It’s a rare workplace that boasts as a point of pride that its office was once a crime scene.
But when you work at the Watergate office building — the site for the most infamous “third-rate burglary” in American history — you get to brag.
It was on the sixth floor, in the wee hours of June 17, 1972, that a security guard caught five men breaking into the offices of the Democratic National Committee. The break-in set in motion the events that would make Richard Nixon the only U.S. president to resign the office and would forever shake the American public’s trust in its government.
That’s a lot of history for a ho-hum Foggy Bottom office space.
Nowadays, the sixth floor is home to Sage Publications, an academic publishing company that moved its D.C. branch into the Watergate complex about a year ago. Last week the company opened an exhibit to commemorate the events that transpired in the spot it now occupies.
Rhodes Cook, who began working at the DNC shortly after the break-in and became a political analyst covering every presidential election since Nixon, returned to his former workplace to discuss the break-in with current Watergate employees.
“This is where it all started: the unraveling of a presidency and, really, the beginning of a change in American history,” Cook said.
He recalled that the office of DNC Chairman Lawrence F. O’Brien Jr., where the burglars were caught, was on the eastern wall of the building. In the northeast corner of the office — where windows look out on the building that was the Howard Johnson hotel, where the burglars set up camp — Sage Publications installed a wall-length timeline of the Watergate scandal, a commemorative plaque and a copy of The Washington Post front page bearing the headline “Nixon Resigns.”
The sixth floor has been extensively renovated, and Cook said it bears little resemblance to the DNC office that Nixon’s Committee to Re-Elect the President secretly paid burglars to bug while Nixon was campaigning against Democratic nominee George McGovern.
But one key feature seems untouched: the stairwell.
It was there that security guard Frank Wills saw that the doors had been taped, leading him to call police, who found the burglars.
It’s just a door to a staircase. On any given day, most employees choose the elevator. But when attendees at Friday’s event realized that it was the door to that staircase, a few drifted over to reverently open and close the door a few times.
Unfortunately for history buffs and tourists, the new exhibit is not open to visitors. The Watergate building, part of a five-building complex that includes apartments and shops, is a private office tower with no display about its role in presidential history.
Ask the security guard at the front desk for information about Watergate — no, not the building; Waaatergate — and he’ll tell you to go to the Smithsonian.
On the sixth floor, Charisse Kiino, a Sage executive, said the receptionist frequently shoos away curious people who manage to make it up the elevator.
“We’re talking about locking it down more,” she said.
Todd Baldwin, another Sage executive, said he thinks a publishing company is an appropriate tenant for the historic space.
“Information, the press, the information machinery that covered Watergate created a transformation in our society,” he said, referring to Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who broke open the Watergate scandal through their reporting.
Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman left an indelible image of the Watergate era in America’s mind, as they portrayed Woodward and Bernstein on an “All the President’s Men” set meticulously designed to look like the real Washington Post building.
This month, that former Washington Post building is crumbling to the ground, under demolition after The Post moved its office a few blocks away in December. And in 2014, the Arlington County Board approved a plan to tear down the garage where Woodward met FBI official Mark Felt, better known to history as “Deep Throat,” for covert conversations.
But not all Watergate history will be lost to the wrecking ball.
At least one quiet Watergate icon — that momentous once-taped door — still stands.