After hotel renovation, Watergate owners hope for a breakthrough

At the new Watergate Hotel, guests will be reminded to 'make sure your recorder is off'

The suffix "gate" has been slapped on so many scandals and faux scandals — closed turnpike lanes, presidential haircuts, deflated footballs, to name a few — that it can be easy to forget there is an actual place that started it all: the Watergate.

In recent years, this six-building complex of undulating apartment buildings, retail stores and offices — including one that housed the Democratic National Committee, broken into by Republican operatives in 1972 in a scandal that would claim a president — has lost some of its former sheen, most notably with the decay and closure eight years ago of the once-glamorous Watergate Hotel.

Now, a developer is nearing completion on a $125-million renovation of the hotel, with a big winking nod to the property's notorious past. The whiskey bar will stock small-batch brands suitable for cutting deals in hushed tones from within dark booths. The desk clerks will wear midcentury uniforms with wide checks and bold lines sketched by the costume designer for "Mad Men." Guests will be reminded to "make sure your recorder is off," advice Richard Nixon might well have heeded.

Developers say they are working out plans for other sly references. Perhaps a room in the hotel named for the site of the break-in, which occurred in the office tower next door?

Despite the subtlety, it may be the closest Washington gets to a theme park version of "All the President's Men," a book and movie based on the incident.

"I know that Americans look at the scandal as not something nice. But we're trying to bring it in a delicate way and in a fun way," said Rakel Cohen, the Canadian-bred director of design and development for Euro Capital Properties, which owns the building.

Janie Bryant, the uniform designer, said she watched "All The President's Men" regularly, but that she was working to evoke "the elegance and the glamour of the hotel" rather than the politicians who made it infamous.

The developers plan to open this summer. Teams of workers were still pouring cement and banging through dusty unfinished interiors on a recent morning. A tour of the 12th-floor rooftop, slated to become an outdoor bar, offered wind-swept views of the Pentagon, the Washington Monument, the National Cathedral and the Kennedy Center, which is next door. Most of the rooms will have a good view of the Potomac River, which flows alongside the property.

From its inception in the 1960s and '70s, the Watergate has embraced controversy. Architect Luigi Moretti's curvilinear modern design, now protected by the National Register of Historic Places, was polarizing. (The hotel renovation does not disturb the exterior, but embraces those curves inside with a long-flowing concierge desk, edged metal wall coverings and biomorphic furniture.)

Co-op condo units in the three residential buildings initially had trouble selling, and business was slow in the adjacent retail stores, according to longtime business owners. Everything changed with the fall of President Nixon, who left office in 1974 after an extended constitutional battle.

"That threw us into the world. People did not know what was the Watergate. Maybe they thought it was a statue," said Tina Winston, an original resident still living there and former owner of a French boutique in the complex.

They found the place, sometimes in tour buses.

"People came from all over to take pictures," Winston said.

Winston ordered silk scarves emblazoned with the name "Watergate" for patrons of her boutique. The former liquor store sold "Watergate bug juice," recalled her daughter Gigi, now the primary real estate agent for co-op owners.

Tina Winston's husband, Henry, who served as the complex's general manager in the 1970s and 1980s, even preserved one of the entry doors to the office building, hiding it in a storeroom for posterity. It disappeared, his daughter recalled, and later turned up at the Newseum, a museum in Washington that celebrates the history of journalism.

The scandal also ushered in a new era of glamour. Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman came to film "All the President's Men." Rosemary Clooney, Luciano Pavarotti and Peter Falk had their hair styled at the Watergate Salon when performing at the Kennedy Center.

The connection to scandal surfaced again in the 1990s, when Monica Lewinsky stayed in her mother's condo while hiding from the media horde that was eager for details of her affair with President Clinton.

And last month even featured a cameo by William Kennedy Smith, acquitted of rape in Florida in the 1990s in one of the first televised celebrity trials. He showed up at a ceremony to mark a construction milestone for the hotel project. Smith won a seat on a neighborhood board last year and represents residents.

Prominent people such as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg continue to call the Watergate home, and condo units now sell for six and seven figures. But despite renovations, there's a sense it has aged. The white plaster facade on the buildings is wearing and chipping.

After the hotel closed, many of the flashy retail stores departed, as did the Safeway grocery store that many of the residents relied upon.

"It was a domino effect," said Claudia Buttaro-Pfeffer, owner of the Watergate Salon, which her parents opened in the 1960s.

The Howard Johnson across the street, where G. Gordon Liddy and other Watergate burglars monitored Democrats' phones, was bought and converted into a dorm by George Washington University in 2000. It closed a year ago for renovation. Never an aesthetic attraction, it's now a construction site.

"The fame and notoriety and all of this is kind of dying off," said Marija Hughes, a 76-year-old resident who was walking the grounds on a recent afternoon with a pair of shopping bags. "The people who were something when we were young are here. But they're retired and getting older."

Still, she and others believe the hotel's revival will make it feel vibrant again.

"This area, it was a wonder when it was built," she said. "It still is — magnificent buildings."

Twitter: @noahbierman

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