Watergate Hotel reopens and taps on Nixon scandal

WASHINGTON • Depending on how you look at it, fate has been either cruel or kind to the Watergate Hotel.

When it opened in 1967, developers boasted that the hotel in the vast modernist complex along the Potomac River would be synonymous with luxury, its rooms filled by the capital's glamorous visitors. Instead, Watergate became a stand-in for scandal.

That has not bothered Jacques and Rakel Cohen, the new owners, who see in its history, however you spin it, a rare opportunity.

Almost a decade after the Watergate closed its doors, the Cohens and their development company have reopened it on a bet that a US$125-million (S$168-million) renovation to restore its mid- century roots - along with its scandal-laden history - can start a renaissance for the hotel and the offices and residences that surround it.

Room keys instruct guests: "No need to break in." The voice of former United States President Richard Nixon will soon be heard in the public bathrooms and provides the soundtrack for the hotel's phone system - which happens to get its number, 617-1972, from June 17, 1972, the day five men broke into the offices of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) in the Watergate complex and changed history.

Even the hotel's print font, a modified typewriter-style type, draws inspiration from the 1970s-era legal documents that chronicled so much of the scandal.

"We didn't buy this hotel because of the scandal," Mrs Rakel Cohen, who oversaw its redesign and marketing, said in an interview before its opening last month. "But because people were so curious about it, we said, 'We're known for that, so we'll bring it in, in a fun way.'"

But if Nixonian ghosts haunt the hotel, the Cohens hope they will have company - preferably people as well known as Elizabeth Taylor and Ronald Reagan, Watergate celebrity visitors from an earlier time.

"People are always asking me, 'How do you bring back the scandal?'" Mrs Cohen said.

"But I always say that the scandal happened after," she added with some impatience. "Before that, the hotel was a glamorous place, was a playground for famous people. We're trying to bring that back to life."

It is no small challenge. Once one of the city's most distinguished addresses, the Watergate complex these days is regarded as something of a yawn by most Washingtonians - an island of office space and aging apartments, far from trendier neighbourhoods. Only a smattering of shops catering to office workers and residents, including Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and former Senator Bob Dole, fill spaces that once held luxury boutiques.

It was not always so. Rising on four recently cleared hectares of riverfront property beside what would become the John F. Kennedy Center For The Performing Arts, the complex, with a cutting-edge design and high prices, became a magnet for attention.

The residences and hotel were so popular with the incoming Nixon administration that the complex came to be known as the Republican Bastille in certain circles.

It would not take long, though, for that name to take on added meaning.

On a fateful night in June 1972, some of the burglars - a group that included James McCord Jr, a security coordinator for the Republican National Committee and the Committee for the Re-Election of the President - checked into Rooms 214 and 314 of the Watergate Hotel under false names.

They reportedly shared a lobster dinner at the hotel restaurant. And then, some time after midnight, they set out to secretly break into the offices of the DNC.

They were caught, booked and eventually exposed as henchmen for the president of the United States.

When the police searched their rooms, they found electrical equipment, thousands of dollars in fresh US$100 bills and a cheque written by E. Howard Hunt, a former CIA agent who would eventually be exposed as the organiser of the break-in.

Carl Bernstein, who as a young reporter for The Washington Post worked with Bob Woodward to bring the scandal to light, said: "We live in an age of the commercialisation of everything, so it just seems rather natural to me that in Washington you're going to have tourism around what is one of the great historical events in the life of the city."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 11, 2016, with the headline 'Watergate Hotel reopens and taps on Nixon scandal'. Print Edition | Subscribe