Few hotels in the world have a history as storied as the Watergate Hotel in Washington DC.
Right from the Watergate Complex opening in 1965, Italian architect Luigi Moretti’s monumental curved and modular designs had tongues wagging and opinions dividing. But that didn’t stop the hotel becoming the place to be and be seen in DC from its opening in 1967, where the rich and famous rubbed shoulders with congressmen and Supreme Court Justices who lived in the Watergate apartments next door.
Room keys and other items poke ironic fun at the hotel’s past.
All that was to change though on June 17, 1972 when five men were caught breaking into the Democratic National Committee’s HQ on the sixth floor of the Watergate office. Arrested in room 214 of the hotel where intruders E Howard Hunt and G Gordon Liddy had set up base, it was the start of President Nixon’s downfall and what remains (at the time of writing!) America’s biggest political scandal.
The inevitable and indelible notoriety didn’t help the hotel though and over the years, despite several renovations and rebrands, the Watergate lost its sheen. Until, that is, its $200million reinvention in 2016 brought back the glamour alongside a healthy sense of irony about its place in political history.
And in the current Capitol climate with Trump making huge political waves and the word ‘impeached’ being bandied around constantly in the mainstream press, it’s never felt more timely to stay.
First impressions are fantastic. The lobby is achingly cool, with clean curved lines bringing Moretti’s design aesthetic inside and into the 21st century. Deep blacks, strong reds and shiny metals are ubiquitous. A grand piano sits close to the reception desk for guests and staff to tinker on, those staff dressed in uniforms created by the costume designer for TV show Mad Men. The feeling throughout is playful but modern, relaxed without pretension, where guests can amble around in designer suits or boardshorts as the mood takes them.
The Watergate Complex consists of five huge buildings on the edge of the Foggy Bottom district, sprawled along the Potomac River just south of Georgetown. It has a surprisingly boutique feel considering its scale and is nicely placed to take advantage of the nearby riverside restaurants, bars and watersports on one side and the John F Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on the other – each a five minute stroll away. A ten-minute car (or as I preferred, bike) ride away are DC’s most famous attractions, from the White House, Lincoln and Jefferson memorials to the famous foodie haven of U Street.
Rooms and suites
The Watergate has 336 rooms, which by any standards is a lot. Many were refashioned by combining older rooms and breaking up suites to create a real variety of shapes and layouts. Rooms range in size and price from Superior up to Premier (I can never quite understand the naming conventions) before moving up to one, two and three bedroom suites, Diplomat and Presidential suites and the vast six-bedroom Diplomat Wing.
I was particularly lucky with my seventh floor corner suite commanding sweeping views over the Potomac and the vast wooded Theodore Roosevelt Island. My wakeup coffees were spent idly watching the early rowers preparing their boats before heading out for a sprint on the tranquil morning waters.
Fittings are top of the line, from the two massive TVs to the fine 300 thread count bedding and bathrobe, which is the softest and comfiest I’ve ever worn. Finished in soft greys and whites, the bespoke carpets and furniture follow the wavy line design ethic and knit the room well into its surroundings. It’s the balcony and those views that really make it for me though.
The Scandal Room
It would have been remiss not to have made something special of Room 214, now known as the Scandal Room – and the Watergate has done just that. Strictly reserved for the over 18s, stepping inside is like stepping straight into the Nixon scandal.
Decorator Lyn Paolo (the costume designer for the film Scandal), has taken period design taken to the next level. Walls are lined with commemorative pictures from the scandal including the famed Life magazine covers as well as quotes from key players (“When the President does it, that means it’s not illegal.” Thanks, Mr Nixon). The far desk is littered with period details, from the manual typewriter to the reel-to-reel tape recorder, all nicely detailed and related to the Watergate affair. Pay particular attention to those bathrobes again – unique to this room they’re adorned with a simple motif: ‘Cover Up’.
Food and drink
Undoubtedly the jewel in the Watergate’s social crown is its sprawling rooftop bar, Top of the Gate, that commands 360-degree views of the DC skyline. Open to the public as well as guests, it’s a buzzing scene from the moment it opens and attracts locals and tourists in equal measure to drink in the sunsets every bit as much as the cocktails.
I spent as much time there as is considered in good taste, getting baked in the stifling evening sun but loving the cooling Potomac breezes – until that is a huge lightning storm on my last night closed the roof and sent everyone downstairs to the Next Whisky Bar, which was no bad thing as it turned out.
Kingbird is the main restaurant. Set on the ground floor with an outside area overlooking the river, it cooks up American with a French twist – although to be honest I’m not sure what that really means nowadays. Steak tartare, oysters and foie gras are staples, which likely tells you all you need to know. Breakfasts were good if a little contrived and quite pricey ($6 extra for a cappuccino!).
Spa and wellness
As part of the 2016 refurb, the designers built a vast 7,000-foot ballroom, but sadly I didn’t bring my tux. Instead, I headed for the subterranean Argentta spa complete with gym (looked nice, didn’t go in), pool, jacuzzi, sauna and steam room. It’s a calming, quiet space that feels a world away from the hubbub only a floor or two above.
I liked the Watergate Hotel a lot. A slick operation, stylishly designed and with staff as happy and helpful as anywhere, there’s a lot that stands out. But it’s the unique approach to the Nixon scandal and the little details they’ve implement that constantly caught me by surprise and have lingered in my memory.
My room key, for example, bears a simple message on it: ‘No need to break in’. The pencil I surreptitiously placed in my bag before I left has scrawled down its side ‘I stole this from the Watergate Hotel’. Drink coasters bear tidbits of information and infamous quotes: ‘Well, I am not a crook’. Call and the hold music is Nixon speeches.
It’s a clever, knowing way of embracing and capitalizing on what happened here, and each time I caught sight of something I’d not noticed before it never failed to raise a smile on my face – which I guess is exactly the point.
Price and details
Head to The Watergate Hotel to find out more and book, with rooms starting from $300 per night including taxes.