Recognized internationally for its name, which has even entered the popular lexicon as shorthand for a scandal, the luxury Watergate Complex is a Washington icon. Located on the banks of the Potomac, the modernist buildings of the complex were the result of a private urban redevelopment project of unprecedented scale that transformed an aging, largely industrial area into a luxury business center. The design of the complex was conceived by 1961 and was substantially complete by 1971.
The Watergate is an early example of the modern idea of using proximity and orientation to take advantage of expansive views over rivers and parks, and it was a striking departure from the city’s planning and architectural traditions. Like other modernist urban renewal efforts, it offered a mix of uses, creating a self-contained and self-sufficient unit, but in doing so it erased an older urban fabric of buildings and streets, leaving an insular “town within the city.”
One of the earliest projects to employ computer-aided design to render and dimension the curved exterior surfaces, the Watergate was designed by Luigi Moretti, one of the most important Italian Futurist architects. The modernist landscape design by Boris Timchenko accentuates the space carved out by the buildings, with plantings, fountains and pools on successive gentle terraces affording unimpeded views toward the river from multiple vantage points at different elevations.
Beyond its architecture, the site is most familiar and significant for its notorious role in American history as the location of the bungled break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters during the presidential campaign of 1972. The subsequent cover-up of and investigation into the break-in caused a scandal that nearly led to President Richard M. Nixon's impeachment and that did result to his resignation. The consequences were many and important, including general public disillusionment, subsequent electoral success by the Democrats, and a shift in the balance of power between the executive and legislative branches—not to mention the entry of the word “Watergate” and scores of derivative “-gate” scandals into the lexicon.
DC Inventory: February 24, 2005
National Register: October 12, 2005