The symbolism was obvious: A rich presidential candidate turns a mothballed government relic into a palatial hotel steps away from the White House. But for Donald Trump, not one for subtlety, even that wasn’t enough. It had to be “one of the great hotels of the world.”
When Trump International Hotel Washington, D.C. hosted its soft opening Monday, it capped the transformation of a century-old post office building into one of Washington’s most expensive and ostentatious new hotels — and a monument to Trump.
But its main draw, the gilded name out front, might also be its biggest obstacle. What began as merely a prominent real estate project has morphed into a political landmark, where polarizing ties to the blustery mogul could influence its business through November and beyond.
Trump and his surrogate, former New York City mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, visited the hotel Monday as workers rushed to cut stone and apply mortar in preparation of the afternoon’s soft opening, tweeting a picture thanking “all of the tremendous men & women for their hard work!”
At the same time, two dozen protesters amassed outside the hotel’s soaring arches with signs declaring, “Immigrants & Muslims are welcome here — Trump hotel is NOT!” Yasmina Mrabet, of the advocacy group Act Now to Stop War and End Racism, said the hotel marked another example of what the “billionaire class represents, which is the reaping of profits at the expense of hardworking people.”
Some rough edges were on display when guests were first let in Monday afternoon, including construction crews out back, loose wiring poking through the lobby carpet, and confusion about when certain entrances would open to the public.
Among the first guests allowed in were Blake and Elanie Yturralde, who were in town for business from Boca Raton, Fla., and enjoying complimentary drinks on a lobby couch.
“We like to stay at fine hotels around the world. We’ve stayed at other Trump properties and they are always really nicely done,” Blake Yturralde said. They said they appreciated Trump’s attention to detail and planned to vote for him in November. “It’s that businessman’s sensibility,” he added.
Trump has pointed to the project as a symbol of his ability to lead a global superpower. And, indeed, the hotel reflects many of the contradictions at the heart of Trump’s campaign: a 1 percenter fortress built alongside a populist campaign by a self-described billionaire, whose blue-collar rallygoers couldn’t afford a spoon of wine at his newest high-class masterwork.
While Trump was shouting across middle America that Mexicans were drug-smuggling rapists, Hispanic men were building his luxury hotel for him on one of the national capital’s ritziest blocks.
Before Monday’s opening, Trump’s campaign comments about Mexican immigrants drew a rebuke from Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), set off angry sidewalk protests and prompted the exodus of celebrity chefs José Andrés and Geoffrey Zakarian, whom the Trumps have since sued.
Should that pattern continue, it could be a problem for the ultimate success of the hotel, one analyst said.
“If he remains high-profile and a thorn in the side of the political elite, and on television the way he has been, I think that’s a problem,” said David Loeb, managing director at the investment giant Robert W. Baird & Co. “A lot of this is about the Trump brand and what the Trump brand represents, and when you damage that, it’s hard to go back.”
The $212 million ultraluxury hotel boasts many of Trump’s signature extravagances: $1,000-a-night rooms, gold-encrusted bathrooms and Washington’s largest suite — called, of course, the Trump Townhouse. A crystal-chandelier bar in the nine-story atrium serves wine by the spoon and offers daily champagne saberings, in which bottles are opened by sword.
The 263-room giant’s formal grand opening is scheduled for next month, just days before the election. But its most pivotal moment probably won’t come until Inauguration Day, when either a newly elected President Trump parades past the gleaming Pennsylvania Avenue icon — or a President Hillary Clinton strides by the newest showpiece of her vanquished foe’s empire. During inauguration weekend, a night in the Trump Townhouse costs $100,000, with a five-night minimum.
“This building is a national treasure,” said Ivanka Trump, Trump’s daughter and a company executive leading the project. “It is a great honor and privilege to begin an exciting new chapter in its storied history after having transformed it into one of the finest hotels in the country.”
Rooms start at an average of $895 a night, a company spokesman said, pricier even than the Four Seasons in Georgetown — some of the highest rates in the city, and critics have charged that the rates could hurt the hotel’s chances to attract enough guests and stay afloat.
Those price tags are far loftier than some of the Trumps’ early projections. When a Washington Post columnist calculated in 2012 that the hotel would need to charge $750 a night to cover its costs, Ivanka Trump called those numbers “pure speculation and, simply put, wrong.” Trump representatives now say the prices are more expensive than first estimated because of higher-than-expected demand.
“There are people in the world who are looking for super luxury — the nicest hotel — of a kind D.C. does not presently have,” said Loeb, the analyst.
Completed in 1899, the Old Post Office Pavilion is one of the capital’s tallest and most historic buildings, a glimpse of vintage Washington tucked within the drab government boxes of the Federal Triangle.
A failed government push to demolish the underused building in the 1970s stirred outrage and sparked the District’s historic preservation movement. But after a series of disastrous redevelopment efforts, fed-up members of Congress pushed authorities to open the site to private developers.
General Services Administration officials awarded Trump’s company the 60-year lease in 2012, swayed by his pledge to spend more than $200 million to painstakingly restore the 117-year-old masterpiece — and pay $3 million a year in rent. In doing so, the company beat out Hilton Worldwide and Marriott International, both hospitality giants headquartered in the D.C. suburbs.
The Trumps broke ground in 2014 at a ceremony filled with local Democrats wielding golden shovels, and the project opened two years before the contract’s deadline, leading Trump to take a familiar victory lap.
At a March news conference in the hotel’s lobby, Trump said, “It’s a great thing for the country, it’s a great thing for Washington.”
Trump has often cited the hotel on the campaign trail as an example of how he’ll run the country, with accomplishments ahead of schedule and under budget. In recent weeks, hotel laborers have worked nearly around the clock, cutting stone for the ballroom’s sweeping entryway.
But the hotel’s development has routinely presented an awkward counterpoint to Trump’s fiery campaign rhetoric. Trump’s hired architect, Egypt native Hani Hassan, stuck with the project through the immigration controversy. The hotel’s general manager, France native Mickael Damelincourt, is shepherding his third Trump property.
Damelincourt said he was confident that all 150 rooms made available in the first week would be booked. He said he already has more total business booked in the District than he had in the first six months of Trump’s luxury hotel in Chicago, including a dozen weddings.
The controversies might have even helped business, he said: “I don’t have to work as hard to let everybody know about the hotel.”
The hotel has kept its Romanesque Revival design, including the iconic clock tower housing the Bells of Congress. But the inside appears dramatically new, with a ritzy bar and lounge, a BLT Prime steakhouse and an Ivanka Trump-brand spa. For shopping, the hotel offers a boutique by Italian men’s fashion house Brioni, which sells $395 cotton T-shirts and suits starting at $6,000; Trump is a known customer.
The former postmaster general's office in the building was remodeled into a 4,000-square-foot, $15,000-a-night Presidential Suite, with a fireplace and marble “hand-selected from an Italian quarry” — a selling point carried over from Trump Tower. The 6,300-square-foot Trump Townhouse offers a private office and exclusive Pennsylvania Avenue entryway for $20,000 a night.
The hotel has also advertised that its 13,200-square-foot Presidential Ballroom is the “largest luxury ballroom in D.C.” — seven hotels offer larger ballrooms in Washington, though the company argues they don’t stand on the same level of luxury.
Former GSA officials said the government did its job in awarding the project to the best proposal. But they worry that Trump’s political campaign could turn away the deep-pocketed guests, diners and corporate bookers needed to turn a profit.
“As an American I would like to see the building succeed,” said Dan Tangherlini, the former GSA administrator who oversaw lease negotiations. “It would be a disappointment if this endeavor fails because of one person’s views. However, I do think there will be some impact on the project because of this decision to run for political office.”
Robert Peck, the former GSA public buildings commissioner who informed the Trumps of their selection, said he believed the hotel would have no trouble drawing high-end customers due to its “pretty spectacular” location. He will not be among them, though. He said he wouldn’t give Trump “a penny from his personal account.”
To cover the massive remodeling, the Trump Organization invested $42 million and took out a $170 million loan from Deutsche Bank. Trump’s company has also applied for a federal historic-preservation tax credit that would cover about 20 percent of the rehabilitation, or roughly $40 million.
To save money, the Trumps have also pushed for lower taxes at a hotel portrayed as the peak of opulence. District officials agreed last year to trim the property’s tax assessment by $7 million, to $91 million. But Trump sued after an appeals board rejected another attempt to lower the bill even further.
In a legal complaint filed in D.C. Superior Court, Trump attorney William Bosch said the District’s tax assessments were “unreasonable” and “discriminatory” against Trump’s company. Bosch called the lawsuit “a routine and customary practice that thousands of property owners . . . have used to ensure that their tax assessments are fairly established.”
The opening is bittersweet for the District’s congressional delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat who pushed the government for years to redevelop the property.
“The Trump name we’ve come to grips with, and I think Ivanka Trump recognizes it’s not in their best interest to have politics and business intersect,” Norton said. “It doesn’t benefit them for this hotel to become a lightning rod.”
As for when she’ll be able to enjoy the hotel? She laughed and said, “I’ll never be able to afford to stay at the Trump hotel.”