For months, the neighborhood has been buzzing about the work behind the solid wood fence around the iconic building on Pennsylvania Avenue. But what once was a curiosity about how the new occupant would turn the Old Post Office Pavilion into a modern, luxury hotel has given way to louder chatter about the man whose name will festoon the renovated federal landmark.
The Justice Department, which sued Trump in 1973, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the U.S. Postal Service also have offices nearby. A representative for the Trump Organization declined to comment.
“I’ve been watching that hotel and cursing it,” Eric Brewer, a records manager for the EPA, said on a recent afternoon. “It’s horrible seeing that name every day.”
“It’s an embarrassment now more than ever,” the 48-year-old added as he ate lunch on a nearby park bench.
Trump, the Republican presidential front-runner, has led a divisive campaign marked by anti-immigration rhetoric that calls for the building of a wall between the United States and Mexico. His rallies have recently become sites of widespread protests, and his Republican peers have sought to distance themselves from his views.
Not everyone is unhappy with the new neighbor. Some business leaders in town have welcomed the development, which promises to bring more activity — and billionaire glitz — to a part of downtown that can feel empty once the federal workers commute home at night.
“After 5 o’clock, let’s face it, that end of Pennsylvania Avenue does not have the atmosphere that other neighborhoods in other parts of Washington do,” said Elliott L. Ferguson II, chief executive of the District’s marketing arm, Destination DC. “We’ve always felt that the neighborhood needed more diversity in terms of hospitality, and the Trump Company does a really good job of building hotels that offer first-class service.”
Throughout the neighborhood, government employees said they had been watching the construction of the Trump International Hotel, Washington, D.C. — due to open in September — with equal parts intrigue and trepidation. Some welcomed the change, saying it would bring a touch of luxury to an otherwise drab stretch of federal buildings. Others could do without it.
“Every time I walk past, I get so disgusted,” said Linda Stephens, 60, who works in records management at the Justice Department. “And right down the street from the White House — I mean, are you kidding me?”
Even if he doesn’t win the presidency, Trump has said he is determined to get to downtown Washington “one way or another.” Putting $200 million into a luxury hotel is another way to do that.
A few passersby, mostly tourists, stopped to take photos of the big, blue sign: “Coming 2016: TRUMP,” right on Pennsylvania Avenue, a few blocks from the president’s residence.
“That sign — well, it’s probably about the size of his ego,” said Teri Thorowgood, 58, an administration officer at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. “I think it’s fine that he builds hotels — I just wish he’d stick with that.”
Charles Flowers, a Ted Cruz supporter visiting from Dallas, stood across the street admiring the building.
“If anybody could take it and do something with it, it would be Trump,” the 57-year-old said. “He has the money and can do it.”
Would he like to stay there one day?
“Absolutely,” said Flowers, who had spent the night at a hotel in Crystal City. “But I don’t imagine I’ll be able to afford it.”
A Web search for a weeknight stay in December turns up nightly room rates of $775. A “Junior” suite was listed for $1,350 on the hotel’s site, while the property’s largest “Presidential” suite — which comes with two bedrooms, a private entrance and a formal dining room that seats 20 — was going for $24,000.
“It’s going to only cater to the rich,” Darlene Warren, 60, said as she scratched off a lottery ticket on a Pennsylvania Avenue bench. “It should be someplace else, maybe in California, not right here in the heart of the city.”
When the structure debuted in 1899, it was the first government building to open on Pennsylvania Avenue. It served as the District’s main post office for 15 years, then housed a collection of government agency offices as it struggled to find its footing.
In recent decades, the historic property had tumbled further into disrepair and offered little more than a food court and retail stalls, a mix more suited to an airport terminal than one of the city’s grandest buildings. By the time the General Services Administration began seeking private partners to take over the building in 2011, the Old Post Office was losing more than $6 million a year.
Four years ago, Trump’s team beat out a number of big-name suitors for a 60-year lease for the property. The Trump Organization plans to transform the landmark into a hotel with 263 rooms, a day spa and Washington’s largest ballroom.
Michelle Kamalich, a library technician at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, across the street from the hotel, said it is a much-needed transformation.
“That’s been an underutilized space for a while,” said Kamalich, 44. “I used to go to the food court sometimes and would think it was very sad — and the food itself wasn’t very appealing, either.”
But, the Bernie Sanders supporter added, “I have mixed feelings because it’s Trump.”
Steven Marini, a painter working on the hotel, had no such concerns. The 23-year-old said he hadn’t been following Trump’s campaign.
“I don’t vote,” he said, shrugging, as he smoked a cigarette under the scaffolding. “I just don’t care about that stuff.”
Nathan Foster, who was sitting a few yards away from the hotel’s entrance, took a bite of his pizza. “It’s beautiful,” he said, looking up at building.
Foster, 42, was visiting from Rochester, Minn., where he had recently voted for Trump in a caucus.
“I like him,” he said. “When I was in Chicago, I went to the Trump Tower just to look at it.”
Across the street, a passerby took photos of the hotel with his phone.
The federal government still owns the building, but just because he’s doing business with the federal government doesn’t mean Trump is going to hold his tongue. In recent months, he has called for a “tremendous cutting” of the government, said that the IRS has been unfairly targeting him for years and vowed to do away with the EPA, which he calls “the laughingstock of the world.”
“I think it’s funny that Trump wants to get rid of the EPA and the IRS,” said an EPA scientist, 35, who declined to give her name. “My theory is that he just wants to acquire more real estate around here.”
At least two high-profile partners have already tried to distance themselves from the hotel. José Andrés, the Spanish American restaurateur, and Geoffrey Zakarian, a chef and frequent judge on the television shows “Chopped” and “Top Chef,” pulled out of deals to open restaurants at the hotel after the presidential candidate called illegal immigrants “rapists” and criminals. Trump promptly sued them for $10 million each for alleged breach of contract. (Andrés and Zakarian have since filed countersuits.)
Amy Wilson and her son were not thinking about that as they circled the Old Post Office, trying to find a way to the observation deck up top. (It is closed during renovations.)
The 46-year-old had driven in from Woodbridge to visit the National Gallery of Art and hadn’t heard that the Trump hotel was moving in.
“I’m not into Trump,” she said, shaking her head.
“But what are you going to do?” she added. “If I could vote against [the hotel] and have it go away, I would.”