Virtually forgotten amid the machinations of the upcoming presidential election is the 40th anniversary of the Watergate break-in, the “third-rate burglary attempt” that ultimately led to the downfall of President Richard Nixon, and engrained a certain degree of cynicism about the political process in the U.S. that, at least for some people, has only deepened over the intervening decades.
As the story unfolded in the months following the arrest of five men inside the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters during the early morning hours of June 17, 1972, Italian architect Luigi Moretti’s complex of distinctively curved buildings constructed in the 1960s alongside the Potomac River gained worldwide notoriety.
Never mind that the Watergate Office Building where the break-in occurred is one of five buildings at the 10-acre site. There are also approximately 600 luxury apartments and condominiums, and a hotel. Watergate became a glass-and-concrete case of guilt by association.
Even the name—taken from a nearby set of steps once envisioned as a ceremonial gateway to Washington for water-borne dignitaries—took on a life of its own. Any scandal, large or small, earth-shattering or petty, always seems to have “-gate” attached to it.
The complex itself continues to attract tourists and casual gawkers, though its insidious edge has dulled over the years. Owners of the various building elements have come and gone in step with the fates of the local real estate market. But now, as then, the Watergate’s luxury apartments and condominiums are an attractive address for political leaders of all stripes, celebrities, and simply those who can afford a nice view and convenience to the Nation’s Capital.
Now comes word that the Watergate Office Building’s new owners, Penzance, will begin a renovation of the 45-year-old, 198,000-sq ft structure this week.
It won’t be a huge overhaul. According to the Washington Business Journal, most of it will be focused on updating the interior in hopes of luring tenants to the vacant upper floors. There are also no plans to make the sixth floor, where the DNC’s offices were located, any different than the rest of the building.
“We’re just going to market it as office space,” Penzance’s senior vice president of leasing, Matt Pacinelli, told WTOP Radio. “We don’t really want to disrupt the experience of our other tenants in the building, but we’re hopeful that we’ll find a tenant that appreciates the history there.”
The same may not be true for a nearby, yet lesser known constructed player in the Watergate saga—the former Howard Johnson Motor Lodge across the street from the Watergate which served as the burglary team’s “headquarters.” That nine-floor building, built in 1965, was purchased by George Washington University and converted into student housing.
A GW alumna shared her experience of living in the infamous “Room 419” in a 2007 blog post. Neither she nor anyone else occupying the renamed “Hall on Virginia Avenue” was alive when the break-in occurred. So no one should be surprised if any contemporary recognition of the site’s significance is along the lines of, “Dude, this is where Watergate happened.” “Really? Awesome!”
For those of us who did live through Watergate, and recall the trauma inflicted on the American pysche, the namesake complex does have a little more lasting relevance. But it’s nice to know that the Watergate, like the nation itself, has adapted and endured, even with all those other pesky "-gates".