In a city that is literally defined by its grandiose sweep of fin de siècle political architecture, it’s a little ironic that one of Washington D.C.’s most high-profile piles is the Watergate hotel. Built in 1961 by the Italian architect Luigi Moretti, the building achieved its enduring fame over a decade later, not for any highly parsed expression of democracy and liberty, but for the astonishing imbroglio that toppled Richard Nixon’s presidency.
For a while, the hotel traded happily on its association with America’s greatest political scandal, but by the time it closed in 2007, few would have bet against its eventual demolition.
New York real estate developers Rakel and Jacques Cohen, however, saw potential. And indeed, it was hard not to. For starters, Moretti had designed the building with almost no continuous straight lines – a sleight of hand that invests its silhouette with an unusually fluid motion and dramatic quality that is entirely in keeping with its location on the edge of the Potomac River. The Cohens snapped up the property for $45m in 2010 and over the next five years, sunk in another $125m for the renovations by Wallpaper* favourite, Ron Arad.
The London-based designer’s mood board for the lobby and public spaces – sculptural metal work, a 46-foot long brass reception desk, black granite, enormous chandeliers, polished stainless steel tubed installations – taps straight into the Watergate’s storied architectural and political legacy. ‘We have tried to enhance Moretti’s original curves,’ Arad says. ‘You can’t ignore the context, but at the same time, you don’t want to mimic it.’
Meanwhile, almost every one of the 337 rooms – furnished by the hotel’s in-house team in Zebrano marble, black granite, and silver-grey carpet – looks over the Potomac, though the poll position is taken by the rooftop lounge from which unfolds a 360-degree panorama of Washington D.C., and the slender spire of the Washington Monument.
And in an inspired move, Janie Bryant, the celebrated costume designer for the ‘Mad Men’ TV series was tapped to kit out the staff in black topcoat and pants with gold camel piping for the doormen, A-line dresses for the front desk and concierge, and four-button windowpane patterned suits for the whisky bartenders.