Watergate’s decline accelerated by grocer’s exit

November 26, 2011

Another Watergate era is coming to a close. But this one has nothing to do with politics.

Before Monica Lewinsky took refuge there, before Ronald Reagan’s kitchen cabinet set up house and, yes, before The Break-In that made “Watergate” shorthand for scandal, the six-building complex along the Potomac River was known for having its own Safeway.

Senators, Cabinet secretaries and celebrities have long been drawn by the Watergate’s four swimming pools, gourmet cuisine and beautiful views. But many stayed for the banal luxury of puttering downstairs in a pair of slippers to fetch groceries.

Now, after 45 years, the supermarket is set to close at 6 p.m. Dec. 3. Some residents fear that losing the anchor tenant of the mall within the complex is the latest sign of the Watergate’s slow decline.

“It’s not the same Watergate as when I moved in. The mall is like a ghost town,” said Evelyn Y. Davis, a well-known activist shareholder in many corporations who has lived there since the 1980s. “It used to be so elegant.”

Over the summer, scores of residents signed a petition urging Safeway to keep the Watergate location open, to no avail. The store’s departure will be especially hard on elderly residents who don’t drive or who are not able to make the trek to the Trader Joe’s or the new Whole Foods Market nearby.

Safeway’s closure also worries owners of adjacent stores, who rely on foot traffic generated by the supermarket. They have been suffering since the Watergate Hotel closed for renovations in 2007 and tenants began abandoning the attached office building at 2600 Virginia Ave. NW, site of the 1972 break-in at Democratic Party headquarters that marked the beginning of the end of Richard Nixon’s presidency. The hotel has new owners but remains closed.

The Safeway was a linchpin of the Watergate’s “city within a city” concept, an idea revived in such places as Kentlands in Gaithersburg and high-rise developments such as City Vista in the District. The basic amenities of comfortable living were an elevator ride away: There was a salon, barbershop, bakery, liquor store and hair salon, as well as the supermarket.

In the 1970s, a cluster of designer boutiques, including Yves Saint Laurent, Valentino and Gucci, opened at street level. In 1979, renowned chef Jean-Louis Palladin opened Jean-Louis at the Watergate.

The complex has three apartment co-ops, two office buildings and the hotel. In its early days, the Watergate was a fishbowl for the rich and soon-to-be notorious. Even before the first tenants moved in, people paid 50 cents to tour a model apartment and gawk at the white marble floors and hand-painted oriental mural wallpaper, according to news accounts.

The wives of later-indicted Nixon Cabinet members Maurice Stans (acquitted) and John Mitchell (convicted) were featured in a 1969 Washington Post story, as were their travails with “such inevitabilities of decorating as buying wallpaper, lugging lovable old treasures from other homes, and throwing out drapes that won’t fit anywhere.”

The break-in interrupted the grand old party at the Watergate. But it picked up again with the arrival of a coterie of Reagan’s friends, including Alfred and Betsy Bloomingdale and publisher Walter Annenberg. The managers of the Watergate Hotel, embraced Morning in America as they tried to end the Watergate’s association with national disgrace, catering to the Reagan crowd by flying in fresh berries from Chile and leaving marzipan elephants on pillows.

“We are no longer the Nixon Watergate,” the hotel’s general manager, Peter Buse, told The Post in 1981.

By the mid-1990s, however, the Watergate’s Reagan-era luster was fading. Gucci left. Jean-Louis closed in 1996. Empty storefronts soon became a common sight. Then came the complex’s cameo in the Lewinsky scandal, when the former White House intern retreated to her mother’s Watergate apartment to avoid the news media. When Lewinsky moved out in 1998, she left notes for her neighbors apologizing for all the fuss.

The Saks Jandel boutique left four years ago, when the hotel closed. Until then, it had been hard to get an appointment at the Watergate Salon, second-generation owner Claudia Buttaro Pfeffer said on a recent afternoon at the salon. As business slowed, some of her staff left.

“The hairdressers wanted to go where it’s a hip and happening place,” she said as a caregiver nearby instructed a stylist on how much to trim her elderly client’s hair.

The recent departure of the Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission from 2600 Virginia Ave. has been hard for Phil Rascona, owner of the Watergate Barber Shop, which his father opened in 1966. The Saudi ambassador made a point of sending long-haired students down for grooming, he said. Former senator Robert J. Dole, 88, a longtime Watergate resident and onetime barbershop regular, stopped coming about two years ago, but for a different reason, Rascona said.

“He colors his hair and goes to a salon now,” Rascona said with a shrug. “He wants to look 70.”

For Davis, who owns two adjoining units in Watergate East, the bottom may have come this past summer, when the carpet and wallpaper in the hallway were removed after a kitchen fire in another apartment. The wallpaper has been replaced, but the carpet has not. The bare floor is an expanse of tar-pocked concrete. A committee of residents is working on choosing new carpet. In the meantime, Davis said, “the place looks like ground zero.”

Some residents and shopkeepers see the seeds of a revival in the new high-rise commercial and residential building developed by Boston Properties next to the Foggy Bottom-GWU Metro station. The ground floor has a Whole Foods and outposts of Sweetgreen, Roti and Circa — all restaurants that have more cachet among sustainability-conscious, iPad surfing, Twittering 20- and 30-somethings.

The Whole Foods helped persuade Tom Martin, 30, and his wife, Margaret Peloso, 28, to move into Watergate South a year ago. He said he generally avoids the shops inside the complex, which “are not geared toward a younger generation.”

Martin and his wife are part of a small but growing contingent of younger newcomers — defined as under 50 — including a few with preschoolers. They have come not for prestige but for convenience and the colorful history.

A drop in the average age would mark a major shift in the demographics of the Watergate, which haven’t changed much since Life magazine noted in 1969 that the typical tenant was about 50 and had “more dogs than children.”

The influx of younger tenants, combined with the possible reopening of the hotel in 2013, could spark another Watergate revival, said Peter Willson, 73, who lives in Watergate South. “I view it as potentially part of the resurgence of the Foggy Bottom,” he said.

For Willson and like-minded residents, the closure of the small, worn-looking Safeway comes as a relief. They are hopeful that Penzance — the District-based firm that recently agreed to buy 2600 Virginia Ave. and take over management of the retail spaces — will replace it with a more upscale grocery. A Penzance spokeswoman declined to comment on any plans.

For now, Watergate denizens are paying their last respects to the Safeway by ransacking it. Two days before Thanksgiving, many shelves were bare.

Hortense Fiekowsky, 91, made her way down a half-depleted aisle of organic food. Safeway’s closure will inconvenience her, she said, because she doesn’t own a car. But having moved to the Watergate two years ago from a retirement community she likened to “a cruise to nowhere,” the retired federal government worker said she is happy to stay.

When her husband is out, she said, she enjoys riding the elevator to check out other men.

“I look at the guy and think, ‘They’re too old for me.’ But they’re probably saying that about me,” she said, smiling. “We call that ‘love among the ruins.’ ”

Annys Shin has been a staff writer at the Washington Post since 2004.
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