It’s opening night at the Watergate Hotel, and former senator Bob Dole is slouched in his wheelchair outside the ballroom sipping a Manhattan. The Beltway glamour society is checking in with typewriter-tapping Peggy Olson clones garbed in butterscotch-checkered dresses by Mad Men costume designer Janie Bryant. The crowd shuffles inside past caterers charring foie gras marshmallows over small flames, ready to nosh on roast beef and soup dumplings and drink endless flutes of champagne.
I’m dawdling next to the entrance with Julian Gilhespie, project architect at Ron Arad Architects, the London practice tasked with resuscitating the building that played a central part in one of the biggest political scandals in modern American history. High-heeled women are dressed in ball gowns and satin dresses; the men, wearing tuxedos, could just as easily be at a fundraiser for this year’s election. Gilhespie is wearing jeans. “They tried to make me put on a suit, I told them not a chance,” he jokes in between bites of Sour Patch Kid popcorn.
It’s fitting that the rock-loving Brit doesn’t fully mesh with the staid Washington, D.C., crowd. The new iteration of the Watergate is a departure from the city’s traditional take on luxury, too—just like the original was. Inside the shell of Italian architect Luigi Moretti’s curvaceous 1961 structure in Foggy Bottom, part of a mixed-use complex along the Potomac River, Arad has restored the property to its former glory and elevated it for another run. It’s the firm’s first stateside commission, one that presented numerous challenges because of the existing cast, which is protected by the National Register of Historic Places, but ultimately one that the Israeli-born architect couldn’t pass on. “The client asked, ‘What’s the attraction?’ Ron said, ‘With a name like this, you can’t say no. This is the Watergate!,’” says lead architect, Asa Bruno, over the phone from the London studio, of the initial conversation with French-Jewish owners Jacques and Rakel Cohen. As for the pressure of giving an infamous landmark a radical makeover, Bruno says that it was never a concern. “The legacy of this place is in its name, not the building or its form. We did our best to create something that is tasteful, timeless, and enduring, but the name is the thing that keeps.”
Arad is a master of sinuous lines and forms, a synergetic match to Moretti’s modernist facade. To balance out the heavy exterior with concrete balustrade balconies, the interiors were designed to be light and airy. A forest of original columns in the first-floor social spaces is camouflaged with mirror-polished stainless steel tubes that reflect ambient gold and silver hues. The lobby, lined with opaque black granite floors and timber walls, serves as a fluid gateway to multiple spaces. “The curves aid the flow—you’re not concentrating on what’s a column, what’s a wall, where’s the door, and how you got from point A to B,” Bruno says.
The Next Whisky Bar, named for the “Alabama Song” lyric made famous by The Doors, is delineated by a spiraling floor-to-ceiling glass shelf of more than 2,000 illuminated whiskey bottles with custom lipstick-red chairs by Moroso, a longtime Arad collaborator whose colorful custom furniture can also be found in the lobby, library, and restaurant, Kingbird. Gaze hard at the Nanimarquina rugs and you’ll see the tune’s famous verse clandestinely embossed on the material in Arad’s handwriting. “We wanted to create some kind of irreverent whiskey bar as the center bellybutton, a place where in hushed tones there would be discussions between senators and judges and all the Washington power players,” Bruno says. In Kingbird, coiled beehive-shaped chandeliers hang from a vaulted hand-waxed ceiling over red banquettes, ebony-stained hemlock floors, and oversized windows. “You want a release from the heaviness of the facade,” Bruno says. “A lot of reflectivity and open views of the Potomac is the way to do that.”
Cheeky nods to the hotel’s sordid past are woven into various elements: key cards that say “No need to break in”; voice recordings of Richard Nixon broadcasted into the women’s powder rooms; a phone number—617-1972—that references the date of the burglary; and branded font type that mimics period-era legal documents. The Watergate doesn’t shy away from its story, but it also hopes to recreate the mystique of pre-scandal existence, when Hollywood stars like Elizabeth Taylor hobnobbed with big-shot political players. “When Ron and I went for a first reconnaissance trip to Washington to see the existing hotel, we talked about the legacy since Nixon, the years after 1972. It went into disrepair and didn’t ever quite live up to its former glory days,” says Bruno, citing the building’s after-life as a tacky property with a Grecian motif. “That’s something Ron wanted to step away from, and go back to the language of late American modernism as Moretti had created it.”
As the party begins to wind down, I consider the irony of the Watergate’s reopening at this moment in time: an odious election season in a fraught political climate not dissimilar to the days of Tricky Dick. How strange is this campaign? One candidate, Donald Trump, will soon debut a new $200 million luxury hotel inside the venerable Old Post Office nearby. Who knows what the next nefarious national incident will be, but you can bet there will be one, and its moniker will likely have a “gate” affixed to the end. I leave the ballroom and head for the bar. If only Mark Felt could see this place now; but there’s no Deep Throat here. Just Dole over there, gulping the last of his Manhattan.