Rubells' purchase of the Skyline property in 2002. By that time Lapidus had died (in 2001, at age 98).
Lapidus spent his career rejecting brutalism and glass boxes. Architecture critics rejected Lapidus. He was bitter but joyful, and he lived just long enough to enjoy vindication. He believed in silliness, decadence, curves, the future. He wanted lobbies that made you feel as though you were in a Robert Wagner movie you never heard of. He lavished attention on the way the pools and patios looked at his hotels. (His other Washington hotel, once known as the International Inn, has a happy life now as the Washington Plaza, on Thomas Circle at 14th Street NW.)
Having acquired the hotel, the Rubells could have behaved in a rather South Beach way toward the Skyline. They could have gutted it of every last trace of Best Western-ness and installed the pulsingly trendy, what-credit-crisis?, cutesy-retro style of now, and charged $295 a night for the ironic boutique experience.
But the family looked closely at what it had acquired at the corner of South Capitol and I streets SW: Aside from the franchise contract with Best Western, there was a unionized and curiously loyal staff, some of whom had worked at the hotel for 20 years or more. A closed kitchen, but a lounge bar that sometimes drew the drag queens from the seedy clubs down the block (this particularly delighted Mera). Across the street, a homeless shelter and scary plaza of concrete. Around the corner, there exists the daily bummer that is the District's vehicle emissions testing center on Half Street. The hotel also had a following among lobbyists and Hill types, who are always looking for a place to stay within their per-diem.
Mera checked in -- a lot. She fearlessly strolled the neighborhood that would, in a few years, begin to become the condopalooza around the future Nationals ballpark. One day she had a staffer take a tray of beverages out to the people waiting in their cars for the line into the emissions testing center. The Rubells started some renovations. Jennifer and Mera went to an annual meeting and trade show for Best Western proprietors, and bought the best linens the vendors had to offer.
Like all hotels, this one has been happy and not-so-happy. It opened in November 1962 as the Skyline Inn, seven stories tall with 203 rooms. There was a jazz scene in its cocktail lounge for years. There were weddings here, affairs here, raucous Shriner conventions, awards ceremonies. Years went by. A Swiss tourist was robbed and killed outside. Visiting Ethiopian dancers escaped down laundry chutes once, to seek political asylum. Teenagers trashed rooms for days on end. Lawyers took over the entire second floor for two straight years during the Ma Bell breakup.
And, of course, all the movie shoots: Whenever Hollywood needed a seedy Washington hotel (and it's always needed a seedy Washington hotel), the location scouts came to the Skyline Inn. They still do. If you need the congressman in a dark room for the exchange of the briefcase and you need the Capitol dome glowing through the drapes, well, here it is. (May the Rubells also interest you in something in a dark underground parking garage?)
One thing Mera did, not long after acquiring the hotel, was put a Frank Gehry chair in the lobby, and some other touches of high -- yet accessible and indestructible -- design. Her guests notice it, she swears. The Rubells also had the coffee shop restored to its clean '60s simplicity and hired a new food and beverage manager. She renamed the restaurant Lapidus.
"Think of a wildflower in the pavement," Mera says. "That's what this hotel is to me."
The cranes went up. The ballpark opened in 2008. The neighborhood changed. The Rubells finally parted ways with the Best Western contract and rechristened their motel as a hotel.
At last they were able to turn their attention to the pool -- "the best part," Jennifer says. They ripped out all the concrete patio -- 20,000 square feet of it -- and had it resurfaced. They hired a designer and a landscape architect. They thought about what should happen, scene-wise: The drinks should be cheaper. Jennifer invented her ginger-rose sangria. There were a lot of test batches. The Rubells and their new chef decided you should be able to order a bucket of truffle-oil french fries or falafel bites or barbecue ribs for about five bucks.
The Rubells met Spike Mendelsohn, the celebrity chef who'd just opened Good Stuff Eatery on Capitol Hill. Mendelsohn's girlfriend, Alyssa Shelasky (who is a correspondent for People magazine), offered to help conceive a series of parties to take place at the pool this summer. Mendelsohn grills by the pool on Sundays, $10 to get in and chill by the pool all day, including a cheeseburger. Shelasky spreads the word, trying to get the right crowd to venture down toward the Navy Yard.
She lured the Brightest Young Things, a roving band of D.C. hipsters who are in constant contact online. Their mission is to search for strange ways to have fun in an uptight town, telling one another where to be, where to go next.
When the leaders of the Brightest Young Things (BYT, for short) came to the Skyline in May to have a look at the pool, they were immediately enchanted by its mood of elusive, wonderful shabbiness.
But not retro!
"I was completely blown away. When you hear about it, when you tell people about it -- an old hotel in Southwest, by the Navy Yard, next to a 7-Eleven and the DMV -- people might not be that into it," says Jason Bond Pratt, who helps run BYT's network. "Even walking up to the building, I still had no idea until I saw it."
Here it is, one last moment before everyone found it. Shimmery light glinting off the blue water. Three-and-a-half feet deep on the shallow end, 5 1/2 feet deep on the other end. A nice breeze. A flawless sky.
BYT decided every Saturday would be "summer camp" for grown-ups. Hundreds of hipsters showed up to the kickoff party, on the last Saturday of May. Not the prettiest people, not the snobs. They look every bit like the fast-wired, tattooed poorgeoisie of the new economy: The bearded dudes in baggy trunks and porkpie hats. The women with completely at-ease feelings about wearing a bikini, even with a little flab. The maxi dresses and giant sunglasses. The DJ who sets up his turntables and unabashedly recognizes a need for Air Supply mixed into the beat. Soon every chaise is taken, including the matching orange couches. They announce a limbo contest and people cheer and line up. In a flash, it went from empty pool to center of the universe. The Skyline is no longer a secret.
Mera roams the crowd, in a floppy red hat, like a mother, taking pictures with her Canon.
What would Morris think?
"Oh, I think he would be so happy here," she says. "He would. You see, this is what I was talking about. You know, when I said that it's about seeing the potential in something that is invisible to others?"
The new place to be had been there all along.