Curiosity lured Doug Brownlee to the Hampton Inn & Suites rooftop on the corner of First and N streets in Southeast on Saturday night. A Washington Nationals partial season ticketholder, Brownlee had seen people on the new hotel’s rooftop from his seat behind home plate at Nationals Park all season and noticed another cluster in the distance Saturday. So he and his friend left the stadium during the fifth inning of a scoreless game against Philadelphia Phillies to venture across the street.
“I just wanted to see what it was like up here,” said Brownlee, a Sterling resident.
The two found seats on the rooftop, behind the glass safety barrier overlooking N Street, among a crowd that had swelled from 20 people at first pitch to more than 40 by the sixth inning. They marveled at the unobstructed, if distant, view of Max Scherzer slinging 95-mph fastballs under the lights several hundred feet away, and they marveled at the easy access. All they had to do was press “R” on the hotel elevator. All they paid for was their beer.
“This is incredible,” said Brownlee’s friend, visiting from Colorado.
Dave Pollin was just starting his career in the hotel business when his uncle, the late Washington Wizards and Capitals owner Abe Pollin, financed construction of MCI Center. Pollin didn’t invest in the surrounding area and watched with regret as the venue, now Verizon Center, served as the catalyst for downtown’s revitalization.
Afraid of blundering again, Pollin, chairman of PM Hotel Group, said his company searched for property near the proposed site for the baseball stadium when it was announced. But everything deemed worthy of investment initially was snatched up by others. It was only when a failed negotiation between two parties rendered the plot of land available that Pollin’s group acquired the site for a hotel in 2013.
Pollin figured a rooftop overlooking the Anacostia River and the ballpark would serve as an attraction, so the group committed to putting a bar on the roof before breaking ground. But the developers couldn’t figure out whether the stadium’s scoreboard would obstruct the field from the roof.
“You couldn’t get on your tiptoes and see 130 feet,” Pollin said.
It wasn’t until the 10th floor was built in November 2014, once the construction peeked over the parking garages decorating Nationals Park’s outfield perimeter, that the developers were certain the roof would have an unimpeded view of most of the field. The view isn’t quite like the vantage point provided by most seats on the 11 rooftops surrounding Wrigley Field in Chicago, but both dugouts, the entire infield and shallow parts of the outfield are visible, and stadium noise is audible.
“We couldn’t believe our luck,” Pollin said. “It worked out perfectly.”
The hotel opened 13 months later, last Dec. 15. While rooftop admission is free and open to the public, rooms with a view of the field on the 10th, 11th, and 12th floors have a $40 premium during baseball season, according to Roberta Wittes, the hotel’s general manager. The premium hikes another $20 for the corresponding rooms on the top floor.
“We have a lot of people coming just for the games, not just for business,” Wittes said.
The rooftop, known as Top of the Yard, has a dedicated website — “A rooftop bar with Natitude!” the homepage declares — and a Facebook page. Weekend games and concert nights at Nationals Park attract the biggest crowds, and Wittes said restrictions probably will be implemented for playoff games.
“We want to be a thing that fans come to see, but we also want it to be a fun place in the neighborhood for people to come and hang out,” Wittes said. “That’s really important to us, being part of the neighborhood.”
Central to the neighborhood harmony are the Nationals, and a team spokeswoman said the franchise doesn’t have any qualms with the hotel’s visual access to the field.
“When Nationals Park opened in March of 2008, the hope was that the stadium would spur additional development in the surrounding neighborhood,” Jennifer Giglio, the team’s vice president of communications, said in a statement. “With dozens of new restaurants, retail, apartments, office buildings and hotels, the transformation of the area has been dramatic, and we are thrilled to welcome all of our neighbors.”
The roof was granted a silver LEED certification for its “green space,” features a fire pit and seats 50 people, its legal capacity. The space was put to its first test for the Nationals’ home opener April 7 and immediately reached its capacity, which Wittes said she hopes the city will double by next season. But most nights aren’t as busy.
There is one television, behind the full bar, and Wittes said the plan is to add more. The TV couldn’t show Nationals games until June because the hotel’s television provider didn’t offer MASN. DirecTV satellite was installed to rectify the situation. Food is served and light music is played during games, but Wittes said piping in the television or radio broadcast is a possibility in the future.
Unlike the rooftops outside Wrigley Field, which are prohibited from serving liquor — or any alcohol after the seventh inning — alcohol flows as long as at the District’s other bars. On Saturday, a customer’s first beer was free until 8:30.
Jackie, Katie and Kerrie Lentz capitalized on the promotion and were seated by first pitch. The three sisters — clad in Pittsburgh Steelers T-shirts — were in town to attend Monday night’s Redskins-Steelers game at FedEx Field and picked the hotel because the Nationals were at home. It was the second time they have watched a baseball game from a rooftop. They paid $70 each on Groupon for an obstructed view of Wrigley Field — they couldn’t see first base or any of the outfield — a couple years ago.
“This is way better,” Jackie Lentz said. “It’s free and there’s a full view of the field.”
Larry An first visited the rooftop when he was walking by the hotel, saw a sign and went upstairs earlier this summer. A Dodgers fan, An returned with two friends, Sam and Anna Culver, on Saturday. They watched the game sitting behind the glass barrier. After a few $8 beers, the three left vowing to return in October if An’s Dodgers end up meeting the Nationals in the National League Division Series, as the standings currently project.
“The view blew us away,” said Sam Culver, a Red Sox fan. “We had no idea.”