There's much to see in Washington DC - and who else to explore a city on a swamp than Spear's editor Alec Marsh?
Like many of the best cities, Washington DC is built on a swamp. Not the swamp that Donald Trump once hoped to drain but seems instead to have been rehydrating daily. Rather the swampy tentacles of a mighty river: the Potomac, which snakes eastwards for 400 miles from West Virginia before rinsing out into Chesapeake Bay.
From my west-facing room on the 14th floor of the Watergate Hotel, the broad turn of the Amazonian Potomac lies before me, dotted by dozens of boats. The 6am sun sparkles on the glossy high-rises across the far side in Rosslyn, Virginia, and below, there’s the massed vegetation of Theodore Roosevelt Island, with its 80 acres of trees and trails. To my right I can see Georgetown’s waterfront bars and the Alexandria Aqueduct, over which cars are already steadily pouring in for another day at the administrative heart of the American empire.
After a handsome eggs benedict, I set out for the 20-minute stroll from the hotel to the White House – a leisurely walk along leafy H Street, moving from distinctive, small townhouses, through the precincts of George Washington University and then into downtown. There you’ll pass the International Monetary Fund at 1900, followed by the World Bank. Next you pass the glass and metal edifice of UN Foundations before arriving at the executive mansion, which sits beyond the trees on a slight mound on your right. Among the tourists are assorted antagonists: ‘Is the Bible still relevant today?’ asks one sign; ‘Stop persecuting Christians in Burma,’ notes another. There’s a snake of policeman in matching, immaculate beige kilts, plaid socks and gleaming white spats heading away, past a stall selling ‘Make America Great Again’ baseball caps at $10 apiece. ‘It definitely looks a lot bigger on TV,’ I overhear one tourist remark of 1,600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
An hour later, we cycle past the Gothic Smithsonian castle and out into the heart of the National Mall, the two-mile-long, grassed thoroughfare that forms the heart of this city. Our first stop is the 555ft-tall Washington Monument, a white marble obelisk, completed in 1884, and still the tallest structure in town.
‘When it was finished it was actually the tallest building on earth,’ says our guide, Jay, until the Eiffel Tower knocked it off its perch. It was fitted with a steam-powered lift, too. ‘There’s an urban legend that men would be given cigar and a brandy on the way up,’ adds Jay. Today a notice says the lift is being repaired and is closed ‘indefinitely’.
The cycle tour takes in various memorials, including one to Martin Luther King, opened in 2011. The civil rights leader, wearing an expression of perspicacity and his gaze cast averted from slave-owning Thomas Jefferson, advances from a slab sliced from a small mountain. The inscription reads: ‘Out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.’ And there he is.
From King it is but a short ride to the site of one of his greatest orations (the ‘I have a dream’ speech in 1963), the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Here you look the full length back towards Capitol Hill and can only wonder if Lutyens came here before designing New Delhi, or what other fantasies it has inspired in the minds of men. The National Mall is undeniably a dramatic, imperial architectural statement of intent.
On the left, down among the Smithsonian outposts, is a new sentinel: the three-tiered National Museum of African American History and Culture, the lead designer of which was the Anglo-Ghanaian architect Sir David Adjaye. Opened in 2016, its subterranean three floors retrace some of the noblest and most ignoble steps in human affairs – from the slave trade through to the development of slavery in the US, the civil war, and to segregation and the civil rights movement, all the way to Barack Obama. Exhibits include a full-size train carriage from the segregated era – sobering and sombrely lit – and one of the mint green and chrome bar stools from the Greensboro sit-in in 1960.
When you roll in the top floors – committed to the cultural and sporting contribution of African Americans – this place represents a remarkable contribution to public understanding, story-telling and, I would guess, self-healing. It also offers a firm reason to return to Washington.
Another reason to return is the rooftop bar at the Watergate, one of the crowning delights of the $125 million Ron Arad refurbishment of this iconic DC site, which reopened
in 2016 after a nine-year closure. To whet our appetites we tour the hotel’s themed Scandal Suite – room 214, where in 1972 police officers seized $4,000 in cash and several hundred other artefacts from two of the men arrested for involvement in the break-in of the Democratic National Convention headquarters next door, which was to lead all the way to Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974. The suite, bright and rather upbeat with its framed photographs and memorabilia, is a jaunty reminder of the need to hold executive power to account.
Along with stylish golden and silver interior finishes, there’s more than just a touch of mid-century modern glamour about the hotel. The staff uniforms were created by the costumer designer from Mad Men, and the phone hold music is a recording of Nixon. I should also mention the door keys, which declare ‘There’s no reason to break in’ – this is a place that revels playfully in its past, but it’s contemporary, too. Up on the 15th floor there’s even greater cause for celebration: that rooftop bar, the Top of the Gate, opens at 5pm and is a broad triangular wedge with 360° views of the city and is a delight – as well as a justifiably popular nightspot, with cocktails and pizzas on offer. From up here you get the stunning view of the winding Potomac, of Rock Creek Park, of Georgetown and the Kennedy Center next door – of the tip of the Washington Monument and more.
The rooftop also lets you appreciate the swirling, inviting masses of the Watergate complex itself, Italian architect Luigi Moretti’s Expressionist Sixties masterpiece, one that Nixon himself may have ruminated upon from the presidential helicopter.
Or not, as the case may be.
Alec Marsh is editor of Spear's