By Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 4, 2007
The Watergate Hotel has long been more of a famous name than a five-star palace.
Oh, but what a name. What a mystique. What a history.
The hotel's owner hopes a bit of that luster draws shoppers to an "Everything Must Go!" sale of beds, couches, sinks and toilets from rooms graced by the likes of Liberace and Katharine Hepburn, not to mention four of the burglars who made Watergate famous.
President Richard Nixon's henchmen did not commit their crime at the hotel, which the owner has closed for a major face-lift that will result in $2,000-a-night suites.
The burglars only slept there, in rooms 214 and 314, and shoppers at the sale, which begins Thursday at the hotel, can stand where the bad guys stood and consider whether to buy a nice but perfectly ordinary wooden desk for $85, or a lingerie chest for $245, or an armoire for $625.
"Okay, it's not like [when] you walk into the Mayflower and say, 'Wow!' " said Don Hayes, the sale's manager, as he considered the offerings.
Still, Hayes said, thousands of people will show up for the sale, a certitude borne of his long experience managing similar extravaganzas at hotels across the country, from the Commodore in New York to the Sands in Atlantic City to -- earlier this year -- the Jefferson in the District.
If the bargains don't draw them, they'll come "because it's the Watergate," Hayes promised. He hopes, however, that a $10 admission fee for the first three days will deter those purely interested in sightseeing.
His customers will find more than 20,000 items -- forks and knives and wineglasses and Jacuzzis and 25-inch color TVs and cabinets and vanity mirrors and teacups and meat slicers, a baby grand piano, 13 Greek-style columns and a trove of books that includes "Kingdoms in Conflict," the musings of one-time Nixon aide and ex-con Charles W. Colson ($3).
What they will have a harder time finding is anything embossed with the name Watergate.
There is an ornate "W" gracing a glass door ($750), silver teapots with a "W" engraved on the side ($55), and a framed poster with the words, "View from Room 716, The Watergate Hotel" ($75). But that's about it, unless you want the square placard screwed to a wall in a dining area that reads "The Watergate Hotel: Maximum Capacity 150" ($10).
Michael Darby, a principal of Monument Realty, which bought the hotel in 2004, said an antique specialist he hired to examine the furnishings, artwork and dishes found "nothing that has any connection to the Watergate of that era, from the early 1970s."
Nevertheless, Darby said, the sale is the chance to take something home from a singular place. "It's the whole aura," he said, seated in the hotel's now-deserted lobby. "It always feels like something important happened here, that important people were here."
Not everyone cares about who slept in all those beds. They just want the beds. And the linens, the hangers, the pots and pans and whatever else they can lug to the curb. (Hayes will provide dollies, but shoppers are largely on their own.)
Mary Siegel, business manager for Georgetown Visitation, a Catholic preparatory school, plans to be at the sale, which will run until every item is sold. Last year, she said, she and a nun went to two hotel liquidation sales and walked out with enough tables and chairs to help furnish the monastery.
"We saved thousands of dollars; it's wonderful!" she gushed. Siegel said her son had asked whether any artifacts from the Watergate scandal would be for sale, but she waved him off.
"Isn't it awful that we don't care about that?" she laughed. "It's the bargains."
The Watergate Hotel, which opened in 1967, is across from the Kennedy Center and overlooks the Potomac River. It is part of a complex of six buildings that includes the offices that were the site of the June 17, 1972, burglary that led to Nixon's resignation.
Next door to the hotel, the Watergate apartments were a pillar of political Washington before the burglary. A bevy of Nixon aides lived there, including Attorney General John Mitchell and the president's secretary, Rose Mary Woods. In later years, Sen. Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) resided at the Watergate, next door to former White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
The hotel drew a steady parade of luminaries, from Andy Warhol to John Wayne to Ronald Reagan, who celebrated his 70th birthday there. On another night, Stevie Wonder sat down at a piano in the lobby and belted out a few numbers.
Over the years, the hotel has had several owners. Monument Realty had hoped to remodel the building to turn it into apartments, but neighbors protested. Now the plan is to turn the Watergate into a premier hotel, with rooms and suites "catering to travelers accustomed to luxury," Darby said.
First, though, the liquidators must get rid of everything: the serving platters, the drapes, the brass railings, the wall-to-wall carpeting, even the nine letters R-E-C-E-P-T-I-O-N that hang above the front counter.
For that job, they hired Hayes, the burly president of Ohio-based National Content Liquidators, who expects the Watergate sale to yield $700,000. (The sale is 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday.)
Hayes has been working on such sales since the 1970s, when he was a teenager with bushy sideburns. "It's in my blood," he said, ticking off the sales he has shepherded, including one at the Plaza Hotel in New York, where 5,000 people stood in line. And he was there for the sale at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, selling off parts of the kitchen where Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated. "It was kind of sobering," he said.
He said he has negotiated with Donald Trump, whom he raves about, and Donald's former wife, Ivana, who he says is more difficult. But she was not nearly as unpleasant, he said, as the recently deceased Leona Helmsley, who once yelled at him because he would not accept her $30,000 check (for two chandeliers).
"I only take cash," Hayes said. "I don't care who you are."