The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Fifty years ago, the Watergate made Washington sexy. Now it’s just the place I call home.

The Watergate complex — viewed from a co-op balcony last month — epitomized European sophistication when it opened in Washington 50 years ago. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

For decades, people passing the undulating Watergate complex could practically feel its magnetic glamour and aura of exclusivity.

Forget for a moment the freighted history of its name. Long before a presidential scandal unfolded here, and for years thereafter, its mere physical presence signaled a European sophistication, what with the top-notch Jean-Louis restaurant, the Yves Saint Laurent and Louis Féraud boutiques, the luxury hotel drawing international jet-setters.

The Watergate will turn 50 on Oct. 27, and things have changed enormously. I know, because I live there. You may not because — well, if you don’t live there, you probably don’t think much about the Watergate.

Granted, the address still conveys a certain mystique. Ooh, fancy, new acquaintances will say. What's it like?

Here’s what it’s like: Have you ever waited behind a tiny octogenarian at the CVS checkout counter as she scours her purse for discount coupons? Well, in the Watergate, that lady is Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and that’s how she shops — just one of the many elderly residents patronizing one of the few remaining retail outlets in the complex.

I recently met a vibrantly dressed lady of 93, Marguerite Bryan, one of the Watergate’s original residents, on her way into the CVS. She moved into the East Building — the first building to open — in 1965.

“It was the most exciting thing that’s ever happened to me,” she said. “We called this the Esplanade. Now it’s called B-2.” She was referring to the basement shopping area that is now nearly deserted, having lost even its Safeway years ago. Still: “I remember coming in by air to the city. The pilot would always point it out.”

There will never be another place like the Watergate. Downtown Washington simply doesn’t have the kind of land available for 640 residential units plus an office complex and hotel. Wealthy VIPs don’t seem to cluster like they once did here, in a virtual fortress protected by a moat of privilege, with doormen wearing uniforms and hats.

The second most-famous address in Washington was the bold product of an Italian architect favored by Benito Mussolini. In 1974, The Washington Post's architecture critic named it the most tasteless building in Washington, writing: "The design . . . is as appropriate next to its riverfront setting, next to the Kennedy Center, with the Washington Memorial as a backdrop, as a strip dancer performing at your grandmother's funeral."

But I have found it to be a warm and welcoming place. A wonderful lady delivers a packet of handy information to all newcomers; on the first Friday of every month, residents in my building hold a mixer in the lobby. These days you see a few younger faces showing up — meaning folks under 50, some even with kids. They move here because of the views, and the proximity to the Potomac, Georgetown or George Washington University.

Only a few units are leased because of co-op restrictions that require letters of reference and a board interview. But if you can get past those hurdles, the Watergate is surprisingly one of the better deals in town. You probably would spend less on rent here than you would for a comparable space in an ultra-modern loft-style apartment on, say, 14th Street Northwest. Of course, Foggy Bottom is no hipster hub; you have to Uber across town to hang at the trendier bars and restaurants, if that matters to you.

At 50, the iconic Watergate complex acquires some ‘Mad Men’ chic

But here we mingle with German tourists pointing their camera phones toward the office building where five burglars broke into Democratic National Committee headquarters 43 years ago, precipitating President Richard Nixon’s eventual downfall and the infamy the complex has lived with ever since.

“People I meet ask if they can stop by for a visit,” says lawyer Frederic Schwartz, 73, a resident since 1978. “They don’t even ask for a drink, they just want to see what it’s like to live in the Watergate.”

City within a city

It was originally called Watergate Towne, designed as a self-sufficient city within a city. Replacing the eyesore utility plant that long occupied the riverfront site, the Watergate boasted “a 24-hour receptionist, four swimming pools, room service from the hotel, seven restaurants, two shopping malls with more than 21 luxury stores, medical and dental offices, its own grocery and drugstore, a post office, the Kennedy Center for a neighbor and some of the best views in the city,” as The Post once described it.

Also: a liquor store and gift shop that once sold china, crystal and silver, plus golden toothpicks for hors d’oeuvres. Last year, what remained of the shop — really just a liquor store at that point — shut down.

The place drew big-shot politicians: Attorney General John Mitchell, Commerce Secretary Maurice Stans, Transportation Secretary John Volpe, U.S. Mint Director Mary Brooks. A Life magazine spread from 1969 found Cabinet wives Martha Mitchell and Kathleen Stans enjoying the magnificent pink-walled beauty salon. Just a few years later, their husbands would be swept up in the break-in and coverup scandal, with Mitchell convicted and sent to prison and Stans pleading guilty and fined.

Schwartz worked in the Nixon administration under Volpe. He still considers Nixon “an excellent president and just a truly flawed person.”

But despite neighbors including Bob and Liddy Dole and Ben Stein — and for several tumultuous months in 1998, Monica Lewinsky — people here generally don’t talk politics; you won’t hear them bragging about their glorious careers. Only after a few days of conversation did I learn that Marguerite Bryan had been an important figure in labor circles; her boss and fellow Watergate resident, Ben Man, was former head of the Joint Maritime Congress and friend to five presidents. She showed me a picture of the fundraiser they held on the Watergate’s roof for a promising Democratic presidential candidate named Jimmy Carter.

“Almost everyone here has had an interesting life, but they don’t talk about it,” Schwartz said. “And it’s one of the few places you can live where the building is more interesting than you are and much better known.”

Heydey of the ‘elite scene’

Today the designer boutiques have been replaced by a drab post office and a temporary public library where homeless people often gather. The few eateries that remain serve casual fare; they're neighborhood spots, not destinations. The Watergate briefly returned to the headlines this summer but for a different kind of scandal: Amid the new hotel's construction, a section of the parking garage collapsed. The place seemed to be falling apart.

In Watergate West, a massive structural renovation has forced residents to relocate to hotels for weeks. One woman left even though her apartment had not yet been invaded by jackhammers; the incessant noise was too much for her cat to endure, she said.

Residents crave updates on the progress of the new hotel — the old one closed in 2006 — viewing it as something of a savior. Will it attract upscale retail? Will it restore some of the complex's faded glory, a return to the days when stars such as Robert Redford and Elizabeth Taylor stayed there?

“When The Watergate Hotel first opened it was a playground for powerful people and it will be again,” Rakel Cohen, an executive at Euro Capital Properties, which owns the building, wrote in an e-mail. The design of the new facilities — down to the A-line concierge uniforms — “absolutely recalls the heyday of Washington’s elite scene,” she wrote. They’re planning an early 2016 opening.

The new Watergate hotel is embracing the building’s scandalous past

But even if the glamour never returns, longtime residents such as Bryan won’t be bothered. For half a century this has been her home — not a landmark, or a headline word or overused shorthand for all manner of scandals. She has her friends and neighbors here. She visits with Ben Man, now a 97-year-old widower, every day.

“I love it here. I have a wonderful river view, beautiful sunsets, wonderful summers,” she says. “I plan to stay right here. And that’s what I’m going to do.”