Up there under the awning of the Hotel Washington Sky Terrace, your heightened perspective is more than just altitude. You look out over the city with the Olympian hubris of a British viceroy lounging in some Far Pavilion.
Washington is splashed golden this bright late weekday afternoon, the monuments whiter than a Moroccan mosque, the Potomac a jeweled serpent twisting and sparkling its way south. The city's trademark mugginess has graciously left town to form a meteorological toupee on the distant Virginia horizon, and in its place a soft north wind has brought air like crystal. It's as fine a summer day as you can get in Washington, and those happy hour pilgrims lolling on the print-cushioned settees are well aware of it.
"You can very easily say this is the finest view in town," says Shiva Singh, a technology broker. "The commanding presence it gives you. The feeling of authority."
In a city where any summer breeze is a godsend and a sauna often a cool retreat; where you haven't made it unless you're absent in August; where the short-sleeved government bureaucrat is a civic symbol; in short, an abdominal heave of a summer town, the Terrace can make it all worthwhile.
In addition, the Terrace opens another world. In the season when the right hemisphere of your brain is given more vent -- the whims, the pipe dreams, the flights of fancy; when you dare to entertain the notion that one day you just might meet Sigourney Weaver and sweep her off her feet, or make a million, or write like Scott Fitzgerald; in this fanciful season as you sit with your mind tuxedoed away from the banality below -- the Terrace is the only feasible host to your midsummer night's dream.
"Looking over the city you get the feeling you're in Rome," says Kevin Greene, a management consulting intern at McKinsey and Co. and a Harvard student. "It's a feeling of exultation. You feel as if you're better than it all."
"You get up in the morning," says Mike Landini, a native Washingtonian and special assistant at the Labor Department. "You do 12 hours, you go home and you never feel like you're in D.C."
And then, says his companion, Washington economist Gail Porter, "for one fleeting night you play tourist."
From the heights, even the blare and grind of rush-hour traffic on Pennsylvania Avenue become distant and magical, with hints of Parisian street sounds. Usually deafening jetliners bound for National Airport descend silently over the river, gilded with grace by the setting sun.
Those touring the heights of Washington this day form a study in variety, yet seem to meld into a single human collage. The Yuppieish intern complaining to his friends about frigid women at Tulane University seems as much at home as the elderly couple (he in "First National Bank in Elk City" baseball cap, she in a migraine-inducing blend of purples) who clutch hands like teen-agers.
Now a group of businessmen confer over a widget sample that might be a pacemaker for Darth Vader, then exchange a flurry of business cards. Outside the entrance, a group of lawyer interns -- a sea of gray flannel -- joins the waiting line, one whining. "Gary, you organized this and you didn't make a reservation?" A pigeon flaps in to strut beneath a nearby table, while an Illinois businessman swims in his thoughts, cigarette in one hand, Grand Marnier in the other, staring at the Treasury Building below.
Beyond the awning fringe, the day moves incrementally across the city, the setting sun dragging the light and sky with it like a happy drunk pulling a beautiful tablecloth down with him as he topples to the barroom floor.
"It's elegant and soft," says Tyler Moore, a Richmond resident as she watches the view. "I feel very comfortable up here away from all the screeching. I feel as secure as I do in my bedroom."
Like many institutions, the Hotel Washington has its veteran soldiers, and Gus Jimenez, who is cooling elegant heels at the entrance to the Two Continents restaurant next to the Terrace, fills the bill. He has walked these hotel floors for almost 40 years as a busboy and waiter at the Terrace, and then maitre d' and now manager.
"We have a younger clientele today. Thirty years ago, there were nothing but senators, congressmen or State Department people . . . A few of these people used to live here: House Speaker John McCormack lived here the whole time he was in office. Congressman Frank Boykin of Alabama lived here all his term . . .
"Tables 1 through 7 inside by the windows used to be assigned to these people. We could not give those tables away. When they retired, then their table could go."
The Hotel Washington has also given room keys to members of the Ziegfeld Follies, to Will Rogers, Jimmy Durante, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Maurice Chevalier, John Wayne and Duke Ellington. In 1917 President Woodrow Wilson viewed troops from the hotel site at 15th and Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., as they departed for World War I.
In those halcyon days "It was a policy of the house," says Jimenez. "You had to have a jacket or tie . . . even if it was 100-degree weather . . . It was really quite a scene.
"All that has changed. Sometimes people are very aloof; their manners are not as they used to be. Sometimes I have to ask them to get their feet off the table."
Elizabeth Lutz, a customer at the hotel for as long as she or anyone else can remember, agrees with her friend. "Everyone got dressed up. The ladies were always beautifully groomed," she says. "Then the kids started coming."
"But you have to change with the times," says Jimenez.
Built in 1918, the Hotel Washington was designed European style by John Carre re and Thomas Hastings of the New York firm of McKim, Mead and White for the Capital Hotel Corp. It cost $5 million. Texas rancher and cotton broker William Moody bought it in 1940, with the idea of making the place a social headquarters for farm groups visiting the Department of Agriculture. Since Moody's death, the hotel (now a National Historic Landmark) has been owned by Gal-Tex Corp. and is a corporate asset of the Moody Foundation of Galveston, Tex.
"We're the oldest operating hotel in D.C.," says Wray Lindersmith, director of sales and public relations. "We've had very little staff turnover in comparison to the hospitality industry . . . Our oldest employe Al Wise, a dining room host has been here 56 years. Many waiters have been here 30 -- some of them 40 -- years. Director of personnel Ann Yuter has been here 53 years."
The Roof Terrace, it can be charitably said, is not known for its food, or even its drinks. In addition, "the service is unpredictable," says Tyler Moore, a regular customer, cradling a strawberrry daiquiri. "But the view pays for itself."
There are special days when the Terrace is indispensable. Mother's Day, for one, when the Terrace's season begins, is "very, very busy," says Jimenez. "The Fourth of July for the fireworks . . . " People make reservations for the Fourth, says Jimenez, a year in advance.
On particularly unbearable summer days, the management opens a series of water pipes above the awning, which cools the canvas and the crowd beneath. It also achieves a movie-rain effect as the water cascades from the edge of the awning into troughs on the roof ledge.
The Terrace "is easy, informal, chic," says a free-lance journalist from New York who does not wish to be identified. With her pink cotton dress, white webbed stockings and pink sun hat, she could be a younger Zelda just back from a whirlwind trip to the Kentucky Derby. Her companion, a Washingtonian with a satanic goatee, leans back in his chair, his gray business jacket slumped behind him.
"Yes, it is chic, a raffish kind of chic," she insists. "You're not going to find this in New York -- you won't have this bucolic experience."
The crowds come in, says Terrace manager Sam Fayyad, "between 6 o'clock and 8:30 and then from 9:30 till closing. Friday and Saturdays we have lines from when we open until we close."
"Sometimes the lines go all the way out there," says Linda Powers, pointing to the elevators past the entrance. "We'll be giving last call and they still want to get in."
Now night has enveloped the city. Washington is a lush me'lange of deep, dark patches between bracelets of street lights along the Mall and up and down the George Washington Parkway. The monuments and the White House, starkly lit, seem to be taking a monumental breather from the daily tourist onslaught. The Potomac is invisible in the ink-black patch below Memorial Bridge and the lights of planes sweep the night sky ahead of them as they swoop toward National Airport. Even though it's late, on a quiet, rainy week night, the body count on the Terrace is 105.
"There's some Washington institutions you have to do in the summer," says Mike Landini, looking out over the town. He has gone to the Terrace as long as he can remember. "You have to sit outside the Childe Harold, you have to sit at the American Cafe on Capitol Hill once in the evening. There's a half-dozen places like that . . .
"You come to the Terrace at least once in the summer and once in the fall, and you sit on top of the White House, and you drink beer until they send you home."