In Obama's backyard
WASHINGTON - For 24 hours, President Obama and I were neighbors.
Not that we talked through his wrought-iron fence, as Tim Allen's character in Home Improvement did with his backyard buddy, Wilson.
But from the rooftop terrace of the W Washington D.C. hotel, I could practically see the president in the Rose Garden, discussing his just-announced Nobel Peace Prize. It was quite a day for all of us.
Overshadowed by the president's surprise award, the former Hotel Washington was celebrating its grand opening weekend as the self-proclaimed closest hotel to the White House.
Talk about location. Besides the White House, the 317-room, 10-story historic hotel is in the shadows of the Washington Monument, the U.S. Treasury, the Department of Commerce, and the White House Visitor Center..
The W may be the new kid on the block, but it's in a classic Beaux Arts building that dates to 1917 and is on the National Register of Historic Places. Not that you'd notice from the completely renovated interior - pricetag: about $90 million - redesigned in a neo-romantic style by Los Angeles-based Dianna Wong.
The traditional lobby has been transformed into an elegant living room. Lipstick-red couches and white highback chairs beckon for a casual chat or settling in with the paper, as power brokers and socialites did in an earlier era. The eye-catching black carpet's pinstripes and lace-pattern overlay are design elements that Wong uses throughout the hotel.
"The original French architecture is feminine, and I like to contrast that with the modern," Wong says from her Los Angeles office. "I like duality - story lines weaved together. Masculine and feminine. Politics and pleasure."
Wong preserved the lobby's historic features, from the plaster moldings and majestic arches to the sparkling chandeliers, which were cleaned and refitted with LED lights.
Instead of a formal, imposing front desk, a simple set of white angled stations prompt the staff to step in front to greet and assist guests. When I asked for directions, the check-in clerk led me to F Street and pointed the way. When I asked to borrow a free DVD of Casablanca, the staffer ushered me to the elevator and the video collection on the mezzanine.
The original hotel had 500 guest rooms, but renovations in the 1920s cut that number to 400. They were fairly small, averaging 240 square feet, and no two rooms were alike, Wong says.
"We couldn't move a lot of walls. Our renovation work got down to the terra-cotta clay," she says.
Much of the 18 months of renovations required approval by three local and federal preservation commissions. While the total number of guest rooms was reduced to 317, the number of suites increased to 23, including an "Extreme WOW suite" - W's version of a Presidential Suite.
Standard rooms start at $399 a night, and suites start at $1,500.
My ninth-floor room, it turned out, is one of the smallest. My wife and I never felt cramped, however, thanks to the hotel's 9-foot-2-inch ceilings - about a foot higher than normal - designed to provide a sense of "spaciousness," Wong says.
The white lacquered furnishings set along the walls leave plenty of room, even with the king-size platform bed. And the etched-glass, double-size shower separating the bedroom and bathroom helps keep the room bright while still providing privacy.
Switches and dimmers are a nice touch for setting a mood and for turning out the lights without having to traipse across the room.
There are all the usual amenities, including plush robes, a docking station for MP3 players, and a 32-inch flat-screen LCD TV. Unfortunately, we couldn't get the cable to work, even with three staffers checking the hookups, so I missed a dramatic Yankees playoff win. But the front desk made up for it by taking the $45 parking fee and a round of drinks off my bill.
In place of a mini bar, there's a Munchie Box stocked with candy, cookies, chips, and nuts for $3 to $10. Liter bottles of Fiji natural artesian water are available for $9, and a half-bottle of Paul Dolan Vineyards 2007 pinot noir ($28) and a full bottle of Alexander Valley 2006 cabernet sauvignon ($52) awaited, with two wineglasses.
Instead of eating and drinking in our room, we venture two floors up to the hotel's shining star: the rooftop terrace. Appropriately named POV, for Point of View, it's one of the best vantage points to scan the capital's iconic skyline.
At mid-afternoon, with a few diners chatting over a late lunch, we peer over the 42-inch-high railing at the White House, standing majestically across 15th Street. To our left, the Washington Monument looks almost close enough to reach out and touch. Beyond, the Jefferson Memorial edges up to the Potomac.
The block-long terrace also affords a view up Pennsylvania Avenue toward the Capitol. Over the years, inaugural parades and presidential funeral processions have traveled that 1.5-mile route, passing the hotel on their way to the White House.
Before heading off for a stroll around President Obama's neighborhood, I try to reserve a table for 10 o'clock that night.
"Oh, no. We're booked till Tuesday," the hostess says apologetically.
Sure enough, when we return that evening, W is hopping. The living room, pulsing to DJ music, is filled with 150 guests and locals sipping drinks, while a dozen people are lined up for the elevator to POV.
"POV is definitely the place to be seen right now," says Carla Barry-Austin of Destination DC, the district's main tourism organization. "It's been awaited for a while. There are the loyal followers, and there's new people."
Flashing our W room card, my wife and I are whisked up to POV on the next elevator instead of standing in line. No tables are available, but we're free to order drinks at the bars on either end of the terrace.
The temperate night air is perfect for nursing a tall, slim gin-and-tonic while gazing at the capital's twinkling lights. On the horizon, planes silently glide by. Up close, the Washington Monument, bright white in the glare of spotlights, serves as a towering accent piece for the terrace's white, black, and red decor.
A U-shaped sitting area of three red couches looks too comfortable to pass up, so we settle in with a couple from North Carolina. Two women join us, and though none of us has a reservation, we're left alone to chat and chill.
"I hate rap - this is nice," the woman from Wisconsin says about the DJ's contemporary lounge vibe that energizes the scene while allowing for comfortable conversation.
After an hour, we're like old friends. One of the women discusses renting her condo to the couple.
Ready to call it a night, my wife and I peek into the adjacent lounge, where a three-piece band is playing in a corner. Floor-to-ceiling windows provide more breathtaking views, and the Moroccan-inspired decor meshes with the capital's international flavor.
Maybe the W wasn't overshadowed, after all.
The W Comes to D.C.
W Washington D.C.
515 15th St NW
The W, owned by Nakheel Hotels and managed by Starwood Hotels. It has 317 guest rooms, including Wonderful (standard) rooms starting at $399 a night; Fantastic Suites, $1,500; Marvelous Suites, $3,000; and WOW Suites, $5,000.
Had a "soft" opening on July 8, grand opening on Oct. 8.
Hotel features include:
Bliss spa (www.blissworld.com)
SWEAT fitness center
WIRED business center
Jean-Georges Vongerichten's J&G Steakhouse (202-661-2440, www.opentable.com)
POV lounge and terrace
Other D.C. viewing spots
555 Pennsylvania Ave. NW
Admission: Adults, $19.95; seniors, military and students, $17.95; youth (7 to 18), $12.95; children (6 and younger), free.
The Hank Greenspun Terrace on the sixth floor provides a bird's-eye view of the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, including the U.S. Capitol, the National Gallery of Art, and the National Archives.
Old Post Office Pavilion
1100 Pennsylvania Ave. NW
The observation deck of the 315-foot granite Clock Tower provides a 360-degree view of D.C. Second only to the Washington Monument as the district's highest vantage point. Open for free, self-guided tours, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Saturday;
10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday.
Admission to the observation deck 500 feet up is free, but tickets are required. Get them at the Washington Monument Lodge, on 15th Street - first-come, first-served - or reserve them ($1.50/ticket charge) at www.recreation.gov, 1-877-444-6777. Open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily through Memorial Day weekend; summer, 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Information: 202-426-6841, www.nps.gov/wamo.
Also in the neighborhood
Another Beaux Arts gem, the Jefferson, at 16th and M streets, reopened
Aug. 31 after a full-scale renovation. The 99-room hotel originally opened in 1923 as a luxury residential building; it has been a hotel since 1955. To mark the reopening, the Jefferson is cutting rates 20 percent through March 31, starting at $300 per night on weekends and $360 weekdays; suites, $460 on weekends, $680 weekdays.
The National Geographic Museum will host "Terra Cotta Warriors: Guardians of China's First Emperor," including 15 terra cotta figures dating to 221-210 B.C., from Nov. 19 to March 31. At 17th & M streets NW. For tickets, go to www.warriorsdc.org or call 202-857-7700.
- Bill Reed
Contact travel editor Bill Reed at 215-854-2459 or firstname.lastname@example.org.