Of course you’ve heard of Watergate: the political scandal that brought down a president, the catchphrase for dirty tricks and coverups, the gateway suffix for pundits with a flair for the obvious.
Which poses a bit of a quandary for the owners of the newly reopened Watergate Hotel. Everyone knows the iconic name, even if they’re a little vague on the history. But is a 44-year-old crime enough to attract customers in today’s market?
Before Richard Nixon became president, before five burglars broke into Democratic National Committee headquarters, before every American disgrace ended in “-gate,” the Watergate was just a complex of apartments and offices and a luxury hotel. Some called it modern and glamorous, others thought it was stark and ugly. Surrounded by Colonial treacle, the Watergate was a dry martini, straight up.
“This hotel was popular and glamorous before the scandal,” says co-owner Rakel Cohen. “After the scandal, it was a playground for powerful people — all the politicos, government, actresses, everyone. It was really the finest address. We want to bring that back.”
It’s hard to imagine now, but the Watergate was once the hippest spot in Washington. It was developed in the 1960s by an Italian firm that purchased 10 acres along the Potomac River where a small ivy-covered restaurant, the Water Gate Inn, had operated for years. (Legendary popovers, according to loyal customers.)
The proposed complex was a state-of-the-art marvel with apartments, offices, a hotel, restaurants, shops, a post office — an exclusive private enclave, a city within a city. The circular design was meant to complement the yet-to-be built Kennedy Center nearby, which was originally envisioned as a graceful curved building, rather than the flat shoebox that exists today.
If your taste ran to the traditional, this was not your thing. But plenty of people, including a number of high-profile Republicans, like Sen. Bob Dole and Nixon administration Attorney General John Mitchell, snapped up the sleek, contemporary co-ops, which averaged $60,000 for two bedrooms; a penthouse overlooking the river went for $200,000. Robert McNamara lived there, Elizabeth Taylor played there, and renowned chef Jean-Louis Palladin opened his eponymous French restaurant there.
The hotel opened in 1967 as a luxury destination for A-listers visiting Washington. Five years later, four of the five burglars hired by Nixon’s reelection team checked in and “were said to have dined together on lobster at the Watergate Restaurant,” according to The Washington Post. In the early hours of June 17, 1972, the clumsy quintet broke into the DNC offices next door and were arrested for attempted burglary.
At first, Watergate the Scandal was good for business — customers booked rooms at the hotel, even if they did walk off with towels, robes and other souvenirs with the famous logo. Everybody knew about the Watergate, and a second wave of Republicans — wealthy Reagan supporters and friends — bought apartments in the 1980s or were regulars at the hotel and Palladin’s windowless restaurant tucked in the basement.
Palladin left Washington 20 years ago; the Watergate aged and declined. The hotel went through several owners and renovations but never recaptured its original allure, and it closed in 2007.
By the time Cohen and her husband, Jacques, saw the property in 2010, it was faded, dark and kind of sad. The New York-based couple were looking for something in Washington to develop, but they were unimpressed until they walked out onto the roof of the Watergate and took in the view at sunset.
“I fell in love with it,” says Cohen. “And when I fall in love with something, I make him buy it.”
They snapped it up for a bargain price of $45 million, then poured $125 million into restoring the hotel to its former glamour. They couldn’t touch the exterior — protected when the entire complex was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in October 2005 — but they gutted all of the interior except for the pool and the curved staircase. The renovation took six years; Cohen, 31, had three of her six children (now 10 years to four months) during the project.
The new vibe is retro-chic, as if you spent the 1960s on a giant, very expensive yacht with a pool and a spa. Cohen opened up every window to maximize the river views and hired Israeli-born designer and artist Ron Arad, known for his bold, unconventional aesthetic. Everywhere you look there are curves: the lobby is filled with custom metal tubing wrapped around columns, the bar features an undulating wall of illuminated whiskey bottles, and the seats are deep, mid-century-style chairs. The Cohens spared no expense; the staff wears custom uniforms created by “Mad Men” costume designer Janie Bryant.
There are sly, discreet references to the scandal that put Watergate on the map. The room keys bear the words “No need to break in,” a pencil is embossed with “I stole this from the Watergate Hotel.” The customer service phone number (1-844-617-1972) is a nod to the break-in date. Snippets of Nixon foreign-policy speeches from 1971 and 1972 will be piped into the restrooms, for what that’s worth. (What, no “I am not a crook”?)
But the biggest attraction may be the rooftop bar, a space with sweeping views of the Potomac and the monuments that was never open to the public before. It debuts next month and may be the hotel’s most valuable asset, says Roberto Sablayrolles of real estate and design firm Streetsense. Sablayrolles specializes in “experiential design” — how customers react to food, drink and interiors in hotels and restaurants.
Washington is now one of the top five markets for hotel investment, which accounts for the more than 30,000 hotel rooms in the District — with more to come. Some hotels are big luxury chains, some small boutiques, some budget digs. With 336 rooms going for $400 and up, Watergate falls between luxury and what Sablayrolles calls “lifestyle hotels,” which cater to younger customers.
“Food and beverage are as important as the rooms,” he says. The Watergate is one of the few in Washington with an upscale mid-century design and the large rooftop, which “gives the hotel a relevancy it didn’t have before,” especially for customers looking for their next favorite place.
The hotel’s location in Foggy Bottom was always considered a problem, since it’s not in the middle of . . . well, anything. But it has a new arrangement with the Kennedy Center and will get high-end patrons for the Kennedy Center Honors and other performances. Sablayrolles says that the hotel should also be able to draw guests visiting George Washington University, George Washington Hospital and other nearby institutions — even some of the Watergate’s permanent residents. The question is whether locals will walk or Uber over from Georgetown and elsewhere for drinks or dinner.
“This is my dream,” says Cohen. “To see people after dinner, in a long gown and tuxedo, having a drink here or coming to my restaurant.”
And Rooms 214 and 314, where the Watergate burglars stayed? They aren’t the same rooms, of course — the Cohens made the guest rooms smaller, adding more than 80 to the original design. But yes, there have already been requests.
They should pipe Nixon’s voice in there. Now that would be fun.