W Washington DC: An Old Hotel Gets a New Lease on Life

W is called the “the closest hotel to the White House.” Looking out from the POV rooftop lounge, you can almost see into the windows. Since the hip W Hotels brand took over in 2006, the hotel has become a hotspot for the see-and-be-seen set. On a Friday night, with live beats thumping and cocktails pouring, it’s hard to imagine the Ziegfeld Follies one rehearsed on this rooftop. But it’s true – the hotel’s history runs deep.

The Hotel Washington opened in 1918. During its 100-year history, the ten-story Beaux-Arts building seen major moments in politics, film and music. Guests have included political bigwigs, Hollywood starlets and even the King. Well, Elvis that is.

The General Manager of W, Meade Atkeson, told Storied Hotels that this history blends flawlessly with the modern style of W. “We have columns that date back to the turn of the century, for example, next to sleek furniture made for lounging in the Living Room. The style is reflective of D.C. itself: where the old and the new blend in harmony.”

With yet another renovation pending, the hotel is soon to be fresher than ever. And yet, its walls will always have stories to tell.

Breaking Ground

The National Hotel Corporation acquired this coveted piece of land in 1917. On the corner of 15th St. NW and F St. NW, the lot is just steps from the White House. It’s one block from the iconic Old Ebbitt Grill and around the corner from the Willard Hotel.

The company tore down the Corcoran Office Building and work began on the Hotel Washington. As a last hurrah before construction, they erected bleachers so spectators could watch Woodrow Wilson’s inaugural parade on March 5, 1917. Shortly after the inauguration, constriction was underway.

The Hotel Washington was designed by New York-based architectural firm Carrère and Hastings, considered some of the top Beaux-Arts architects in the country. Carrère and Hastings met at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. After graduation, the two men moved to New York. They rose to fame with commissions like the Life Building (1893), 14 Carnegie libraries, the original House and Senate Office Buildings (1905-1908) and the New York Public Library (1911).

Due to the hotel’s prominent location, the builders were required to get approval from the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts on certain details. Some accounts report that the Commission initially rejected the plans, requesting a “more harmonious decorative exterior.” However, the Commission’s official papers show no such conflict. We’re left to wonder.

Regardless, the builders did go above and beyond with their decorative exterior. The hotel features the most abundant use of sgraffito in all of Washington. Sgraffito is an Italian style of wall decor that uses colored layered of plaster that are revealed by scratching away the external layers.

Unfortunately, the identity of the Italian artists responsible for this beautiful work is unknown. A 1913 article in The Architectural Record mentions an Italian artist named Menconi, who used sgraffito to decorate another Carrère and Hastings building in New York. We may have him to thank.

A Groundbreaking Opening

After making fast work, the doors opened to guests in April of 1918. By all accounts, the Hotel Washington was spectacular. There was a grand, glittering lobby, a gallroom, barber shop, a beauty parlor, coffee shop and a patio for dining and dancing. At night, it was lit with elegant iron lamps.

And then there were the rooms. The hotel housed 360 guest rooms, all with a private bathroom and a combination bathtub and shower. Remarkably at the time, the bathrooms even had telephone extensions.

The Hotel Washington always had luxury in mind. It was never intended to be a convention hotel. Instead, management focused on excellent service, comfort, and elegance. Despite the competition from other fine hotels in the city, including the Mayflower, which opened in 1920, and the Willard around the corner, the Hotel Washington never seemed to spend much money on advertising. Instead, news was spread spreading primarily by word of mouth.

Politicians at the Hotel Washington

The Hotel Washington was also equipped with luxurious residences. Residents included a veritable “who’s who” of political elite. John Nance Garner, Vice President under Franklin D. Roosevelt, lived at the hotel during his time in office. Congressman John W. McCormack, who was Speaker of the House during Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration, kept an apartment at the Hotel Washington for 46 years. Ringing it in with the Judiciary Branch, Supreme Court Justice Frank Murphy lived at the Hotel Washington from 1940 to 1949. Each year he hosted a presidential birthday dinner at the hotel.

Thanks to the hotel’s proximity to the White House, presidential sightings became a regular occurrence. In 2007, Mary Allen, a former telephone operator at the hotel, told the Washington Post that she used to connect calls from the White House. As the switchboard was in the basement, she was often able to witness the comings and goings. “I saw Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan going to parties in the ballroom,” Allen told the Washington Post. “The telephone department was right next to the ballroom. I would open the door. Nosy me. Ronald Reagan was very nice. He shook our hands. Bill Clinton was really nice.”

Jose Garcia, a former sous-chef who worked at the hotel for more than 20 years, recalled a story about Clinton to the Washington Post. “One day, when the Bill Clinton was over here, I had a tray of lamb chops. I come out with a tray of lamb chops. And Bill Clinton was close to the door. He came to me and took a lamb chop and tapped me on the back” to say thank you.

Entertainers at the Hotel Washington

With so many theaters nearby, the Hotel Washington became a home for entertainers, too. At one time, the entire cast of the theatrical revue Ziegfeld Follies stayed at the hotel and rehearsed on its rooftop. The hotel has been the scene of several movies, including a pivotal scene in Godfather II in which Kay (Diane Keaton) attempts to leave Michael (Al Pacino). No Way Out, starring Kevin Costner Gene Hackman, was also filmed at the Hotel Washington.

Interestingly enough, the turkeys that are brought to Washington each year to be pardoned stayed at the Hotel Washington the night before they make their trip to the White House.

Atkeson told Storied Hotels that when Geena Davis, the star of Beetlejuice and Thelma and Louise, checked into the hotel in 2015, “she noticed that the mirrored images of great Americans behind the desk did not include any women. Her light-hearted note to management resulted in several additional images of women who made their mark on history.”

Celebrity guests over the years have included John Wayne, Will Rogers, Gracie Allen, Willie Nelson, Jodie Foster, Matthew McConaughey and Tom Cruise. But none have matched the intrigue of a legendary stay that happened in 1970.

Elvis is in the Building

In 1970, Elvis Presley stayed at the Hotel Washington for a week. General Manager Atkeson tells us “He stayed with us until we insisted his entourage wear ties to come to our restaurant.” According to Joyce Bova’s memoir, Don’t Ask Forever: My Love Affair With Elvis, this is where she would come to meet him.

But Elvis didn’t come to DC just to see his girlfriend. He came to see President Richard Nixon. Atkeson says, “The crazy encounter was made into a movie recently.” It’s true: a 2016 movie called Elvis & Nixon was released, starring Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey.

The story begins with Elvis writing to Nixon on American Airlines stationery to request a meeting. In the letter, Elvis expressed his concerns about where the country was headed. “The drug culture, the hippie elements, the SDS, Black Panthers, etc. do not consider me as their enemy or as they call it, the establishment.” And he suggested a solution.

“Sir, I can and will be of any service that I can to help the country out…. So, I wish not to be given a title or an appointed position. I can and will do more good if I were made a Federal Agent at Large and I will help out by doing it my way through communications with people of all ages.”

He told the president that he was staying at the Hotel Washington in rooms 505-506-507 under the name of Jon Burrows. “I will be here for as long as it takes to get the credentials of a Federal Agent.” He concluded his letter with this: “I have a personal gift for you which I would like to present to you and you can accept it or I will keep it for you until you can take it.”

The letter worked. Nixon agreed to meet Nixon at the White House on December 21, 1970. The two men discussed the country’s drug problems. Elvis gave Nixon the gift he came with: a commemorative World War II Colt .45 pistol. The photographs of the encounter have become some of the most requested images from the National Archives.

According to Atkeson, that wasn’t his only legacy. “Elvis also signed a dollar bill and handed it to the Director of Engineering as he was taken up the lift to his room. His son is now the DOE at the hotel and still has the signed bill.”

A New Lease on Life

In 2006, after 90 years as the Hotel Washington, the hotel was purchased by Istithmar Hotels to be turned into a sleek new outpost of W Hotels. The property is currently undergoing a $50 million renovation that is set to be revealed in 2019. Led by architecture and interior design firm Studio GAIA and W’s in-house design team, big things are expected from the historic hotel.

Atkeson tells us, “With this design collaboration, the hotel’s renovation will bring new life to the property, mixing the classic design elements of the hotel’s history with the modern touches that W Hotels are known for.”

From the Living Room – the see-and-be-seen lobby – to the POV rooftop bar, playful elements will be injected into the historic space. According to Anthony Ingham, Global Brand Leader of W Hotels Worldwide, “W Washington DC has become a place where the powers that be come to play, a destination all its own in the nation’s stunning capital.” He continues, “While the building itself is rooted in rich history, the W experience is about innovation and this revamp is the latest example of how we are keeping our existing hotels fresh while in the midst of great global growth.”

But don’t expect the history to be wiped clean. Atkeson tells us, “We are looking forward to showcasing the new design that will be featured throughout the hotel. But you will still be able to see historical elements that our piece of history is known for.”

The dining is about to get a lot more exciting, too. Executive Chef Barry Koslow is bringing two new signature restaurants to W. The first outlet will serve cocktails and shared plates in an open kitchen-style space. The restaurant will open up to a Pennsylvania Avenue beer garden, that’s sure to be a hot spot on summer nights.

POV, the iconic rooftop bar with sweeping city views, is also getting a makeover. When the rooftop lounge opened in 2009. The new design will feature floor-to-ceiling windows in addition to the iconic terrace. With views inside and out, they’re expecting a scene all year-round.

“As a trendsetting brand, this renovation will allow W Washington DC to be at the forefront of design and hospitality,” said Atkeson. “Undergoing a monumental change like this during the building’s historical centennial is a testament to the legacy of our hotel and the W brand that both boldly embrace change. We look forward to bringing a new, exciting vision of this hotel to life.”


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