Correction to This Article
· A March 30 Metro article about the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center incorrectly said that Babe Ruth hit 715 home runs. He hit 714. The article also said that the hotel employs a fromagier. It employs a fromagiere, or female cheese specialist.
Putting On the Glitz
In National Harbor Hotel, Pr. George's Gets Long-Sought Upscale Development

By Avis Thomas-Lester
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 30, 2008

Michael Hudson and Brian Birrer faltered slightly as they lifted the life-size wooden statue of Babe Ruth. A nearby construction supervisor saw the potential for trouble and sent in reinforcements.

"Here, let us help you with that!" said the supervisor, directing six workers to help the hotel official and the artist as they struggled to right the statue inside the spanking-new Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in Oxon Hill.

In the kitchen, executive chef Holger Frohlich supervised the preparation of a buffet menu that will be served at banquets booked months ago. Inside Pose Ultra Lounge, the nightclub, electricians wired into the glass wall lights that will flash red, yellow, green and blue -- brilliant enough to be seen on the Wilson Bridge three miles away.

With Tuesday's opening day bearing down, workers scrambled to put finishing touches on what is being billed as the largest non-casino hotel and convention center on the East Coast, an $870 million structure with an 18-story atrium wrapped in glass and steel overlooking the Potomac River. The resort is the cornerstone of National Harbor, one of the most anticipated commercial and residential projects in the Washington region.

Adorned with marble from quarries in Italy, Swarovski crystals and a fountain that shoots water 10 stories high, the resort has 2,000 rooms, 110 suites and 300 VIP rooms. It is bigger than the largest hotel in the District, the Marriott Wardman Park. The fountain was designed by the company that created the one at the Bellagio in Las Vegas.

When guests check into Gaylord National, they will find dozens of live trees and upscale shops built to reflect regional architecture -- a Virginia farmhouse and a Georgetown rowhouse. One shop features art from the Washington Glass School in Mount Rainier. The seven eateries include one that has floors made with wood from old barns in the region, sleek leather-and-chrome seating and its own fromagier.

In the nightclub, patrons can sip fruit-infused vodka and dance on three glass platforms. The cover charge is $20; VIPs need not pay. A restroom stall in the club offers a panoramic view. In the Rel¿che spa, the Washington Monument can be seen from the couples hot tub.

The opening marks an important time, not just for Gaylord and National Harbor, but for residents of Prince George's County, many of whom have long complained that high-end developers tend to bypass their mostly African American community in favor of less ethnically and economically diverse places in the region.

Public complaints have softened with the arrival of such developments as Bowie Town Center and the Boulevard at Capital Centre, which have stores including Ann Taylor Loft, Pier 1 and the Gap and restaurants including Olive Garden and Kobe Japanese Steakhouse. Next year, Wegmans grocery store will open in the county.

Still, it remains to be seen how Prince George's residents will respond to the $4 billion National Harbor complex and how the development will affect the county. National Harbor's developer, the Peterson Cos., is billing the project as a destination point for Washingtonians, businesspeople and tourists.

"This is going to change Prince George's County," said David Byrd, the county's deputy chief administrative officer for economic development. "It's going to change the perception of the county."

Gaylord is one of six hotels that will eventually sit at National Harbor and the first to open. Other phases of National Harbor will open over the next several months.

Last week, window washers were suspended 230 feet to wipe smudges off 500-pound glass panes while a hard-hat crew drilled through concrete to place a stair rail. In the shops, workers unpacked and organized souvenirs.

Hudson, director of brand projects for Gaylord, and Birrer, a New Jersey-based artist, fussed over what they consider the hotel's pi¿ce de r¿sistance: the 6-foot-tall wooden statue of Baltimore-born George Herman "Babe" Ruth.

"Let's turn him around so that he faces out that way," said Birrer, a computer programmer by day. The artist seemed sad to be relinquishing the statue he spent 800 hours creating.

"Remember, he's finishing his follow-through here," Birrer said of his piece. "He's already hit the ball."

The statue, in front of the resort's National Pastime Sports Bar & Grille, pays homage to the local sports scene. Hudson said a baseball will be implanted in a glass pane in the atrium on a trajectory similar to the one Ruth's ball traveled when he hit his historic 715th home run. A plaque will be placed at the site of the statue, at the beginning of the Walk of Fame, where athletes will be asked to leave their fingerprints and signatures, as entertainment stars do in Hollywood.

Near the statue, the home plate from RFK Stadium, donated by the Washington Nationals, is embedded in the floor near a giant logo of the team. Paintings celebrating the heroes of the Negro Baseball League and local sports legends will be hung on the walls.

To get children involved in the resort's history, they will be given a "passport" at check-in with clues to historical facts and items in the hotel and asked to find them for a reward.

As the hotel prepared to check in its first guests, employees milled about, adjusting furniture and practicing greetings.

"Hello! Welcome to Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center!" a liveried bellman said in greeting before introducing the valet who would park the guest's car.

"They're so polite, it's almost scary!" said a contractor. "We're really not used to this kind of treatment in Washington."

Sheldon Suga, general manager, said guests who patronize the hotel years from now will be treated to the same level of service because of the hotel's focus on hiring pleasant people and providing a fun place for them to work.

In the main lobby, decorated in a nautical theme, bell supervisors took their teams through the paces near the front door. Elsewhere, front-desk employees ran through their training.

In the Old Hickory Steakhouse, the full-time fromagier, looking very French in a long ponytail, heels, a fitted skirt and apron, worked on the fancy cheeses. The resort also employs a full-time sommelier for guests interested in knowing more about the hotel's wine selection.

Last week, 2,000 Gaylord employees were treated to an appreciation luncheon. Oscar Barrientos, 47, an assistant banquet manager, said his staff had been working for days to prepare for the luncheon. The convention staff includes 60 full-time servers and 250 others who will be called in as needed, he said.

"There is a lot of preparation," Barrientos said. "Doing the mocks gives us a chance to work out things we need to do before the real events."

Hudson, a mechanical engineer who cut his teeth designing fixtures at Walt Disney World in Orlando, said Gaylord establishes partnerships with local communities in constructing its hotels. For Gaylord National, he worked with the Maryland Historical Society and the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation to glean information about the region.

"As a general rule, Gaylord tries to pull in the local geography and culture into the hotel," Hudson said. "To be able to draw on the local talent and the local region makes it a richer experience."

It's an experience that Barrientos said he would be loath to leave.

"I won't go anyplace else," said Barrientos, who has worked in hotels for 22 years, including at the Ritz Carlton in Pentagon City. "This is my home forever. I'm seeing people here I haven't seen in 20 years. I'm so grateful to be a part of this. Seventeen thousand people applied for jobs, and I got one. I am very proud to be a part of this."

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