Watergate | Inside the Hotel at the Centre of America's Biggest Scandal
How seven ordinary-looking guests made this the most infamous hotel in the world
The scandal that shook America. Photo: via Alamy
If These Walls Could Talk… takes a look at the legendary stories behind some of the world’s most famous luxury hotels. This week, we uncover the fascinating story behind the hotel caught up in one of America's biggest scandals.
The Watergate: The Legend
On 16 June 1972, a group of four men from Miami checked into the Watergate Hotel in Washington D.C. Bernard Barker and Eugenio Martinez took room 214. Virgilio Gonzalez and Frank Sturgis were given room 314.
The group were soon joined by E. Howard Hunt, G. Gordon Liddy and James McCord, the latter a former CIA officer working full-time for President Richard Nixon’s Committee for the Re-election of the President (CRP). Hunt meanwhile was a consultant to the White House, while Gordon Liddy was an unpredictable ex-FBI man working in political intelligence.
"What followed became the most infamous cover up in the history of the United States"
The seven men dined on lobster that night on the Terrace Restaurant of the Watergate Hotel, overlooking the curling Potomac River - the Washington Monument just visible on the skyline.
In the early hours of the following morning, wearing business suits and surgical gloves, the Miami four and McCord were arrested for breaking into the offices of the Democratic National Committee, housed in the same complex as the hotel. They’d been trying to bug the office of Lawrence O’Brien, the Democratic national chairman and one of Nixon’s most effective critics, to gain intel they could use in the upcoming presidential campaign.
McCord’s link to the CRP quickly became clear, and when an envelope containing a cheque from a certain E. Howard Hunt was found in one of the rooms of the Miami burglars - and his name and number at the White House found in two of the crooks’ address books - it was clear that there were calls to make and questions to ask.
What followed became the most infamous cover up in the history of the United States. As it unravelled in the months and years that followed, it became clear that knowledge of the Watergate break in went higher than anyone dared imagine.
It would ultimately lead, in the face of almost certain impeachment, to the resignation of President Richard Nixon on 9 August 1974.
The Watergate was no stranger to a scandal even before that fateful night, however.
The complex was built between 1963 and 1971, but when the plans by Italian architect Luigi Moretti were first put forward, there was widespread concern about how its modernist, curving towers would fit in with the neo-classical architecture America’s capital. One critic argued building the complex at all would be like “inviting a stripper to your grandmother’s funeral”.
Still, when the complex was finished it quickly became one of the most affluent spots in the capital. The New York Times ran a piece calling it an “address of status” in 1966 and star visits from the likes of John Wayne and Elizabeth Taylor did nothing to dent its growing reputation.
The apartments, just a short 25-minute walk from the White House, also proved popular with members of the Nixon administration. Attorney General John Mitchell, who would later serve 19 months in prison for his part in Watergate, lived in the complex.
In later years, fashion boutiques and jewellers including Gucci and Yves St. Laurent arrived at Watergate. In a way, it’s odd the Democratic National Committee ever ended up in such a glamorized complex.
Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, the Washington Post journalists who famously broke the Watergate story, describe the hotel as “opulent” and “as Republican as it gets” in their famed tell-all All the President’s Men. They wrote that with it’s $100,000 co-op apartments and garish design, it had “become the symbol of the ruling class in Richard Nixon’s Washington”.
As such it’s no surprise that it was host to the odd political protest. In 1970, Bernstein and Woodward write, the Watergate received an unwelcome visit from 1,000 anti-Nixon demonstrators. They were met by riot police and pushed back to the nearby George Washington University campus with tear gas and clubs, while tenants of the Watergate “cheered and toasted”.
Call the complex cursed, but the 1972 break-in wouldn’t be the last time it would be involved in a Presidential scandal either. Monica Lewinsky, the White House intern at the centre of Bill Clinton’s 1995 political sex scandal, also stayed in the Watergate briefly, and so returned the name to national newspaper copy, in yet another story about impeachment.
As of 2016, the seven unoccupied apartments at the complex were being sold for prices ranging from $350,000 to $4 million.
Arguably the building’s most famous residents moved out long ago, however. The Democratic National Committee decided to find new offices just weeks after the break-in that immortalised the hotel and lead to the first - and so far only - resignation by a President of the United States.
Situated in the wealthy Foggy Bottom district, the Watergate hotel is a stone’s throw from the The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and a short walk from the capitol area of Washington D.C, with the White House and the Lincoln Memorial a mere 25 minute walk.
Foggy Bottom-GWU metro station is just five minutes walk away, and is three stops from Metro Station, which connects you to pretty much anywhere you want to go in the city.
Perched right on the edge of the Potomac River, the rooftop terrace bar offers views quite unlike anywhere else in Washington, showing stunning views of the city including the Pentagon, the Washington Monument and the freedom statue atop the Capitol Building.
The Watergate complex has changed hands several times since the scandal in 1972, and the hotel actually lay dormant for years after shutting in 2007 before the current owners bought it up and re-opened it in 2016 following an $150 million renovation.
The complex is now historically protected, so the exteriors cannot legally be changed. As such, the approach to the Watergate feels a little like travelling back to the 60s. The circular grey has not aged spectacularly well, but it’s all part of the lore of Watergate at this point.
The inside is a different story. Only one staircase remains from the original hotel. The luxury rooms and suites start from $300 a night and the glamour of the hotel is evident as soon as you arrive at the glimmering Watergate welcome sign.
The Kingbird restaurant is upscale, and under the guide of French executive chef Sébastien Giannini, serves a selection of global cuisine that’s quite unique in Washington D.C, as well as a handcrafted cocktail menu leave you feeling very well tailored for.
The clientele remains as prestigious as ever, too. Performers from the JFK Centre for Performing Arts can often be found in the bars after shows and the Barcelona football team stayed in the hotel last year, leading to a whole host of new break-in attempts from fans.
The establishment hasn’t snubbed it because of its past either though. Bernstein and Woodward - as well as the police officers who caught the Watergate burglars - are at the hotel “every few months” we’re told, to give talks to special guests or at commercial events.
Room 214, used by Liddy and Hunt on the night of the break-in, has been immortalised as ‘The Scandal Room’, a museum-slash-shrine to the scandal and coverup. The hotel runs fantastic tours of the room, and you can stay in it for $1200 per night.
All the hotel’s key cards are adorned with the slogan “no need to break in”, the room stationary is headed with “stolen from the Watergate”, and if you’re put on hold you’ll hear the voice of former President Richard M. Nixon rather than any soothing instrumental jazz.
The number to ring to hear that voice? (844) 617-1972 - the date of the Watergate break in.
For more information on the Watergate Hotel, you can visit www.thewatergatehotel.com for details and bookings.
Stuart Kenny is a freelance writer based in Edinburgh. Follow him on Twitter.