The View From Above
Friday, January 16, 2009
Nellie Semmes didn't score an exclusive bleacher seat to watch Barack Obama's inaugural parade Tuesday. But the 15-year-old will have one of the best views nonetheless: from the 10th-floor balcony of the law offices of Miller & Chevalier on 15th Street.
As dignitaries, floats and marching bands make their way down Pennsylvania Avenue, the balconies, windows and roofs from Third Street to the White House will be the most coveted real estate in Washington. From these perches, in buildings owned by private companies, hotels, government agencies and museums, thousands of lucky spectators will have panoramic views.
They will also enjoy other perks out of reach to the huddled and shivering masses below: food, cocktails, warmth and clean, accessible bathrooms. Nellie, from Portland, Maine, is one of 800 people who will gather at Miller & Chevalier, which is staging a catered party for clients and law partners on the balcony, which stretches a full city block.
"I'm hoping to see him get out [of the limousine] and walk toward the White House," said Nellie, whose mother, Elonide, does design work for the law firm.
It is an Inauguration Day tradition that offices make their space available to employees, family, clients or student groups. This year, with projected crowds of as many as 2 million, the space in the sky is more valuable than ever, and companies are taking advantage, for purposes entrepreneurial and altruistic.
The Newseum has sold 4,000 tickets at $20 apiece to watch from its floor-to-ceiling windows at 555 Pennsylvania Ave. Two thousand government wonks at the U.S. Treasury Department have signed up to watch from its windows along 15th Street. The law firm Kirkland & Ellis, in the same building as Miller & Chevalier, will host 1,000 clients and employees. And PNC Bank, along the parade's home stretch across from Treasury, has invited 80 D.C. public school students to watch from its second- and third-floor windows.
At some parties, the costs are as sky-high as the view. The Willard Intercontinental Hotel, at 1401 Pennsylvania Ave., will welcome a private reception for the New York State Society, which sold 1,800 tickets for as much as $350 each, said society vice president Matthew Cary. The crowd is more than twice the number the society has drawn at past inaugurations, Cary added.
Other events won't cost a dime; the trick is getting on the guest list. At the D.C. government's John A. Wilson Building at 1350 Pennsylvania Ave., populist support has shifted away from Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), whose third-floor office is in the rear of the building, to D.C. Council members whose offices face the street, such as Yvette Alexander (D-Ward 7).
Alexander is hosting family, friends and constituents to watch the big show over a potluck lunch, though how she intends to shoehorn them into her fourth-floor office isn't clear.
"I have a list of over 500 people who have called," she said.
The Presidential Inaugural Committee, which is planning the parade for Obama, has reserved restaurants Central Michel Richard and Ten Penh, adjacent to each other at 10th and Pennsylvania, for private receptions to reward the high-rollers who donated $50,000 to help pay for the inauguration. Ten Penh will serve Hoisin "Barack-oli" and "Barack-e Road" ice cream, said a manager, who grumbled that the New York Post inaccurately reported that Oprah Winfrey had booked the space, prompting dozens of media calls to the restaurants.
Amid the pomp, the increased security precautions have made it more difficult not just for those on the ground but also for those headed into the buildings. The names of all guests must be submitted to the Secret Service, and entrances facing the parade route have been ordered closed.
That means Kyle Gaffney, general manager of Old Ebbitt Grill at 675 15th St., can't serve coffee and hot chocolate to spectators shivering just outside his doors as he has in past years -- though he's offering full menu and bar service to the Democratic Leadership Council, which has rented the restaurant for a private party.
At SunTrust Bank, which has four floors in a stately red-brick building at 15th and Pennsylvania, managers are throwing their traditional reception for select clients, but about one-third fewer have accepted compared with four years ago, said Jean Cross, a marketing manager. "Many said that because of the crowds, the length of time it will take to get here on the Metro and the security, they didn't want to come," Cross said.
Turnout isn't a worry at Miller & Chevalier, where guests will play political trivia games and dine on mac and cheese and short ribs. The firm began planning the party in February, said executive director Pamela Bernstein, and reserved rooms for guests at the Sofitel up the street.
A few outsiders are expected to crash the party, she added: The company has agreed to act as a hospitality suite for 30 Secret Service agents prowling the rooftops nearby.
Staff writers Nikita Stewart and Mary Ann Akers contributed to this report.