Joseph Rodota’s new book The Watergate: Inside America’s Most Infamous Address (William Morrow) presents the story of a building complex whose name is recognized around the world as the address at the center of the United States’ greatest political scandal—but one that has so many more tales to tell. In this excerpt from the book, the author looks into the design and construction of a building The Washington Post once called a “glittering Potomac Titanic,” a description granted because the Watergate was ahead of its time, filled with boldface names—and ultimately doomed.
On the evening of October 25, 1965, the grand opening of the Watergate was held for fifteen-hundred guests. Luigi Moretti, the architect, flew in from Rome. Other executives came from Mexico, where the Watergate developer, the Italian real estate giant known as Societa Generale Immobiliare, was planning a community outside Mexico City, and from Montreal, where the company was erecting the tallest concrete-and-steel skyscraper in Canada, designed by Moretti and another Italian, Pier Luigi Nervi.
Earlier that year, Moretti, on his way back from Montreal, stopped in Washington to celebrate the “topping off” of the first building, Watergate East. He stepped out of a champagne reception at the sales center to share his thoughts with a Washington Post reporter.
Washington’s public buildings, Moretti said, “are too many, they are too massive, and they are too conformist.” There was no evidence in the typical federal building, he said, of either the “spirit” of the architect or the function of the government agency. As a result, “the overall beauty of Washington has suffered.”
On April 1, 1967, the Watergate Hotel opened to the public. The interiors of the 213-suite “apartment hotel” were designed by Ellen Lehman McCluskey of New York, a daughter of a Lehman Brothers partner and a debutante, presented at the Court of St. James. According to a Watergate press release, she selected “period pieces” to “soften” the hotel’s modern interiors. Her lobby design was “oriental in feeling,” with leather sofas, antique Chinese chairs and a European commode. She placed abstract paintings throughout the common areas. “The curvature of the exterior walls, the vast expanse of windows and the fact that all the supporting members of columns extend into the rooms posed a number of interior designing problems,” according to Interior Design, “which Mrs. McCluskey has solved by presenting 89 different furniture arrangements to satisfy each irregularity of plan….”
The Watergate Office Building opened the same day. According to a press release, the office building was “more restrained in its design” than the hotel and apartments and was the only building “without sweeping balconies.”
The complex was near completion. Watergate West was under construction. Only one building remained – the third apartment tower, to be built adjacent to the Kennedy Center.
On December 2, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson had turned the first shovel of dirt at the groundbreaking ceremony for the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Later that day, Roger Stevens briefed the trustees on the Watergate. The fifth and final building in the development, he said, would rise forty-one feet above the above the main roof of the Kennedy Center. At a meeting on March 12, 1965, the center’s executive committee unanimously adopted a resolution stating that the final Watergate building would “seriously impair the esthetic values of the Center.”
Wolf Von Eckardt, the Washington Post’s architecture critic, sided with the Kennedy Center. “The southernmost, massive, sausage-like building of this wiggly complex,” he wrote, “encroaches to within 300 feet upon what is to be a national shrine. The dignity of the John F. Kennedy Center demands more land, air around it.”
At its September 1967 meeting, the Kennedy Center board of trustees voted unanimously to oppose construction of the final Watergate building. They had tried to work with the developers to reduce the height and had been unsuccessful. Now they wanted the building nixed entirely.
The Commission of Fine Arts, the federal agency responsible for protecting the aesthetic quality of Washington, took up the matter in a closed session later that month. In the eyes of the commission, the Watergate was no longer an issue. The problem was Stone’s design for the Kennedy Center.
“Frankly,” said Gordon Bunshaft, a Kennedy appointee, the Watergate fit the Potomac River site “much better than that thing Stone is doing.” The Watergate, he added, was designed before the Kennedy Center – and therefore was one of the “problems” Stone had to work with, “which he ignored.”
The next day, in public session, Stone appeared before the Commission. “It is my belief that this building should not be built,” Stone said, gesturing to an illustration of the final piece of the Watergate.
Commissioner Ted Roszak, another Kennedy appointee, asked Stone what he would do if someone came to him and suggested one of his designs should be cut in half. Now, you may not agree with Mr. Moretti,” Roszak said, “but this man has a right to his expression, and I think it is tremendously presumptuous to tell an artist what to do.”
“I have a compassion for fellow creative workers,” Stone sniffed. “I haven’t said the buildings were ugly.”
Nicolas Salgo, representing the Watergate team, read from a Washington Post report five years earlier in which Stone said the Watergate would not “crowd in” on the National Cultural Center, the original name of the Kennedy Center. “I think it will look wonderful together with the Center,” Stone reportedly said.
“I have no recollection of making such a statement,” Stone asserted. “Certainly, I never made it formally. It is a suicidal statement, and I doubt under any circumstances that I would be that foolish.”
Stone failed to persuade the Commission of Fine Arts to stop construction. The commissioners approved the final Watergate building, at the same height as the rest of the complex. They added, however, that their action “should in no way affect” any efforts by the Kennedy Center to acquire the site from the developers.
The Washington Post published an editorial slamming the “unattractive arrogance” of the Kennedy Center trustees. “Maybe the Kennedy Center would look a little better if the White House were moved slightly to the left,” the Post sneered. “Maybe the lily of culture could be guilder a trifle by moving the Watergate Development to the other side of the Potomac.”
The Kennedy Center trustees, however, refused to surrender.