The economy in free fall. The international situation precarious. Faith in elected representatives seemingly at an all-time low. As we pulled up before the Jefferson Hotel , we mused on the eponymous figure for whom it is named. What would he and the other Founders make of the current political situation?
But then our attentions were diverted as we entered the lovely 1923 Beaux Arts building on 16th and M, only four blocks from the White House. Directly before us, a pair of grand wrought-iron gates fronted an exquisite small dining room beneath a sky-lit barrel-vaulted ceiling; at its center, a magnificent floral arrangement was on display. Several Empire-style desks for check-in or concierge service were positioned at either end, a long black-and-white-checkered marble floor laid on the diagonal across the width of a lobby defined by a wealth of ornamental plasterwork and classical architectural detail — a combination that only enhanced our expectation that the weekend before us would be filled with the pleasures of luxurious accommodations, fine dining, and excellent service. And it was.
The Jefferson is a splendid 21st century, 99-room (including 20 suites) hotel that is also an evocation of and tribute to the third president of the United States. Through décor and artifacts, original documents and maps, paintings, photographs, and murals, even actual bottles of wine, the visitor is drawn into the life and times of Thomas Jefferson.
How a hotel can reveal as much is the secret of this exceptional place. The process of discovery, however, is gradual. It began soon after our arrival when we had a late lunch in Quill. This is the smaller and more informal of the Jefferson’s two dining rooms; the other is Plume; the names were chosen for their connection to the “Declaration of Independence.”
We noticed a series of framed maps on the adjacent wall and stepped up for a closer look. Each of them documented a different portion of a wine-oriented journey Jefferson took through France, Spain, Italy and Germany. Along the margins of every map, handwritten notes described impressions of vineyards visited, wines sampled. Lunch arrived: a macaroni and cheese au gratin casserole made with comté, a Salad Nicoise with small rectangles of grilled tuna, white potatoes, and miniature quail eggs –a couple of examples early in our stay of the understated Gallic influence permeating the hotel.
We opened the door to our sixth floor corner suite. Several short square vases were filled to overflowing with gorgeous blooms. These, along with flat-screen televisions, sublime Porthault bed and bath linens, modern bathroom fixtures, including a television screen hidden in the mirror, well-placed and easy to operate electronic marvels, that attended to such details as temperature control and Internet connections, were part of the Jefferson modern luxury hotel scene.
But there were subtle evocations of the Jefferson’s historic theme as well: the bed’s headboard and footboard upholstered in a toile de jouy; a pair of 18th century portraits and a mixture of French provincial with contemporary American furnishings — chairs with white-washed arms upholstered in velvet or silk in warm tones of brown, cocoa, and burnished gold; desks and tables polished to a high gloss.
Amidst the flowers in the Greenhouse: Sales Director Joan Esposito
We met Joan Esposito, the Jefferson’s sales director, for dinner that evening at a spacious round table in Plume. “This property is so unique,” Joan said. Across from us, a mural on a silk-lined wall depicted a Monticello vineyard. Before us, silver-gray drapes had been parted, revealing the small dining space that had so enchanted us when we first arrived. From its opposite end, we could see that the panes of glass in the barrel-vaulted skylight had been lit from above and were casting a golden glow.
“That was the greenhouse of the residential apartment house that was built here in 1923,” Joan told us as we began dinner with a lovely Fleur sparkling rosé and an unusual but amazing amuse bouche of foie gras with chocolate (!). “Today it serves breakfast and lunch; at night it is part of the Plume’s dining room. The exterior of the hotel remains just as it was in 1923, but the interior was transformed into a hotel in 1955. Nearly 50 years later, it was bought by the Philip and Connie Milstein, a brother and sister from New York. They had the property gutted. It ended up taking 30 months before the hotel finally opened August 31, 2009.
“During that time the Milsteins had the opportunity to learn about Thomas Jefferson,” Joan continued, “his love of France and Monticello, how he was a farmer at heart but also an avid reader with an incredible appetite for education having gone to the College of William and Mary and later on founding the University of Virginia. So much of what they discovered has found a place in the hotel.
The hotel’s wine cellar contains more than 1,000 labels of the wines Jefferson loved — and those sommelier Michael Scaffidi thinks he would have loved, especially the Champagnes, Meursaults and White Burgundies. Also Madeiras: 39 of them, offered by the glass, the oldest from 1780, the newest 2000. “Someone orders a Madeira every night,” Michael said. “We also have small wine tastings called ‘Fifty Years of Madeiras.’”
Michael also has a special fondness for wines from Eastern Europe and Rieslings, and when he learned of our interest in Austrian Rieslings, he suggested a 2007 Hirsch Gaisberg. Served in delicate Venetian glasses with slender green stems, it was a beautiful shade of yellow, had the fragrance and flavors of peaches and apricots, and proved an excellent accompaniment to a dinner which featured lobster “thermidor” made with a white wine and saffron glaçage and served with cherry tomatoes and herbed fingerling potatoes; and grilled diver sea scallops – among the largest we’d ever seen, served with golden beet risotto in a beet reduction.
Executive Chef Chris Jakubiec
These were but two of the culinary creations of Executive Chef Chris Jakubiec in a menu featuring contemporary American favorites with a Gallic grace note. Good-looking, young, and earnest, Chris grew up in Middletown, Connecticut, the son and grandson of dentists on his father’s side. Chris, however, went to the French Culinary Institute and became a chef.
He works with local farmers to obtain the freshest and best quality produce and eggs, uses Martin’s beef, Maryland crab; all his fish is local. “There is such bountiful produce in this region. I want to do things worthy of a venue like this. The cuisine has to fit with this beautiful room, the style of service, the whole experience,” Chris noted.
Following dinner, Joan escorted us on a tour. In the lobby, she pointed out original documents signed by Jefferson hanging on the walls. She opened the door to a private dining room with a lovely impressionistic-style mural of a vineyard at its far end. Sharing space with a dumbwaiter that brings wines up from the cellar (a Jeffersonian invention), were floor-to-ceiling glass-fronted cabinets down either side of the long room, their shelves filled with bottles of wine, including some of the rare Madeiras. And she showed us the inviting Book Room, a paneled retreat where Afternoon Tea is served. With comfortable furnishings and a wood-burning fireplace, one could imagine curling up with one of the 800 plus books arranged on open shelves. “Most of them deal with Jefferson,” Joan told us. “But you’ll also find copies of books donated by their authors who have stayed here. We’ve had quite a few, along with dignitaries, heads of states, major figures from the arts. We don’t call the press with such news. It’s important to us that we guard the privacy of all our guests.”
Everywhere you look is something to take note of and admire. Hallways are miniature art galleries showcasing 18th-century prints and etchings; public rooms and suites are decorated with museum-quality paintings. “There are about a thousand pieces of art in the building, most of them belonging to Ms. Milstein,” Joan said. “She has a great eye and worked hand-in-hand with the architect and design team.”
In the dining rooms: Attila Lajko
Clearly the Milsteins have fulfilled the promise implicit in the name they chose for their hotel. The Jefferson is more than a hotel that doubles as a museum. For one thing, it brims with the vitality born of a universally charming and competent staff numbering 145, all of whom share in the spirit of this very American institution even though many are not American.
“We have many international guests,” Joan said, “and we want to have someone around who speaks their language.” Among them are servers Salvador Cañas from El Salvador and Attila Lajko, from the oldest city in Hungary. Janelle Johnson, an aesthetician in the Jefferson spa, however, is American, a native Washingtonian.
Janelle came to our room to personally escort us to the spa – a royal introduction to a royal facility. This full-service operation offers an array of massages, body rituals, facials, salon services, and for men only, a classic barbershop experience courtesy of Truchitt & Hill, British groomers that go back to the time of Jefferson. With only three treatment rooms and services limited to only a few at a time, there is a privacy and intimacy.
At the front door: Antoine Pitroipa
The life and legacy of Thomas Jefferson had been a subtext throughout our stay. The thoughts and sentiments it inspired linger. Looking up some of the former president’s famous commentaries, we are stunned by their prescience. Not only did they provide guides to the establishment of a new nation back in the 18th century, they speak with wisdom and conviction to the current political debate.
1200 16th Street, NW
Washington, DC 20036
Phone: 202 448 2300