Inside (and Outside) America’s Most Infamous Address
The 1970s Watergate scandal, one of the most defining moments in 20th-century American history, irrevocably altered the country’s political landscape. The events that took place on the 6th floor of the Midcentury Modern complex, however, are just one part of the building’s story. There’s also the construction drama between Italian architectural genius Luigi Moretti and the federal government, as well as other political dramas spurred on by the college campus-like atmosphere the hulking complex evoked.
These stories and more are told for the first time by author Joseph Rodota in his 2018 book, The Watergate: Inside America’s Most Infamous Address. As a historic building nerd who currently works at the Watergate (where the National Trust’s headquarters is located), I was especially interested in Rodota’s take on the building and its salacious past.
Tell me more about your book. I’m especially interested in the way it combines the political history and architectural history of the building.
The book has two entry points for readers. If you’re really into politics and drama, that provides one path through. The historic events and personalities drive the story. But if you love architecture, you also get that aspect out of the book. Making what’s essentially a permitting process feel political seems like a challenge, but it turns out that [the history of the Watergate building itself] was already very dramatic.
I also wanted to introduce architecture to political people, and politics to architectural people. The book bounces between these two issues: the architectural issues of the building, its construction, and its growing pains on one side, and the business happening inside the building--the comings and goings of the most powerful people in the country—on the other. But ultimately, I wanted to give the reader an opportunity to go inside the Watergate over five decades.
Can you talk about the Watergate’s design? It’s often perceived as a piece of Brutalist architecture—is that true?
I’m not an architect, but […] Brutalism as I understand it is very cement, boxy, there aren’t many windows. It’s a controversial style. I think the majority of people misunderstand the Watergate, mostly because the building’s surfaces are treated with a similar sort of cement aggregate material [to that of Brutalism].
The Watergate comes from this genius in Rome, a scholar and philosopher in modern design and architecture named Luigi Moretti. Moretti believed that architecture was transitioning from the circle (a Classical shape), to the oval (a Baroque shape), to the free, unstructured form (the modern shape). He was attempting to move architecture from the Baroque era into modernity. He also thought the Watergate was an opportunity to create an international symbol of Italian genius.
One of the most apparent things about the building is its Italian-ness. [For some historical context], there was nothing sexier than Italy in 1962. This building was designed during the Kennedy years, which was the era of Dolce Vita, Marcello Mastroianni, and Sophia Loren. The first way visitors encounter it is through its surface treatment—an Italian would be far more familiar with its skin than an American would.
The Watergate is also very site-specific. Moretti and his employer thought it was the most important site in the city to build on, because it was where L’Enfant’s original numbered grids started [Pierre Charles L’Enfant designed the basic plan for Washington, D.C. in 1791]. The site marked the end of the natural world with Rock Creek Park and the Potomac River, and the start of the official world with the State Department and the National Mall. The Watergate blends in on the city side and is wilder on the natural side. Moretti and his firm thought through all of these design aspects through very carefully.
It was one of the questions I was trying to answer with my research: Why does this building look the way it looks?
What most surprised you during your research?
One of the things that surprised me was this tension between the exterior of the hotel and its interior design. The interior of the hotel was very traditional, but the structure was designed using very unusual shapes, and the building itself has no right angles. The Watergate’s unique exterior became a problem that the room designer had to solve—so she bought more traditional furniture. The rooms themselves didn’t look like dramatic Italian interiors at all. In fact, the model apartment for the hotel was this Baroque, oriental extravaganza. The hotel has resolved that tension for the first time, as the most recent owners decided to match the exteriors with a high design and avant-garde style on the inside.
What inspired you to write about the Watergate building and its history?
I was developing a play at the time and looking for more stories, and I thought they might be buried somewhere in the National Archives. It was in that mode of digging that I passed by the Watergate and decided to take a second look at it.
During my initial research, I noticed a few things right away that led me to believe it would be a great topic to work on. There are nearly no other books about the Watergate building. There are plenty, of course, about the scandal and its aftermath, since it was one of the most dramatic moments in contemporary history—but none about the building itself. And after poking around the complex for just a few days, I discovered many untold stories that few people had ever heard about.
Why do you think the building hasn’t really been covered in the past?
I suppose that the events that took place at the Watergate were so much bigger and still have such a large place in popular culture that they sucked all the air out of the building’s history. It might also be that Washingtonians are so focused on what’s in Politico or cable news that they don’t take a moment to look at the spaces around them.
What (if anything) might help attract more tourists and locals to the Watergate? Do you think the complex will ever be endangered again?
I do feel like there’s more [space for the area’s improvement] that Washington seems to be missing, and it’s the removal of waterfront freeways. The area around the Watergate, a relic from the 1950s and ‘60s, is far too busy. I think city officials should spend some time thinking about filling in the space between the waterfront and the rest of the city, calming the entire area, and bringing more people down to that part of town.
In the second half of the book, I write about what happens to a 40- to 50-year-old building and what needs to be done to protect it and modernize it. A lot of money had to be spent to save the hotel in particular and bring it back to life.
I don’t feel that it’s at all endangered now, though, in part because the people who lived there put so much work into it—they even campaigned to have it added to the National Register of Historic Places. It seems to me that it’s ripe for the rebirth of the hotel. The offices, which were underperforming for many years, are thriving now.