A Washington hotel that earned itself a spot in history courtesy of the Watergate burglary is about to become a place where college students study what happened there before they were born.
George Washington University has purchased the former Howard Johnson hotel, more recently called the Premier Hotel, and plans to turn it into housing this fall for 395 freshmen -- few of whom were alive during the Watergate burglary and scandal.
While five burglars searched the office of the Democratic National Committee the night of June 17, 1972, their lookout sat in Room 723 of the hotel at 2601 Virginia Ave. NW, binoculars trained on the building across the street. It didn't do much good -- the burglars were discovered and arrested, igniting the scandal that led to President Richard M. Nixon's resignation in 1974.
The university is embracing the building's role in Watergate, not ignoring it. The seventh floor will be set aside for 40 students who will all enroll in a year-long course called "America After Watergate: How Watergate Changed Us Politically, Socially and Culturally." Room 723, decorated with Watergate memorabilia, will be a guest room for parents or others visiting the school.
"As you open a facility that has a historic quality to it, I think it would be negligent not to use it as the theme of a course," said GW President Stephen J. Trachtenberg.
"I think over time that Watergate and studies about Watergate and the implications is has for American history will become institutionalized into the general curriculum," he said.
Trachtenberg said there's no professor or syllabus yet -- the university only closed on the $19 million purchase a few days ago -- but he mused about the possibilities for guest lecturers. "We ought to line up some of the old Watergate personalities -- people from the DNC, Gordon Liddy . . ."
GW bought the building from Millbank Partners-Virginia Avenue LP, a partnership controlled by Washington's Bernstein family (no relation to Carl Bernstein, the Washington Post reporter famous for his role in breaking the Watergate stories).
The Bernsteins, who have owned the hotel for about five years, put it up for sale in August last year. At the time, they tried to sell it as a luxury hotel.
With the addition of the hotel, newly dubbed the Hall on Virginia Avenue, GW will have 15 dorms. The building is a few blocks from GW's main campus in Foggy Bottom, where housing has become tight because a growing proportion of the 19,000 or so students are undergraduates -- about 7,000. More than 2,200 freshmen have accepted admission for this fall. Last year, there were 1,873 freshmen.
The shortage of on-campus housing is one of the many prickly issues between GW and Foggy Bottom community activists, who for years have fought GW's expansion attempts.
Some local activists criticized the HoJo purchase. Maria Tyler, an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner representing part of Foggy Bottom, said the city is losing money because the building will switch from being a tax-paying business to being part of a nontaxable nonprofit school. "Entities that take over land are being subsidized by people who pay taxes in the District," she said.
Richard Sheehey, another Foggy Bottom ANC member, said an even bigger issue is that the building is outside the established boundaries of the university. "I'm glad to see they're providing more dorm space, but this is not the way to do it," he said.
Trachtenberg said he's aware of the bad blood between the school and some of its neighbors but said he believes the critics are in a minority. "Lots of pressures are on the community," he said. "We are, I think, a handy scapegoat sometimes."