Senior vice president of design and development for New York-based Euro Capital Properties, Rakel Cohen designed the Watergate Hotel’s 7,000-square-foot Moretti Grand Ballroom herself, the stylish young woman tells an interviewer. After purchasing the shuttered property in 2010 for $45 million in cash, Euro Capital, founded by Rakel’s husband Jacques, put in about $125 million more and reopened the hotel last spring.
The ballroom is uniquely striking, with fabric and marble in shades of gray and a ceiling like a starlit night.
Where did she learn about design? She doesn’t know, maybe from her father. It’s “in my blood,” she says. At the University of Maryland, Cohen studied not design, but finance and marketing. “I didn’t feel that I need to study something that I’m good at already.”
Raised in Montreal, she speaks with a French accent, sometimes searching for an English word. She and her husband, scion of a French real-estate empire, live on New York’s Upper West Side. They have four sons and two daughters, the youngest a-nine-month-old girl and the eldest a 10-year-old boy. The children speak French at home and English at school. She likes how American education is “all based on positive,” telling children that “it’s going great, you’re great.”
The Cohens are strictly observant Jews; Rakel apologizes for not shaking hands with the interviewer or the photographer, both males.
Choosing a designer for the public spaces was a “very tricky process,” she says. “No one had this language that we felt would really reflect the exterior.” Israeli-born and London-based, industrial designer and architect Ron Arad studied with Luigi Moretti, the chief Watergate architect. In Arad’s designs, Cohen points outs, there is “nothing not curved.”
Moretti’s ruggedly curvilinear Watergate complex was meant to respond to the features of its site: the Potomac riverfront and, along it, the Inner Loop Expressway that never replaced the Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway. The National Cultural Center, which became the Kennedy Center, was supposed to have curves, too, but for budgetary reasons ended up shaped like a shirt box.
“Everything kind of has a feeling of floating,” says Cohen. In the lobby, around the spiral staircase, one might be on an ocean liner (the hotel was in fact managed and renovated by Cunard at one point). The guest rooms, more than 90 percent of which have river views, have fixtures and furnishings like those on a yacht. In addition to the standard rooms and suites, there are six diplomatic suites and two presidential suites, which go for about $12,000 per night.
The rooftop bar, Top of the Gate, was an immediate hit. “We are getting like 400 people there,” says Cohen. Recently opened are chef Michael Santoro’s Kingbird, the hotel’s fine-dining restaurant, which focuses on “ingredient-driven American cuisine, with a uniquely French twist,” and Argentta, a 12,500-square-foot spa and wellness center offering three skin and body care lines.
What does the term ‘lifestyle hotel’ mean to her? “Where you have energy in a place,” she says. “Four Seasons is luxury, W is lifestyle. We’re combining both of them.”
All these custom curves, sensitive gradations and fine materials didn’t come cheap. “We spend $2 million just on the whiskey bar, $2 million on just the front desk,” says Cohen. Quoting Jim Morrison quoting Bertolt Brecht, the Next Whisky Bar off the lobby was designed by Arad with curving walls constructed of 2,500 illuminated — and full — bottles of whisky.
Not to mention that ballroom. Referring to the hotel’s 50-foot indoor pool, framed by mosaic tile, Cohen says: “We could have done the [expanded] ballroom there.” But one of the goals was to keep as many of the hotel’s original features as possible. The pool became part of Argentta and the ballroom ceiling was instead raised seven feet, requiring some heavy-duty re-landscaping. The new pre-function space has natural light and looks out on green walkways.
From the start, the Watergate landscaping was one of the complex’s distinctive features. The five buildings are arrayed on 10 acres, two-thirds of which are open. Tiered with planters, fountains and a second swimming pool, the grounds were designed by Boris Timchenko, who also worked on the National Geographic Society headquarters, the Washington Hilton and Jackie Kennedy’s Georgetown garden.
Master-planned,“starchitect”-designed, mixed-use developments still make news, but this modernistic, self-contained community on the Potomac was a shock to Washington. Announced in October of 1960, the Watergate project faced a tortuous approval process. It was almost three years before ground was broken, in August of 1963, and it took more than seven years for construction to be completed.
Its History, More Than a Political Scandal
The break-ins (there were actually two), the cover up, Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting, the impeachment proceedings and President Richard M. Nixon’s resignation — what the world calls ‘Watergate’ — took place between 1972 and 1974. But the geographic designation has a much longer history.
There actually was a water gate, where the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal met the Potomac. After the canal’s demise, beginning in 1935, concerts were performed on a floating stage facing the stone steps where dignitaries arriving by boat were meant to be welcomed. In the 1940s, a restaurant, the Water Gate Inn, began a run of about 20 years.
The Washington Gas Light Company had its gas works along the Potomac on the site from the mid-19th century through the late 1940s. In the 1950s, the World Bank was considering the property, including the frontage where the Kennedy Center later went up, for its headquarters. But early in 1960, the site of the future Watergate was purchased for $10 million by Società Generale Immobiliare (SGI), a corporation based in Rome. SGI’s ties to the Vatican led to protests; the Holy See sold back its share in 1969.
The planning team included SGI’s chief architect Gábor Ács (who seems to be still alive at age 89 or 90); Moretti, a Royal School of Architecture graduate who designed buildings for Mussolini and was involved in urban design throughout his career; and Milton Fischer of D.C. firm Corning, Moore, Elmore and Fischer.
SGI’s project manager was Giuseppe Cecchi, who relocated from Milan. Then in his 30s, Cecchi formed his own company, International Developers Inc. (IDI), in 1975. He is still president and CEO of the IDI Group Companies, headquartered above the Rosslyn, Virginia, Metro station. The company has developed roughly 14,000 condos (including those at Leisure World of Virginia), nearly 3 million square feet of office space and three hotels. Cecchi’s son John and his wife Kristin, who cochaired the Georgetown Gala, launched IDI Residential in 2008.
The actual builder of the Watergate was Magazine Brothers Construction Corp., the company that built the Georgetown Inn, which opened in 1962.
During the permitting process for the overall design and the individual buildings, much was questioned, disputed and negotiated: the architectural style, the bulk, height and density, the obstruction of views, the office-residential mix. Later came lawsuits from residents concerning the quality of the mechanical systems and construction (there were leaks) and, thanks to Attorney General John Mitchell having a Watergate address, a protest following the 1970 Chicago Seven verdict.
The first completed building, in May of 1965, was Watergate East, 2500 Virginia Avenue. Its 238 coop apartments began to be occupied that October. Soon after, the retail space filled up, offering, among other amenities, a post office, a bank, a florist, a liquor store, a Safeway and a Peoples Drug.
The hotel and its connected office building came next, opening March 30, 1967. On the top floor was a restaurant, the Roman Terrace (Italian, naturalmente). Fatefully, one of the original office tenants was the Democratic National Committee, occupying the entire sixth floor.
To run the hotel, Cecchi brought in Gabor Olah de Garab, who escaped to Italy from Soviet-occupied Hungary in 1948. After studying hotel management in Lausanne, Switzerland, and working at Italian luxury hotels, Olah de Garab was the Watergate Hotel’s general manager for 18 years. He later retired to Cecchi’s Leisure World and died in 2014, age 89.
All five pieces fell into place early in 1971 when the last building, 600 New Hampshire Ave. NW, containing offices, was completed. In October of the following year, Les Champs, a cluster of more than two dozen luxury boutiques including Gucci and Yves St. Laurent, made its entrance.
The scene was set for the downfall of Nixon and his “Republican Bastille,” as the Watergate had become known. Beginning with Republican Party fundraiser Anna Chennault, widow of World War II General Claire Chennault, several Nixon administration officials became Watergate residents, notably Mitchell, Secretary of Commerce Maurice Stans, Secretary of Transportation John Volpe, Republican National Committee Chairman Bob Dole, Nixon speechwriter Victor Lasky and Nixon’s personal secretary Rose Mary Woods of tape-erasing fame, whose apartment was burglarized in 1969.
The initial break-in by Committee to Re-Elect the President operatives came on May 28, 1972, when DNC phones were bugged, then monitored from the Howard Johnson’s Motor Lodge across Virginia Avenue. During a June 17 follow-up break-in, the burglars, who had rented two rooms in the Watergate Hotel, were arrested.
In the early 1980s, the complex recovered from its Nixonian notoriety as President Ronald Reagan’s White House West, stomping grounds for “the Group,” an inner circle of Reagan’s California fundraisers and advisors. Among the members were State Department Chief of Protocol Lee Annenberg and her businessman husband Walter, U.S. Information Agency Director Charles Wick and Nancy Reagan’s friend Betsy Bloomindale and her husband Alfred.
The Group frequented Jean-Louis, chef Jean-Louis Palladin’s restaurant, which had opened in 1979, bringing the city some serious culinary recognition. When Palladin died of lung cancer in 2001, his New York Times obituary said: “Chefs and food lovers from around the world would take the walk from the Watergate lobby through a corridor lined with wine bottles to Jean-Louis. In the small dining room, where the amber walls exuded warmth and elegance, they would scan the short menu, written each morning by Mr. Palladin himself.” The Washington Post obit, headlined “Jean-Louis Palladin, Watergate Chef, Dies,” mentioned the restaurant’s wine cellar of more than 60,000 bottles and its relatively low profitability of less than $50,000 per year, which led to its closing in 1996.
All in all, there are about 600 units in the Watergate’s three residential buildings, East, West and South. Among the famous residents other than those mentioned elsewhere have been Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Alan Greenspan, Russell Long, Clare Boothe Luce, Robert McNamara, Paul O’Neill, Condoleezza Rice, Mstislav Rostropovich, Ben Stein, Herbert Stein and John Warner and Elizabeth Taylor. And Monica Lewinsky’s mother, Marcia.
Photographer Philip Bermingham, who has lived there since the late 1990s, calls it “either the safest pace in the world or the most dangerous place in the world,” given the presence of, for example, the Doles, Rice, Madeleine Albright and Caspar Weinberger, along with the nearby Saudi Embassy. When Plácido Domingo was artistic director of Washington National Opera, he would joke to Bermingham, “Neighbor, can I give you a ride [to the Kennedy Center] in my limo?”
Return of 1960s Glamour
The Watergate Hotel closed Aug. 1, 2007, for a renovation by Monument Realty that — due to the 2008 collapse of Lehman Brothers — never got underway. (Earlier, when the developer sought to convert the hotel to coop apartments, residents in the other buildings were opposed.) After an auction with no takers, a failed bid by Monument to repurchase the hotel and a winning bid that collapsed, all in 2009, Euro Capital Properties made its move the following year.
Overseen by architect Bahram Kamali of BBGM and Grunley Construction, the renovation by Euro Capital completely replaced the systems, increased the number of guest rooms to 336 and reconfigured the public and meeting spaces. Much of the original architecture was preserved, not only for aesthetic purposes, but because the entire complex was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2005.
The goal of the hotel’s redesign was to return to the pre-Watergate Watergate, so to speak, while also incorporating playful references to the “All the President’s Men” era (the toll-free phone number 844-617-1972, key cards that read “No need to break in,” Nixon’s voice in the bathrooms).
The lobby colors are bold, with a lot of red. “This is the color of the ’60s,” says Cohen. “I didn’t want the kitchy ’60s, but very, very elegant.” The scent, too, is red: Red Flower Oakwood, a botanical. And the music (“Show me the way to the next whisky bar…”) is 1960s.
The Watergate Hotel’s ambiance is retro, in other words, but also reflective of a new Washington, the Washington with a mixed-use development called CityCenterDC. Cohen feels that D.C. residents are more open now, comfortable with a pampered lifestyle. Thinking back to her college years, she says, “People were embarrassed to go to Tysons Corner.”
D.C.’s more sophisticated arts and food scenes seem to go well with an appreciative glance at what might be called Washington’s Swinging Sixties. “We want to bring this hotel back before the scandal,” says Cohen, a millennial who hadn’t been born when Nixon resigned. “I think Washington deserves it. The hotel scene needs to catch up.”