WASHINGTON, D.C. — There are two things about the Watergate Hotel that cannot be undone. First and foremost is the memory of burglaries and bugging. Unless you failed junior high history class (for shame!), you know that the Watergate Complex was where officials from Richard Nixon’s administration orchestrated a break-in of the Democratic National Committee headquarters in 1972.
Hotels and infamous thefts are never a particularly strong combination, which might explain why the hotel fell upon hard times years later.
The other potential drawback is the building’s architecture. Depending on your taste, the sprawling Watergate Complex, which was built between 1962 and 1971, either looks like a masterpiece of 1960s design, or a sinuous concrete spaceship designed by “Brady Bunch” patriarch Mike Brady.
Knowing that the scandalous reputation and the divisive architecture couldn’t be changed, the owners of the newly-reopened Watergate Hotel smartly embraced both elements in the most joyous, swanky, and humorous ways possible. The cheeky room key cards say “No need to break in.” The voice of Nixon can be heard in the public bathrooms and provides the soundtrack for the hotel phone system — which takes its number, 617-1972, from June 17, 1972, the day the burglary occurred.
But where the Watergate Hotel excels is interior design. Israeli architect Ron Arad took what was a decaying victim of too many 1980s renovations and restored its interiors to their full mid-century splendor. It’s not a slavish copy of the era. You never feel as if you’ve wandered onto the set of “Family Affair” or “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father,” (Google those references, kids). The new Watergate is a gorgeous, $200 million modern reimagining of the 1960s.
Arad admitted that he was initially drawn to the project because of the 1972 scandal, but the end product shows his love for architect Luigi Moretti’s original design.
“It is fantastic that this starting point led us to work on a project that also has such a great architectural legacy,” Arad said in a statement. The hotel was placed on the National Register of Historic Buildings in 2005.
Moretti’s undulating architecture serves as the backbone of the new Watergate Hotel, which reopened in June after being shuttered for almost a decade. Guests are welcomed at a 46-foot brass reception desk. Lobby and restaurant furniture was custom-designed for the hotel. The repeating curves are in the light fixtures, the seating, and particularly The Next Whisky Bar, which you enter through a ceiling-high circular labyrinth of 2,500 illuminated whiskey bottles.
And just in case you somehow missed all of the reinvented midcentury splendor, the staff’s uniforms were designed by “Mad Men” costumer Janie Bryant. The pattern and color of the dresses, jackets, and ties recall what flight attendants might have worn back when smoking was de rigueur on airplanes.
“I knew I wasn’t designing for a film or a television show,” Bryant told me last year when I interviewed her about the Watergate. “It is in a modern period, and a modern setting. It was more about the inspiration of the 1950s and the 1960s rather than replicating that look. It’s not a period show. It’s a modern, luxury hotel. It’s just taking little bits of inspiration from the past. I’m doing my part to bring glamour and luxury back to travel.”
The building’s circular shape isn’t always an asset. I loved my room, which had a terrace that looked out onto the Potomac River, but it also had a fair amount of dead space. There wasn’t much that could be done with a tight corner dominated by a large pillar, or a narrow alley along a row of windows that led to nowhere. Or perhaps I’m searching too hard for function over form. I’ll stop there because everything else about the room was spot-on, right down to the modernist wardrobe and a light fixture straight out of 1968.
Thankfully the amenities and food were not from 1968, or 1972. I can’t think of a single guest who would willingly call room service to order tomato aspic or chicken à la king. The emphasis at the hotel’s signature restaurant Kingbird is seasonal and hearty dishes such as Alaskan salmon and bone-in strip loin.
The Watergate Hotel has a historic gimmick for getting guests in the door. Trust me, it’s fun to tell friends you’ve stayed at the Watergate. But this luxury property has more to entice guests to stay than a checkered past and 2,500 bottles of illuminated whiskey.
THE WATERGATE HOTEL 2650 Virginia Ave NW, www.thewatergatehotel, 1-844-617-1972. Rooms starting at $425.