The Hay Adams: Off The Record and Watching Over The White House

by Allison DiLiegro
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There’s no denying it – at around 1,000 feet from the White House, The Hay Adams Hotel has the most coveted location in Washington. The Hay Adams calls themselves “the nearest you can come to the White House without being invited by the President.” Sometimes they say, “Where nothing is overlooked but the White House.”

While these mottos ring true, they imply a distance between The Hay Adams Hotel and the White House. Guests can watch over 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue from their window and wonder what’s happening inside. They’re so close to the seat of power but aren’t quite there.

What the mottos leave out, however, is that the White House often comes to The Hay.

Washington’s elite can often be found in The Hay’s subterranean bar, Off the Record. The rooms is rich with mahogany tables, red sofas and a crackling fireplace in the cooler months. On the walls are caricatures of politicians, both American and overseas. General Manager Hans Bruland says, “It’s called ‘Off the Record’ for a reason. It’s a place to be seen but not heard.”

But every so often, something comes out.

A Powerful Pedigree

Politics has always been at the heart of The Hay Adams Hotel in Washington D.C. The hotel is named for John Hay and Henry Adams. John Hay was a personal secretary to President Abraham Lincoln. He went on to serve as U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom and Secretary of State to William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. Henry Adams came from Washington royalty, a descendant of President John Adams and President John Quincy Adams. He was a historian and professor at Harvard University. In addition to their illustrious careers, both Hay and Adams were accomplished writers.

In 1884, architect Henry Hobson Richardson designed beautiful Romanesque homes for both Hay and Adams, located at 16th and H Streets. Along with their wives, Clara Hay and Marian “Clover” Adams, the two men soon became close friends. The foursome joined up with geologist Clarence King and began calling themselves the “Five of Hearts.” They even had china made with the nickname. Sadly, Clover ended her life in her home in December 1885.

Despite the tragedy, the Hay and Adams homes became a center of intellectual debate. Thanks to the famous faces who came by, including Mark Twain, Henry James, and Theodore Roosevelt, they became known as one of the greatest salons in Washington.

Hay died in 1905, after years spent hosting social events. When his wife, Clara, died in 1914, the home was passed onto their daughter Alice and her husband, a U.S. Senator named James Wadsworth. Following Adams’ death in 1918, Alice and James purchased the property and leased it to the Brazilian Embassy.

In 1927, however, a developer named Henry Wardman purchased the homes and tore them down. In their place, he constructed a hotel and named it The Hay Adams House in their honor. Built in an Italian Renaissance style, the apartment-hotel had 138 rooms decorated in an opulent fashion. Thankfully, some elements were preserved from the original homes. Wood paneling recovered from the Hay family home was repurposed in what is now the Hay Adams Room.

The Hay Adams Hotel opened in 1928 and soon became a coveted Washington address. In advertising, it was called “an apartment hotel of unmistakable distinction… the ultimate in living comfort and privacy.”

Throughout the decades, the hotel cemented itself among the city’s most prestigious addresses. The hotel was often mentioned in the society pages of the Washington Post and hosted such guests as Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart, actress Ethel Barrymore, and author Sinclair Lewis. As years went on, politicians, lobbyist, and journalists became regulars at the bar, Off the Record.

A Fresh Face

While The Hay Adams Hotel never lost her prestige, the grande dame was in need of a facelift. The hotel closed in 2001 for a massive $20 million renovation taken on by Thomas Pheasant. As General Manager Hans Bruland said to the Washington Post, “We wanted to go for something that’s kind of contemporary, but still very traditional. We wanted to keep the Italian Renaissance style.”

Many of the old-world details were preserved, like the elegant plaster ceilings and the iconic arched ceilings in the grand lobby. Updated amenities give an even more luxurious feel. Now, rooms are equipped with high-tech features and bright, contemporary decor.

One of the most dazzling updates was the addition of The Top of the Hay. Set on the ninth floor, the space boasts an incredible view of the White House from floor-to-ceiling windows and a wraparound terrace. It’s now among the most sought-after event spaces in the city.

An Uninvited Guest

And yet, there are some things even a renovation can’t shake. Perhaps the campiest piece of hotel lore is a ghost story. Some say The Hay Adams Hotel is haunted by the ghost of Henry Adams’ wife, Clover Adams. A talented photographer, Adams took her own life by drinking potassium cyanide, a chemical used to develop photos. She died in her home before the hotel was constructed, but she is sometimes said to haunt the fifth floor.

Some say she leaves behind the scent of almonds, as potassium cyanide, has a scent similar to almonds. Others report hearing a woman crying, or witnessing a radio turn on and off mysteriously. Believers say she is most active around the anniversary of her death, on December 6. Whether or not you believe in ghost stories, the Hay Adams Hotel has become an attraction for travelers who seek out paranormal activity.

The Near-Demise of an Administration

Ghosts aside, shadowy dealings have certainly taken place at The Hay Adams. Most conversations never leave the walls of The Hay, but one notorious story did. Perhaps you remember the Iran-Contra affair?

In the early 1980s, the Cold War was underway and anti-communist sentiments were running high. To protect democracy, Reagan was interested in backing insurgencies that were fighting communist regimes abroad. One of these groups was the Contras, a guerrilla group fighting the Cuban-backed communist leadership in Nicaragua.

There was a problem: the Contras funded their work via the cocaine trade. As the United States could not work with the cocaine industry, Congress passed an amendment prohibiting American money from funding the group.

Meanwhile, in 1985, an Iranian terrorist group was holding seven Americans hostage in Lebanon. Reagan gave his team authority to do whatever it took to get the hostages home. So National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane made a deal.

Without the knowledge of the American people, the United States agreed to supply Iran with weapons. In return, Iran would negotiate the release of the hostages with the terrorists. The administration raised and allocated $30 million to buy weapons for the Iranians. The hostages were released.

Shortly thereafter, a Lebanese newspaper broke the story on the deal. The U.S. Attorney General launched an investigation. In his research, the Attorney General discovered that the CIA used the arms deal as a cover to send $18 million to the Contras in Nicaragua.

The funds were secured by a conservative political fundraiser named Carl “Spitz” Channell. He had told potential donors that their funds were being used to promote conservative political causes to the public. Instead, he used a tax-exempt organization to funnel private contributions to the Iranians and the Contras.

Where did he meet with potential donors? The Hay Adams Hotel, of course. He admitted to holding a series of meetings at the hotel. The affair was one of the largest presidential scandals in history, nearly bringing down Ronald Reagan’s presidency.

The Hay Adams Hotel: A Home for the Obamas

The proximity to the White House makes The Hay Adams Hotel a handy site for covert meetings. But sometimes, it just makes for an easy commute to the office.

Prior to his inauguration in 2009, Barack Obama and his family spent two weeks living in The Hay-Adams. After leaving Chicago – and taking a quick vacation to Hawaii – The Hay was their first stop in Washington.

How did the president-elect end up at The Hay-Adams Hotel? Barack and Michelle had asked President George W. Bush for permission to stay at the Blair House, a government-owned residence that often hosts visiting dignitaries. Sasha and Malia – seven and ten years old at the time – needed to be in Washington to start at their new school. The Blair House was booked, however, so they were sent to The Hay Adams Hotel.

Odds are the rooms at The Hay were an upgrade. While the hotel is famously discreet about its guests, the Obamas were likely placed in one of the top suites. On this momentous occasion, all rooms in the hotel came with a special amenity: a 2009 Inauguration chocolate bar.

During his stay, Barack Obama is said to have walked to the White House for work in the mornings (trailed by a large security detail, of course).

Scandal in the Secret Service

While The Hay Adams Hotel may hold fond memories for the Obamas, it would soon be the site of a rather bumbling scandal.

As the Washington Post published in November 2013, Obama’s Secret Security agent Ignacio Zamora Jr. met a woman at Off the Record. After spending time in her room at the hotel, he left. Shortly thereafter, he realized he accidentally left behind a bullet from his service weapon. He attempted to go back into her room to retrieve the bullet, but she did not let him inside. Instead, she contacted hotel security and word got out.

As the Secret Service was in the throes of bad press due to a number of misdeeds and embarrassments, Zamora was let go.

A Literary Heritage Lives On

After all these years, the Hay and Adams homes are remembered as an intellectual hub, with the “Five of Hearts” hosting meaningful conversations with Washington’s elite. The Hay Adams has decided to keep their tradition alive.

Launched by then-President of The Hay Adams, Kay Enokido, in 2005, The Hay-Adams Author Series brings modern-day literary elites to host intimate conversations with hotel guests. Featured authors have included Joyce Carol Oates, Toni Morrison, and Maya Angelou. Guests are able to take part in lively conversations over food and drinks in the beautiful setting of The Hay-Adams.

And with that, The Hay has stayed true to its heart. Or, to put it more aptly, its “Five of Hearts.”


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