"Washington, D.C.," said the late President John F. Kennedy, a Yankee transplant, "is a city of Southern efficiency and Northern charm." True at the time but those days are gone since the town that caters to conventioneers welcomed five boutique hotels that break with convention. Hotel Monaco, Topaz Hotel, Hotel Rouge, Hotel Madera and Hotel Helix, all projects of the San Francisco-based Kimpton Hotel and Restaurant Group, are in the forefront of a host of transformations, improvements and additions in this former "pearls and pinstripes" city.
When the Kimpton Group decided to invest in the city’s future, they started with a building from its past. They hired Adamstein & Demetriou Architects, and California designer, Cheryl Rowley, to renovate the 1839 Tariff Building that once served as the General Post Office. Juxtaposing a classical facade with an eye candy interior, they maintained the original coffered ceilings, wooden moldings and marble floors but broke up the monotonously elongated corridors with hanging lamps covered with mega-sized crimson shades, a regiment of dark draperies, and distractingly bold patterned carpet runners. The sophisticated redo turned this National Historic Landmark into Kimpton’s flagship Hotel Monaco.
I stayed in one of 184 large and luxurious spaces, all with canary yellow walls and cream-colored moldings, soaring windows, and a profusion of bright colors and geometric patterns. There are giggly touches throughout, like a white plaster bust of Thomas Jefferson that peers down from a lofty mahogany armoire. The combination of hip style and cutting edge amenities, which includes a room safe large enough to accommodate a laptop and a downy bed that defies insomnia, attracts adventurous travelers from business people to rock stars.
They find plenty to do in this off the beaten track Penn Quarter neighborhood in the heart of the downtown theater district. A sweet, small Chinatown is within walking distance, as are stylish new art galleries and restaurants such as Butterfield Nine, Oceanaire, Tosca and Andale. A new sports arena, the MCI Center, is just across the street. Ford’s Theater, where Lincoln was shot, is nearby, and so is FBI headquarters, where I tried not to add my fingerprints to the more than 175 billion sets in its collection.
Several retired FBI personnel are on the advisory board of the International Spy Museum, which is a block from the hotel. Executive Director Peter Earnest (ex-CIA) runs this interactive museum with input from a team of Intelligence and Counterintelligence experts, including a retired Major General in the Soviet KGB. A day spent playing Mata Hari taught me how to adopt a cover, break codes, identify disguised spies, and wield a lipstick with a 4.5-millimeter gun in the tube. I also learned that Julia Child, who taught American housewives the art of French cooking, clerked for the CIA but was never a spy, but that Josephine Baker was (for the French), and that German-born Marlene Dietrich recorded songs for broadcast to German soldiers as American propaganda. As for George Washington, he shelled out $50 to start a spy operation during the American Revolution, thus making the father of his country also the father of American intelligence.
Topaz Hotel is a New Age oasis in the residential neighborhood of Dupont Circle, close to boutiques, galleries and cafes. A doorman wearing an Arabian Nights uniform of flowing burgundy, teal and crimson iridescent silks opened the door to the lobby, where a gauzily draped daybed takes center stage. Topaz Lounge opens on to this public space, providing a nighttime spectacle of gemstone-hued lights changing colors and young politicos drinking Guru’s Pleasure cocktails. There is no escaping the blast of European pop tunes, though, so I took refuge in my room, where fluffy down bed pillows topped with small sacs of tranquility-inducing stones assured me of a peaceful sleep. Ommmm.
Independent, stylishly casual restaurants draw a mix of locals and tourists to most Kimpton hotels. The former mail sorting room at Monaco is now Poste, a courtyard eatery with skylights in sixteen-foot high cast iron ceilings and New American food. At Hotel Madera’s Restaurant Firefly, Chef John Wabeck pairs global American bistro dishes with an impressive wine list. An exhibition kitchen and lack of a cover charge or dress code adds to the appeal. The Hotel Rouge and Bar Rouge on sedate Embassy Row attracts a hip, young crowd, though their red-red-red décor is anything but. The Hotel Helix serves breakfast, lunch and cocktails in a lounge with Kimpton’s trademark sassy décor.
The city of Washington, D.C., like Georgetown, is named for our first President, while the District of Columbia honors Christopher Columbus. In 1790, even before it had a name, Congress designated a district "not exceeding ten miles square … on the river Potomac" as the new nation of America’s seat of government. Benjamin Banneker, a gifted African-American man whose own moniker was the "Sable Astronomer," earned $60 (about $600 today) to survey the land. Washington hired Pierre L’Enfant to design the city, but fired him a year later. Irish-born architect James Hoban won a competition to design what has been variously known as the "President’s Palace," the "President’s House," and the "Executive Mansion" before President Theodore Roosevelt officially named it the White House in 1901.
By any name, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is the most important address in this kaleidoscope of American history. Among the many commemorative structures here are shrines that honor Lincoln, Washington and Jefferson, and others that are dedicated to patriots who perished in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. One of the most moving will be a Pentagon Memorial on two tree-shaded acres. It will have 184 illuminated benches, each set above its own reflecting pool and configured to follow the flight path of the doomed aircraft. It is scheduled to open by September 11, 2004.
Nearby is the hallowed ground of Arlington National Cemetery, final resting place of the Unknown Soldier and countless American heroes. John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy sleep here, too, next to a flickering eternal flame. "In the final analysis," said the late President, "our most basic common link, is that we all inhabit this small planet, we all breathe the same air, we all cherish our children’s futures, and we are all mortal."
Washington, D.C. Tourist Info: 800-422-8644
Kimpton Hotel Reservations 800-Kimpton
Consult the Zagat Survey, Washington, DC, for complete restaurant listings.