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Watergate is a place, too

Once at the forefront of D.C. development, can the (in)famous complex adapt for a new generation?

The day after one March snowstorm that kept government workers at home, the Watergate Complex’s concrete, toothy exterior looks the same as it does every day. But inside the courtyard, behind the defensive walls that shield it from the street, visitors can see something far more affable—small snowmen dot the rolling lawns, evidence of a snow day well spent.

“There’s kids now at the Watergate,” says Dale Johnson, the owner of Watergate Gallery & Frame Design, which is located in the lower-level shops at the Washington, D.C., complex. She’s worked at the Watergate since the 1970s and established her own business there in 1986. “There used to be, and then there weren’t, and now there are again.”

The word “Watergate” has become interchangeable with scandal, the suffix -gate applied to words like “wine” or “Lewinsky” or “deflate” to mean that something has gone awry.

But to people who live in Washington, D.C., the Watergate is more than a metonym. It’s a very real place—a 10-acre complex with six buildings that look like no other in the nation’s capital. When it was built in the 1960s, it was the first mixed-use development in the District, with cooperative apartments, a fancy hotel, offices, a supermarket, a post office, a florist, a liquor store, and more. As politicians and other movers and shakers flocked to it, the Watergate quickly became synonymous with glamour and exclusivity.

Now, nearly every press release announcing new construction in D.C. includes the words “mixed-use development,” many of the retail spaces once filled with luxury goods lie vacant, and you’re more likely to find administration officials at the Trump International Hotel. Where does that leave the Watergate?

Joseph Rodota, author of The Watergate: Inside America’s Most Infamous Address, likens the building complex to “an aging celebrity. It almost feels like an elegant Italian movie star brought to life.”

Prior to becoming a “city within a city” on the banks of the Potomac, the 10 acres of property served as a Washington Gas Light Company manufacturing plant, one of the many industrial outposts in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood.

The look and the odor of the gas tanks made the site unseemly to many American developers, but Italian construction firm Società Generale Immobiliare saw promise in the waterfront location. SGI purchased the land for $10 million, in a deal considered one of the first major foreign investments in U.S. real estate, and picked Italian architect Luigi Moretti to design the complex.

One of Moretti’s inspirations was the curvy 1959 design for the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, which was then called the National Cultural Center. (When it was finally built, cost-cutting measures changed the Kennedy Center plan to the rectangular form that we see today, which architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable called “a cross between a concrete candy box and a marble sarcophagus in which the art of architecture lies buried”). Moretti, who insisted on hand-drawing the curves in his designs, felt the Watergate’s unique shape would maximize waterfront views.

SGI spent four years working to get approval for the ambitious undertaking. While city officials were largely on board with the plan to develop the otherwise vacant plot of land, developers tussled with the National Capital Planning Commission and other agencies charged with approving buildings in D.C. Of particular concern was the Watergate’s height—NCPC members feared the complex would overshadow the Lincoln Memorial. Later, after the Kennedy Center was completed, its relative height became an issue, too.

Watergate East, the first building in the complex, opened in October 1965, at a moment when Washington, D.C., was seeing a population decline. From its zenith of 800,000 residents in 1950, the city’s population had fallen to about 760,000 by 1960. Realtors for the Watergate sought to reverse that trend by targeting women.

“It was you, the wives of America, rather than the men in the family, who decided that the congestion, noise, and disorder of the cities could no longer be tolerated,” said Harold Lewis, president of Riverview Realty Corp., which was in charge of sales and management for the Watergate, at a luncheon in 1965. But “suburbia didn’t answer the promises we looked for.”

Instead, he argued, the Watergate’s “city within a city” formulation offered the best of both worlds. It had all of the conveniences and amenities of urban living, like getting to grocery shop and head to the post office on foot, as well as proximity to work and transit—the complex is a 10-minute drive from National Airport and a short walk to the White House and the State Department. But the complex is also 55 percent outdoor space, with the perceived safety of the suburbs.

“Urban architecture in the 1960s was often synonymous with defensive architecture,” says G. Martin Moeller, editor of ArchitectureDC magazine and senior curator at the National Building Museum. “It’s emblematic of that broad idea that people wanted enclaves, people wanted security. It is a remnant of the era in which all design was moving toward greater and greater car orientation.”

While Moeller is a fan of the complex’s design, he finds the distinctive railings odd. “Whenever I see them, I think of The Flintstones,” he says. “They’re bulky, chunky things that look like dinosaur teeth.”

Starting prices for the Watergate East, the first residential building to open in 1965, ranged from $17,500 for an efficiency to more than $200,000 for a penthouse (or about $133,337 and $1.5 million, respectively, when adjusted for inflation). The following year, the Watergate Shopping Mall opened, featuring a Safeway, a Peoples Drug Store, and other amenities. Brochures referred to it as a “charming European-style arcade” featuring some of Washington’s “finest shops.”

The hotel portion of the Watergate opened in 1967—on the same day as the Watergate Office Building, later to achieve infamy owing to one of its tenants, the Democratic National Committee.

“A lot of the people from the Kennedy Center, like Lucille Ball, would be staying at the hotel when they were doing a production,” says Gigi Winston.

Both of Winston’s parents worked at the Watergate: Her mother was employed by the developer, Giuseppe Cecchi, and her father, Henry Winston, was the original leasing agent for the property. He saved all of the newspaper clippings about the complex in a scrapbook that she still has.

Life magazine proclaimed in a 1969 headline that “In Washington, it used to be Georgetown. Now it’s Watergate—just everyone lives there.” The magazine profiled the typical resident as “aged about 50 and arrives with more dogs than children.”

Amid photos of Senator Jacob Javits diving into the Watergate West pool (each apartment building had its own outdoor pool, an unheard-of luxury at that time) and Martha Mitchell and Kathleen Stans, the wives of the attorney general and then-secretary of commerce, both of whom had a part to play in the forthcoming scandal, sitting at the hair salon, the article says that “Membership in Watergate, which presently includes (on the G.O.P. side alone) three Cabinet members, two senators, Nixon’s chief of protocol and more than a dozen White House aides, is sharply restricted both socially and financially.”

The residents, many of whom were already of a similar social and professional status, soon had reason to band together. After the complex’s first four buildings were completed, the planning commission objected to the final building’s size and wanted it used to house commercial rather than residential properties. What followed was one of Watergate residents’ first exercises in NIMBYism.

According to Rodota’s The Watergate, more than 150 Watergate East residents showed up to a District Zoning Commission hearing to testify against the change, including Wayne Morse, a Democratic senator from Washington.

Rodota says that the residents of the Watergate “are these people who are highly skilled politically. These are ambassadors, politicians, people who really know how things work, and during the day they’re working very big national problems, but they also have this other life—their building problems.”

Ultimately, the parties reached a compromise: The one building would be turned into two, and they’d be smaller than the initial plan.

Rodota compares the complex to “Washington’s freshman dorm—it’s part fishbowl and part pressure cooker. You have all these power hitters and they’ve consciously decided, ‘I’m not going live in the suburbs, I’m not going to live in the Georgetown, I’m going to be in the center of the action.’”

In one memorable scene from his book, Republican Senator Ed Brooke met with President Richard Nixon at the White House with other GOP senators shortly after the Saturday Night Massacre. Brooke told Nixon to step down because he had “lost the trust and faith of the American people.”

Brooke came home to his apartment in Watergate East, where Rose Mary Woods (Nixon’s secretary and herself the victim of an unrelated jewelry heist at the complex) knocked on his door so that she could curse him out.

But it wasn’t all confrontation. Winston remembers that the complex had a “real sense of community—you’d see your neighbors at Sunday brunch at the hotel, and run into them at the salon or barbershop. There was the uniqueness of seeing your friends at the pool.”

One of the most iconic residents of the complex, Anna Chennault, famously hosted dinner parties there that made her “one of the ultimate connectors in Washington,” says Rodota. She purchased her 14th-floor Watergate East apartment before the building opened and died in her penthouse at age 94 at the end of March 2018.

The complex’s reputation continued to grow. In 1972, Les Champs opened. Unlike the Watergate Shopping Mall, which focused more on amenities for residents, the $1 million shopping mall was at the street level and included designer stores like Yves Saint Laurent and Gucci, alongside Mobilia (“More Scandinavian mobiles than you ever thought existed”) and the Red Balloon (“Unusual playthings for alert children and precocious grownups”), as well as shops selling imported goods and gifts from Uruguay, Pakistan, and more.

“The retail stores were all fancy and brought all the fancy people,” says Johnson, the owner of Watergate Gallery & Frame Design. “The salespeople always dressed like models.”

The break-in at the Democratic National Committee offices in 1972 kickstarted the scandal that would end the Nixon presidency. It brought the press and a bevy of tourists to the complex, and it made “Watergate” a household name.

“There were some misconceptions, but it was great for business, of course,” says Winston, who now lives in Watergate South. She took over her father’s business, Winston Real Estate, and sells apartments in the Watergate Complex. She estimates she’s sold about 40 per year over the past 28 years, including Rose Mary Woods’s. “What it did to real estate—it definitely put it on the map.”

And in 1979, Watergate scored a different kind of coup: bringing acclaimed French chef Jean-Louis Palladin not just to the United States, but to D.C., then a culinary backwater, to open a restaurant at the hotel.

By the time Ronald Reagan took office, swank replaced scandal at the complex, which became “the unofficial headquarters for Republican partying,” the Washington Post wrote in 1981.

Longtime residents noticed. Victor Lasky, an author who had lived at the Watergate for 11 years by 1981, told the Post he had observed “an increase in parties. The girls do wear fancy things now. They do look better.” He called the new folks “the Gucci-coochi-cost-too-moochi group. It’s that Beverly Hills crowd, the Rodeo Drive crowd. It’s a different world out there.”

Claudia Buttaro-Pfeffer, the vice president of the Watergate Salon, which her parents opened in 1966, remembers the Reagan years as an exciting time. “There were all these glamorous people and they always had balls to go to.” The salon still has chandeliers and the kidney-bean couches that are so common throughout the Watergate—its versions are leopard print.

Johnson says that when she took over the framing business in 1986, she also inherited some “serious debt.” It was resolved in emblematic fashion. There was “a woman who lived here and her apartment was like Versailles,” Johnson remembers. “She did all those gold Louis XIV frames and she bought all these paintings from Paris—like the Arc de Triomphe in the rain—and she put them in these ridiculously expensive frames. It got me out of debt.”

In the 1990s, the buildings were sold off separately. Palladin closed his restaurant at the hotel in 1996. Shortly after that, the Watergate brushed with scandal yet again—Monica Lewinsky was staying at her mother’s apartment in Watergate South when news broke of her affair with President Bill Clinton.

While the complex continued to attract tenants in media and politics, with Condoleezza Rice living there early in George W. Bush’s administration and Atlantic Media relocating to Watergate offices, it also began to draw in a less attention-seeking crowd.

In 2006, Gayley Knight and her husband purchased a penthouse apartment in Watergate East and spent two years renovating it before moving in. “I need to be near the water, and it was time for our house in the suburbs to be enjoyed by someone with children,” she says. “Most people move here as a sort of downsizing or a pied-a-terre in Washington.

“There is a sort of tacit understanding, at least in Watergate East, that your privacy is your privacy,” she says. “Just because you lived here during the scandal or lived here during Condoleezza Rice or know Justice Ginsburg, doesn’t mean you talk about them.”

Knight helped compile a remembrance for the 50th anniversary of the complex in 2015. However, her time at the complex has coincided with some of its more challenging years for business owners. In 2007, after years of neglect, the Watergate Hotel closed. “There was a domino effect,” says Buttaro-Pfeffer.

Johnson agrees that having a large vacant building on the property was difficult, and the economic downturn didn’t help. “The recession was hard,” she says. “I wondered if I was going to be able to stay open.”

Safeway closed its Watergate location in 2011, as part of a strategy to shutter its older, smaller outposts. By that time, Foggy Bottom already had a Whole Foods less than half a mile away, but residents would have to trek out of the complex to shop for their groceries. It meant that fewer people would be coming into the lower levels of the mall, even though a CVS filled the vacancy.

As all of this was happening, D.C. was reversing its population decline. For the first time since 1950, the city saw more people move in rather than out over the 2000-2010 decade. Other parts of Washington, many of which were destroyed in the 1968 riots, were being built up. Much of the new construction billed itself as “mixed-use development,” only the design reflected a more open, integrated attitude toward the neighborhood.

“Watergate’s not the brand-new place” anymore, says Rodota. “New places are opening up and attracting people who want the modern mixed-use lifestyle that the Watergate offered in 1965.” Still, he says there’s “this sense that the Watergate could be headed into an interesting new phase, and could have some very good days ahead of it,” in large part because of the renewal of the Watergate Hotel.

After purchasing the Watergate Hotel at an auction in 2010, New York couple Jacques and Rakel Cohen spent six years and $125 million renovating the building. (That figure has since risen to $200 million after a spa renovation.) In 2016, the Watergate Hotel reopened with 336 guest rooms and suites. Unlike when the hotel first opened as one of few luxury accommodations of its kind, 14 other hotels were slated to open in D.C. that year.

“This is the Watergate renaissance—the emergence out of the dark ages,” says Jeff David, managing director of the Watergate Hotel. “We’re the only new thing that’s happened to the complex in decades … it’s still coming out of depression mode.”

The hotel relishes the infamy of its namesake. “YOUR SCANDAL STARTS NOW,” says the Wi-Fi screen when a guest’s computer connects. The room keys read, “No need to break in.”

The hotel does tours of what’s now called room 205 (originally room 214), where G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt were listening in on the DNC. The room is decorated with framed front pages from Nixon’s resignation and other key moments, along with a typewriter, a rolodex, and other period-appropriate accoutrements.

Initially, David says, the plan was to keep the room solely for tours, but too many guests were willing to pay premium rates to stay there overnight. He says the hotel walks a “tightrope between the kitschiness of a theme park and the sophistication of a luxury hotel.”

Renewed interest in the Watergate scandal has helped, too. “Ever since Trump fired Comey, we’ve been all over [search engine optimization].”

David says the customers are reflective of the Washington, D.C., hotel business more broadly: a lot of corporate and business travelers, diplomats and embassy workers, tourists (especially during the summer), and university business, due to the nearby George Washington University. On a March day, the lobby is filled with security personnel in suits, each with an earpiece.

A bar on the roof, which boasts a view of the Potomac, brings regulars as well as guests, and David wants the now-completed spa to do the same. His challenge? The original spa “was the most exclusive private health club in D.C.” And though the hotel plans to launch a membership program, it will compete with the many gyms and fitness centers that have established themselves in the city.

Currently, prices to purchase apartments at the Watergate range from $300,000 for a studio to about $4.2 million for some of the penthouses, says Winston. Very few of the 650 units are rentals, because that would increase taxes on owners in the co-op. The internet has helped Winston reach customers who might assume that the complex only offers apartments in the million-dollar range. Each unit has a slightly different layout, boasting views of the river or the city.

Watergate East is in the midst of renovating its lobby. Watergate West recently completed a remodel of its lobby, and South did the same shortly before that. A sign outside the 600 New Hampshire Avenue office building promises “renovations coming soon.”

Winston thinks the best years of the Watergate are still to come. “There’s more condos [in D.C.] now, but there’s also a lot more people that are moving to condos and co-ops. There’s more demand than supply out there,” she says. “For me, as a realtor, the location is still prime because no new condos can have this location, the balconies, the floor-to-ceiling windows.”

Buttaro-Pfeffer, of the Watergate Salon, says that “hairdressers don’t want to come here, because they think it’s old. You’d think it’s all old people but it really isn’t. We’re getting some young people with kids. The older generation that’s been here—there’s very few left.”

And now, amid some of the empty storefronts, a child care center is opening up on the lower level.

Rachel Kurzius is the associate editor at DCist, where she aims to amuse readers as frequently as she makes them indignant with stories about their community.

Editor: Sara Polsky


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