It wasn't the rooftop swimming pool, the diner opening onto the lobby, or the 77 channels of free cable television that attracted some freshman students to George Washington University's newest dormitory. For the students on the seventh floor, the lure was pure history.
In Room 723 of what is now their residence hall, a look-out set up a surveillance post during the infamous 1972 break-in of the Democratic National Committee headquarters across the street in the Watergate complex. Back then the dorm was a Howard Johnson's. That break-in led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon, something none of the new occupants of the building are old enough to remember.
Today the former hotel is GW's "Hall On Virginia Avenue," also called HOVA. Students who had not been born when the scandal rocked the country are moving in this weekend. All year, they will be able to look out their windows at the Watergate Hotel and the office that was once the DNC headquarters. They live down the hall from Room 723, now decorated with Watergate memorabilia, including photos of Nixon and his family playing with his golden retriever, a framed copy of the president's resignation letter, a yellowing newspaper front page with the banner headline: "Nixon Resigns."
Sitting in that room, Shawn Costa, a political science major from Plymouth, Mass., sucked in air and shook his head in disbelief. "When you walk in this room, it's breathtaking," he said.
"How many college freshmen can say they live across from history?" said Nate Morris, an aspiring politician and international affairs major from Louisville.
The two are among the 28 students chosen to live on "The Watergate 723 Community" floor of HOVA. To apply, incoming freshmen wrote essays on how Watergate changed their parents' views of politics--and how in turn "that affected your view." The winners received rooms.
Residents will also participate in a year-long program of lectures and field trips called "America After Watergate: How Watergate Changed Us Politically, Socially and Culturally." Not surprisingly, many of the occupants are aspiring politicians or interested in government.
"There are a lot of doctors and lawyers but [politicians] are the people that make decisions that affect all of us," said Morris, whose dorm room is decorated with pictures of President John F. Kennedy and a photo of Morris meeting President Clinton. He's already known in the dorm as a natural campaigner--he knows nearly everyone's name, major and home town.
They are an energetic group, students who have faith that their generation can set the country on a better course. Liza Sacks, a psychology and political media major, believes that is possible, even though "Watergate made my parents lose a lot of faith in government and politics."
There are a total of 362 freshmen in HOVA. There is one other specially designated program on Floor 8, the "Healthy Lifestyles Community," where students sign contracts not to smoke, use drugs, or drink alcohol. The students on other floors received rooms simply by being among the first to respond to letters sent by the college announcing the opening of the new dorm.
That doesn't mean that these students aren't attracted to the location because of it's place in history, too. They've taken the opportunity to peep in Room 723, often accompanied by their parents. In the future, the room will be used to house prospective students visiting GW.
"Being here makes you think about politics more. We have debates in our rooms at night," said Lia Testa, an International Affairs major who lives on the sixth floor but has visited the Watergate floor to participate in discussions and debates on politics and social issues.
Testa's roommate, Kiersten Marino, received some historical prepping before arriving at GW. Her mother Mary Ellen, who was helping her unpack yesterday, said, "I'm talking about Watergate and she's fuzzy on the subject. So I went and rented 'All The President's Men.' "
Kiersten, an international affairs major, who doesn't always find history interesting, "thought the movie was good. If you're going to live here, it's good to know the facts," she said.
Meanwhile, a rumor has spread among the HOVA residents that if you mail a postcard from the post office in the Watergate across the street, the card could be stamped "Watergate" instead of "Washington, D.C." And someone even spotted Bob Dole, who lives at the Watergate, buying toothpaste at the grocery store across the street.
"Wow," said Morris, "we're in the seat of power."