The Watergate First Charmed Washington, Then Scandalized America: With a Face-Lift, It's Ready for the Next Half-Century

The Watergate First Charmed Washington, Then Scandalized America: With a Face-Lift, It's Ready for the Next Half-Century
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On June 16, 1972, five men dined together for the last time in the restaurant of the Watergate Hotel. A few hours later they taped open the door to a stairwell in the adjacent building and broke into the offices of the Democratic National Committee.

American politics - and the Watergate complex - would never be the same.

The Watergate Hotel reopens this month, following an extensive renovation that honors the building's midcentury modern pedigree. There is a new whiskey bar and a rooftop lounge overlooking the Potomac. The costume designer for the television series "Mad Men" was tapped to outfit the hotel's staff.

The reopening of the Watergate Hotel marks the latest chapter in the roller-coaster history of this famous - and to Americans above a certain age, infamous - complex, which includes three co-op apartment buildings and two office towers.

At the outset, when the building still only existed in blueprints, the Watergate was controversial. Luigi Moretti, the Italian architect on the project, considered Washington drab and conformist. He designed a series of curved buildings with no right angles. The Washington Post architecture critic panned it, as did David Finley, president of the National Gallery of Art and chairman of the powerful Commission on Fine Arts.

But the building also had its champions who were drawn to the bold and striking design. An undeniable part of the Watergate's original appeal was that it was Italian, at a time when Oleg Cassini designed gowns for Jackie Kennedy and Fellini's "La Dolce Vita" was filling American movie theaters. It was the first "mixed use" complex in the District- putting apartments, offices, a hotel and other amenities - including a florist, bakery a wine shop - all in the same place. The curved exterior panels and balconies were designed with the aid of a computer - another first.

The Watergate was launched with the fanfare of a Hollywood movie premiere. In October 1965, Washingtonians stood in line for a chance to gaze at the over-the-top model apartment in Watergate East, with its hand-painted ceilings and marble floors. A thousand guests attended the building's grand opening.

In 1969, during the first months of the Nixon Administration, LIFE magazine profiled the complex in an 8-page feature proclaiming: "Just everybody lives there." Residents at the time included Attorney General John Mitchell and his outspoken wife, Martha; Anna Chennault, the glamorous widow of famed aviator General Claire Chennault; Audrey Mars, an heiress to the Mars candy fortune; a bipartisan roster of Senators and Members of Congress; and a platoon of lobbyists, journalists and diplomats.

The 1972 break-in, followed by Nixon's resignation in 1974, put a serious dent in the Watergate's reputation. Unwelcome tourists descended on the building and high-end retailers decamped for Chevy Chase. It seemed every political scandal thereafter was assigned a "-gate" suffix.

The Watergate got its second wind during the 1980s, when well-heeled California friends of the Reagans took up residence, including Betsy and Alfred Bloomingdale and Leonore and Walter Annenberg. Mrs. Reagan was a regular at the Watergate Hotel's Restaurant Jean Louis, and the Reagans celebrated Christmas Eve with USIA Director Charlie Wick and his wife Jane in their Watergate apartment.

Democrats put down roots at the Watergate, of course. Former Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara lived there, as did Democratic National Committee chairman Robert Strauss. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg still calls the Watergate home.

In some ways, the Watergate was something of a college dorm for Washington powerbrokers. It was part fishbowl, part pressure-cooker. Partisan rivals shared elevators down to the underground parking lot or the occasional nightcap at the hotel bar. Rose Mary Woods, personal secretary to President Nixon, and Juanita Roberts, LBJ's personal secretary, both lived there. At the height of the Clinton impeachment fight, retired Senator Bob Dole lived next door to Monica Lewinsky.

Because residents of the Watergate were some of Washington's toughest power players, everyday matters were sometimes the subject of intense maneuvering. The co-op board of Watergate East reportedly rejected then-Vice President Hubert Humphrey, expressing concern about the impact of Secret Service restrictions on elevator availability. Thomas "Tommy the Cork" Corcoran, a Watergate resident and America's first "super-lobbyist," blocked a deal worked out between the developers and the adjacent Kennedy Center that would place offices in the fifth and final building directly across from the apartments of Watergate East. When a prior owner of the hotel sought permission to convert it into 96 condominium apartments, with prices up to $9 million, residents not only stopped the plan, they successfully placed the entire complex on the National Register of Historic Places.

Today, a new generation of Washingtonians awaits a first look at a rejuvenated Watergate Hotel. Perhaps a new crop of Cabinet members and White House aides will make the Watergate their home beginning next year, with a change in administrations. Will the Watergate's next half-century eclipse the reputation gained in its first? It might depend on who picks up the check at the whiskey bar.

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