Developing a New Identity for Infamous Watergate Hotel

In 1972, the word “Watergate” became synonymous with scandal after the office and residential complex was broken into by then-President Nixon’s administration.

However, when New York-based Euro Capital Properties acquired the infamous property in 2010 for $45 million, owners Jacques and Rakel Cohen set out to infuse the brand with something a little less controversial—smooth midcentury style fit for modern-day Washington, D.C. The bar is high for a building highlighted in textbooks across the nation, but Rakel Cohen says a little pressure to give the Watergate Hotel renewed life after it fell into foreclosure with its last owner never hurt.

“I know that everyone is looking at us closely,” admits Cohen, who serves as Euro Capital’s SVP of design and development. “But I like working under pressure. I’d like to show the world that we can do something great.”

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Since beginning renovations in 2014, Euro Capital’s $125 million overhaul has added numerous modern, high-end design elements to the property. A new, 7,000-square-foot Moretti Grand Ballroom with a Gucci marble statement wall was added by raising the lawn an additional eight feet for leveling, while the rooftop’s 360-degree-views of the Potomac River and Washington Monument were taken into account when planning a new bar. But even with these attention-grabbing new features, the property’s history has not been swept under the rug. Far from it. In fact, Cohen says the Watergate’s background was at the forefront of her mind after acquiring it.

“The property has such a unique history to it,” she says. “We didn’t want to solely focus just on that, but we needed to bring it up in a fun way.”

With details including key cards that read, “No need to break in” and pens boasting, “Stolen from The Watergate Hotel,” the rebranding of the hotel cheekily nods to its heritage. Even the lettering of the Watergate’s new logo, designed by architect Ron Arad, was inspired by the documents uncovered in the Nixon scandal.

However, the notorious chapter of the property’s storied past is but a small part of what Cohen aimed to honor. Touches of the hotel’s beginnings are also highlighted throughout, as Cohen says she was instantly drawn to architect Luigi Moretti’s initial vision of the hotel, which first opened in 1967.

“I was learning the history of Moretti, the original architect. It definitely sparked a debate about the future of architecture when he designed this complex,” she says, specifically noting the building’s curved and flowing exterior, which inspired her to draw the outside in; in her words, to “speak the same language.” For uniting the interior and exterior spaces, Euro Capital enlisted Ron Arad Architects to match a design that mimics a sailboat floating on the Potomac River.

“We wanted everything to feel curvy and organic,” Cohen says. Today, there is not a straight line to be found. Elements that initially presented as renovation woes—such as low ceilings and awkwardly placed columns in the lobby—lend themselves nicely to the soft edges that make up the space, with bent woods and metals wrapped around columns and the 46-foot reception desk, while a gradient design lines the ceiling and floor. Furniture by Italian luxury designer and manufacturer Moroso also takes on wave-like shapes. The curvy nature of the building flows into The Next Whisky Bar, which was inspired by The Doors lyric, “Show me the way to the next whisky bar,” and is lined with 2,500 Arad-designed bottles of whisky.

Throughout the design process, Cohen placed importance on maintaining as much of the hotel’s history as possible, using original 1960s elements such as the same marble and etched metals in the renovation that would have been used 50 years ago. The hotel staff members’ retro-inspired uniforms, designed by Mad Men costume designer Janie Bryant, also capture the glamour of old Washington, D.C., with gold, black, red, and gray tones that match the hotel’s color scheme.

The Watergate is set to make its re-introduction to the D.C. landscape in winter 2016. After five years of work, Cohen is ready to see her work come to fruition.

“We travel all over the place, and have visited the world’s most beautiful hotels,” she says. “Our travels inspired our vision for this project. We think it’s going to be incredible, and we’re so excited to finally see it built.”

Editor’s Note: The hotel’s opening date was moved to June 2016.

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