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News that the Watergate Hotel would re-open this year after renovations has flooded me with memories of a very different time in our country. When I came to Washington as a young reporter for CBS News in the immediate wake of the assassination of President Kennedy, I would walk the streets and think that the city, like so much of the nation, seemed lost. Yet in Washington, this identity crisis felt less temporal than in other American cities. It was President Kennedy who famously quipped that “Washington is a city of Southern efficiency and Northern charm.” Lurking beneath his humor was the very real sense that for all the marbled monuments to the institutions and heroes of democracy, this was a town that lacked the sophistication of a New York, the grace of a San Francisco, or the bustle of a Chicago. In short, it was second class.
Even in the mid-1960s, Washington remained a quiet backwater where business often was conducted languidly in wood-paneled watering holes. However, many of the old political hands who were my sources at the time would talk about how the city was changing, rapidly. Invariably they would point to the stirrings on the banks of the Potomac in the form of two massive developments. One was a performing-arts complex, what we now call the Kennedy Center. The other was Watergate, a series of buildings built around a flagship hotel.
My family and I lived in Georgetown then, and as I passed the construction site on my way to work, I wondered, Will this really be more than some standard-issue hotel and apartments? Once the structure took shape, I wondered how a city sheathed in classically inspired architecture would react to a radically different set of buildings.
With their completion, Washington would be bold. The Watergate apartments were a bet that those with power and money would choose to stay living in the District. The hotel and shops were a statement that the standards of service of the great European capitals could also be found in what had long been derided as an American upstart. And the development succeeded im- mediately. It was a place to be seen, an address to desire.
Shortly after its grand opening, my wife, Jean, and I came by to check it out. Jean is a painter and has an artistic eye and heart. She remarked that the building, the decor, and the sense that the hotel gave off was a French verve and elegance. Frankly I thought that might be a little overstated, but I gave it a husbandly shrug of the shoulders and thought to myself, What do I know?
Over the years, one of the things that has always stood out the most to me about the hotel and complex is that it represented a real break, architecturally and aesthetically, from Washington’s past—a monument to the truth that after President Kennedy’s assassination, Washington and America would be different. In some ways better, in some ways worse.
In an era when signature hotels and restaurants have become part of the expected fabric of Washington, it’s too easy to forget how pioneering the Watergate was. On a personal level, it’s hard to believe that nearly 50 years have passed since the first building opened. Hopefully a new generation of Americans can come to recognize the Kennedy Center, the Watergate Complex, and its hotel as monuments to what bold leadership and imagination can accomplish.