Watergate: Washington D.C.'s Town within a City


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"We wanted to do something different"

2015 marks the 50th anniversary of a landmark in urban planning: Washington, DC’s town within a city known as the Watergate.

By Gary Parker

Too big. Too tall. Too modern. Too different. 

Everything about the Watergate, the town within a city on the banks of the Potomac, was revolutionary. Hard to imagine now, when the brass ring of urban building is the grand mixed-use project (like the dazzling CityCenterDC – a 21st-century version of the Watergate). 

Photo: Aerial View of Watergate. Credit: Wikipedia Commons
Conceived five decades ago, the Watergate was the largest privately funded renewal project in Washington, DC – and the city’s first mixed-use project. The scope was unprecedented too for the nation’s capital: a planned urban development of three apartment buildings, two office buildings, a hotel, and a retail plaza for several dozen tenants (along with three levels of underground parking for 1,250 vehicles). A place so self-contained, you could live, work, shop, and dine without ever leaving. High living for city life.  
Photo (right): Snow falling outside complex. Credit: Kerry H. Stowell
The site covers 10 acres on the edge of Georgetown, at the end of the old Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. The canal’s last lock -- the "water gate" – gave its name to the project. Its creator was Luigi Moretti – designer of Rome's Olympic Village for the 1960 Games, and the most important Italian architect of the 20th century. (Italy’s Frank Lloyd Wright, some say.) The Watergate would become Moretti’s first and only U.S. project.
In a city that revered brick and stone rectangles, the Watergate was a heretic: curved buildings made of reinforced concrete, each with its own shape. Said Mario Valmarana, a Moretti colleague, "We wanted to do something startlingly different."  

Photo (right): Vista from the river. Credit: Kerry H. Stowell
“Startled” describes the reaction. Building the Watergate in DC, fumed Washington Post critic Wolf Von Eckardt, was like "a strip dancer performing at your grandmother's funeral." Others condemned its height and scale. But far-eyed observers could see the future: "It is true that the so-called "curvilinear' design is at variance with most commercial architecture in Washington,” noted the Washington Star. “But in our opinion the result, which places a premium on public open space and garden-like surroundings, and which proposes a quality of housing that would rank with the finest in the city, would be a distinct asset."
In February 1964, the dust settled and ground was broken on the first building: Watergate East. And building it, like designing it, was revolutionary. "There are no continuous straight lines anywhere -- horizontally on the floors or vertically on the façade,” said Jim Roberts of Magazine Brothers Construction. “No two floors had a facade exactly alike." Because of the complexity of the curved structure, Watergate East was one of the first projects in America built with a precursor of computer-aided drafting (CAD).

Ringing the façade are rows of long balconies with saw-tooth railings -- an homage, says Valmarana, to the old balconies of Venice, and now the Watergate’s instantly recognizable trademark. 
Photo (right): Saw-tooth railings found on the facade. Credit: Kerry H. Stowell
Completed in October 1965, Watergate East welcomed its first tenants that month. Life and Newsweek covered the building’s debut. Overnight it became one of Washington’s most prestigious addresses. It still is. Residents have included Congressmen and Supreme Court justices, Cabinet secretaries and business titans, diplomats and generals.
Apartments range from 800-square-foot studios to 5,000-square-foot penthouses with fireplaces and rooftop terraces. Duplexes fill two of the floors. The typical apartment contains two bedrooms, two-and-a-half baths, living room, dining room, and kitchen – often with twice as much square footage as comparable units built today. 
Landscape architect Boris Timchenko carried Moretti’s vision outdoors with more than 150 modernist planters; fountains tiered like waterfalls; a seven-acre park with three swimming pools; and landscaped roof gardens that offer some of Washington’s most breathtaking views. 

Photo (right): Fountains. Credit: Kerry H. Stowell
Function complements style in the split-level mall and open-air concourse – another Italian echo. Today, the mall’s tenants – drug store, liquor store, dry cleaners, travel office, post office, gallery, bakery, delicatessen, barber, salon, and florist – carry on Moretti’s vision of serving a town within a city. 
Watergate West opened in 1969 and Watergate South – the final building -- in 1971. (That same year, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts opened next door. It’s now the busiest such venue in America, and one of the leading arts centers in the world.) Protecting the high-end tenants was the latest electronic security system, backed by round-the-clock staff. At two a.m. on June 17, 1972, one of those watchmen changed history when he spotted a lock held open with masking tape in a Watergate office building. Police arrested five intruders in the sixth-floor headquarters of the Democratic National Committee. What Richard Nixon's press secretary dubbed “a third-rate burglary” ended with the president’s resignation. The suffix “-gate” would become shorthand for political scandal.

Photo (right): View of the mall. Credit: Kerry H. Stowell
But the Watergate remains famous in its own right. Now on the National Register of Historic Places, it’s a premier example of modern architecture, as well as one of the best-known residential complexes in the world. And with the Mad Men-spawned revival of Mid-century Modernism and the rebirth of the American city, what’s old is new again. 
The Watergate turned the sleepy neighborhood of Foggy Bottom into one of Washington’s most desirable neighborhoods. At this writing, an $85 million renovation is turning the Watergate Hotel into one of the most luxurious in the city.
After two decades of reinvention, Washington itself now ranks among the world’s great cities. A model of urban living. The Watergate – the town within the city -- remains a model of urban design.

Gary Parker is a documentary filmmaker who lives in Watergate East. He’s now writing screenplays for film and television – though none about his neighbors.

Watergate principals:
Luigi Moretti (Italy) & Milton Fischer (USA), architects
Aldo Samaritani (CEO) & Nicolas M. Salgo (President) Watergate Improvements Associates
Giuseppe Cecchi, project manager
William Graff, project architect
Boris Timchenko, landscape architect
John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Company, financing
Magazine Brothers Construction Corp., general contractor
Gerald Ewing, lighting consultant
Hal Lewis, Riverview Realty Corporation (sales/leasing/management)
Royce Franklin Ward of Hageman-Harris, chief engineer