The Watergate Returns

Watergate Hotel

Controversies, scandals, break-ins, disappointments, collapses. Can America’s most infamous hotel survive the ultimate test: a radical redesign?

All hoteliers dream of renovating an iconic property, but few projects come with as much baggage and expectations as Washington’s Watergate Hotel, reopening in the fall. Its name already synonymous with America’s greatest political scandal, the Watergate Complex also suffers from a reputation for its shoddy original construction. In May, the hotel’s adjacent three-story parking garage collapsed in spectacular pancake-fashion, each level smashing into the one below. (There were no serious casualties.) Whoever tackled the Watergate Hotel, shuttered in 2007 in its last incarnation as a Swissotel, would need the drive of an idealistic politician, the naïve idealism of a first-term congressman, and pockets twice as deep as either if they want to succeed.

Enter New York–based husband-and-wife developers Jacques and Rakel Cohen, of Euro Capital Properties, who bought the Watergate for $45 million after a trip to the capital in 2010. No strangers to hospitality, the couple’s family is behind such properties as Paris’s Deco-style L’Hotel du Collectionneur. “We had a little bit of trouble looking for locations in Washington,” Rakel says. “Everything is so traditional. The food scene is there. The art scene is there. The fashion is getting there. But the hotels need to catch up.” They were about to head back to Manhattan empty-handed when, at Jacques’s insistence, they visited the Watergate’s 12th-floor rooftop. The 360-degree views, including all of Georgetown, the Washington Monument, and the Potomac River, drew the couple in.

Wandering the structure itself, with its curvaceous lines and ’60s brutalist exterior, convinced them that they could inject “European” elegance and sophistication into a town rarely mistaken for being hip. “No one could figure how to make the hotel successful,” Rakel says, adding with some of that much-needed idealism: “We’re bringing the Watergate’s glamorous heyday back to life. We are resetting the bar.”

It’s not that much of a stretch. The center of the Watergate Complex—comprising three apartment buildings, two office buildings, and the hotel—was once home to a vibrant, tony group of boutiques called Les Champs, which supplied movers, shakers, and power brokers with such luxury brands as Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent, and Pierre Cardin, all adjacent to the ultimate in sophistication for the era: the espresso bar. “You can buy a can of beans at Watergate,” teased one brochure for prospective visitors, “or a $25,000 brooch.” Many of the residents stayed there into retirement—and today denizens include the likes of Bob Dole and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. What the complex lacks in location—it’s not in the city’s proverbial center, Capitol Hill; rather it’s about five miles west, in Foggy Bottom—it makes up for in the views from the rooms, as 95 percent of them look out onto the city.

With $125 million at the ready to spend for the renovation, and after considering design proposals from the Rockwell Group and Yabu Pushelberg, the Cohens cold-called Israeli-born Ron Arad. They had not worked with him previously but knew his work in part from living with Arad-designed furniture in their Upper West Side apartment.

It’s a daring choice. Much like the Watergate, Arad, who had, until then, never even been to the District of Columbia, is known for his bold, curvilinear designs. The subject of a much-lauded retrospective in 2009 at the Museum of Modern Art, in New York—appropriately titled Ron Arad: No Discipline—the always unconventional talent has built his career on quirky, kinetic designs for brands such as Vitra, Cassina, Alessi, and Kartell, and landmark projects, such as the Design Museum Holon, in Israel. While designing everything from a hospital ward to public sculptures, Arad found that his interest in the Watergate was piqued by Italian architect Luigi Moretti’s original 1962 design, which features next to no continuous straight lines. “It’s very much a period of Italian architecture from—I have to say—the Fascist era,” he says about Moretti’s style and those of his contemporaries. Indeed, Moretti did design various structures for the Mussolini regime, such as Rome’s Casa della Scherma, a fencing pavilion that’s part of the famed Foro Italico sports complex. Arad says, “We looked at the period’s legacy, and there are some quite amazing buildings, even though we don’t like the regime that was in the background.”

But don’t expect a Disney-like homage to the 1960s. Instead, Arad is using the period design of the Watergate—listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 2005—to inform his sensibilities. “It’s a good thing,” Arad says about the omnipresent sense of history in the project. “It’s not the way we would design a new building, but we can see that there was a look in the air that Moretti had to carry out,” he explains, pointing to the characteristically low ceilings as an example. “It’s very beautiful for me to connect with that. We’re not fighting it, and we’re not surrendering to it.” And the retro vibe that Rakel promised? “We don’t want to do a pastiche, of course,” Arad says.

Arad’s work will be found in the lobby and dining areas, including the whiskey bar, for which he has enlisted Italian metalworkers to create columns of whisky bottles that act as part of the décor. These same craftsmen designed the hotel’s signature brass-patinated spiral chandeliers (a similar swirl is found throughout Arad’s portfolio), which are echoed in the Watergate’s new logo. Far from selecting the expected boxy hospitality furniture, Arad is outfitting his spaces with pieces by his longtime collaborator, Italian avant-garde brand Moroso, including a new namesake chair that fans of Arad will recognize as one of his own for its curvy signature.

The hotel’s 338 rooms, meanwhile, have been designed in-house with materials such as marble and black granite, and colors in mostly neutral tones. The yet-to-be-named restaurant—the Cohens asked Arad to ponder the possibilities—boasts executive chef Michael Santoro, whom they recruited from New York’s Andaz Fifth Avenue.

Staying true to the ‘60s era, Rakel wanted even the uniforms to be carefully considered and turned to Mad Men costume designer Janie Bryant. “When I was first approached, I was a little taken aback,” admits Bryant, a bona fide Southern belle and Tennessee native. But she was too enthralled by the opportunity to explore historical references to pass up the opportunity to design her first uniforms.

From bellhop to housekeeper, the outfits take on a bronze-and-gold palette and a checkered pattern loosely inspired by the hotel’s interiors. Of the doorman’s uniform, says Bryant, “It’s a three-piece suit with a double-breasted vest, almost like the Edwardian style. It comes straight across, and, instead of having the traditional points, it’s a single-breasted two-button jacket with skinny pants.”

Bryant drew inspiration from the ’50s and ’60s but stopped short of the following decade.“It’s much more chic than, let’s say, what we think of in terms of our 1970s period,” she says, “which has lots of polyester and was maybe a less chic decade—even though I do love it.” Like Arad, Bryant is looking to meld today’s look with the best elements of the past. “But the uniforms are not vintage in any way,” she says. “I’m not designing a TV show or a movie. So the zippers won’t be 11 inches long. Modern men don’t like that. And the ladies won’t have to wear girdles, either.”

As faithful as the Cohens are trying to be, there’s one piece of hotel history that will be lost in the renovation: The walls creating the original guest rooms have been completely removed to accommodate more rooms than the original 250. So the staging grounds of the notorious 1972 break-in will be no more. Will the Cohens allow guests to book the infamous room 214? “We don’t want to,” says Rakel. “But a lot of people have been asking me this same question.”

When DEPARTURES visited, the Watergate was under construction and room configurations were still being worked out. However, the hotel has confirmed that rates will start at $400; 2600 Virginia Avenue NW, Washington, D.C.; 202-827-1600; thewatergatehotel.com.

Image Credits: Watergate Hotel