This week, the Watergate Hotel went up for auction and, despite its enduring notoriety as the site of the June 1972 break-in that ultimately brought down Richard Nixon’s presidency, found no takers – at least for the moment. (The development corporation that owned the hotel planned to convert it into condominiums last year, in partnership with Lehman Brothers, but the collapse of the latter firm and the ensuing recession terminated this plan.)
Quite a number of news stories have appeared about the hotel in recent weeks because it’s on the block, but today’s Toronto Globe and Mail has the most elegantly written and fascinating story I’ve seen so far. In recent years, the Watergate has become mainly known as the residence of very well-established Beltway figures, often on the elderly side, such as former Sen. Bob Dole, the late Robert McNamara, and the late Ralph De Toledano.
There are also some efficiencies occupied by people whose work sometimes brings them to Washington, such as Placido Domingo. But in its earliest years, before the break-in connected the Watergate forever to a particular period in American history, it was quite the glitzy and glamorous place – even attaining the ultimate in DC prestige by hosting movie stars like Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Ingrid Bergman. The article’s opening paragraphs describe an aura still hinted at even in the somewhat musty atmosphere of the present Watergate:
In better days, when beautiful people decorated the restaurant and yet-to-be infamous burglars skulked in the hallways, the Watergate Hotel was all about class. The black-and-white Italian marble floor in the lobby gleamed. Bouquets of fresh flowers blossomed by a grand entrance. The rooms, including 13 presidential suites, offered exclusive views of the Potomac River.
The caviar came on demand. “Everything you need or want at your fingertips (the one you use to ring for the elevator),” boasted an early brochure for the Watergate complex, a boomerang layout of apartments and office buildings, shops and swimming pools with the hotel as the hub. The Washington Post called it, in 1970, the “snob appeal” complex, a cachet exaggerated only by its future scandals and spilled secrets.