For the eponymous hotel at 16th and M Streets NW that takes its legacy from the third president of the United States, The Jefferson, though small by hotel standards, looms large in the elite world of luxury accommodations, and even larger in terms of the sparkling shadow it casts over a District where privilege and entitlement are pretty much found in the drinking water.
Undergoing a comprehensive 30-month renovation and restoration and reopening in August of 2009, The Jefferson, on its 86th birthday, emerged with an eye toward innovation and a sense of tribute firmly intact. Not only had the hotel succeeded in celebrating a visionary whose interests, in addition to wine and politics, ran the gamut from architecture to food and literature, but it had seamlessly integrated technology, history and design to create a 21st century environment of which Thomas Jefferson would surely approve. According to Managing Director Franck Arnold, that was precisely the goal.
Built as an apartment building in 1922-23 at a reported cost of $450,000 by Paris-born Beaux-Arts style practitioner Jules Henri de Sibour, The Jefferson was thought to have been converted to a hotel in the late 1940s (no definitive records of the conversion date exist, but a 1948 city directory lists the property as the Jefferson Hotel). With a variety of owners from the 1950s-1980s (a 1953 Washington Post theatre critic called The Jefferson “dear to the show folk” because of its en suite kitchens–kitchens that had not been removed from its days as an apartment building–for après show snacks), the 99-room hotel endured the slings and arrows of well-intentioned incursions into its limestone façade and interior, but not always with the best results.
“All of the mechanical work was replaced for the current renovation,” Arnold said, explaining that in the gutting process, errant columns were discovered including a “rogue column” on the eighth floor that had to be taken out. He also revealed that all 99 bathroom ceilings had to be reinforced with steel beams because “through the years, they renovated without appreciating the structural aspects of the building.”
Architect Mary Oehrlein, whose firm, Oehrlein & Associates Architects, oversaw the restoration aspects of the eight-story project, said that in the hotel industry what the public sees is important, and design and construction dollars are largely focused on that image. To that end, in the current redesign the aforementioned kitchens were walled off, but if somebody wants to reconvert the hotel back to an apartment building in the future, the spaces are still there and usable. In some of the larger suites, Oehrlein added, former kitchen space was converted to a small exercise studio within the suite.
In true glass slipper fashion, The Jefferson’s imposing porte cochere greets its guests with elegance and style, and the anticipation of what lies within. Designed by former Oehrlein & Associates Architects’ Pamela Blom and custom cast by Robinson Iron of Birmingham, Ala., the heated and cooled glass and iron cantilevered structure extends 20 feet from the building’s façade, with a barrel vaulted skylight, side extensions, track lighting and an enclosed vestibule. A sculpted bronze Thomas Jefferson in bas relief looks down on arriving guests, precluding any doubt that this is the place.
“When we closed the hotel for renovation in 2007,” Arnold said, “we had a limited Beaux-Arts inspired canopy that didn’t provide for any sense of arrival or departure. It didn’t say you had come to a luxury hotel.” Arnold explained that initially, the HPRB (Historic Preservation Review Board) jettisoned the concept of the porte cochere, claiming it had no historical basis. Immersing himself in research, Arnold ascertained that the genesis of the old canopy was questionable, with earliest photographs placing it smack in the middle of the 1970s and maybe the ‘80s. The HPRB relented and the porte cochere was born.
Once inside, a confluence of reverence and reverie punctuate a lobby that honors both Jefferson’s intellect and his aesthetic. Opposing busts of Adams and Jefferson - good friends, political enemies and then friends again before their deaths two hours apart on July 4, 1826 (the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence) - preside over Jefferson’s signed documents from the second and third Philadelphia Congresses of the United States. A stately glass and wrought iron gate, retained and redesigned from a prior renovation, leads to the hotel’s Plume restaurant, and The Greenhouse, also for dining, and when closed provides a sense of separation from lobby to sustenance. It might also be observed that the gate’s joyful, ornate gold fleur-de-lis might have been prescient: On January 10 The Jefferson was accepted into the luxury hotel industry’s prestigious Relais & Chateaux - the only Washington, D.C. hotel to receive the honor - whose emblem is the fleur-de-lis.
A vaulted ceiling, skylight and accruing lay light in the lobby and dining areas, constructed when The Jefferson was built in the 1920s but which had disappeared under layers of plaster in successive renovations, were rediscovered, and under the stewardship of ForrestPerkins, the architectural design firm that oversaw The Jefferson’s redesign, enhanced with LED lighting to gently manipulate the changing light of day.
In a leap toward melding history with technology, a bar and lounge off the lobby called Quill tips its proverbial hat to Jefferson, who is thought to have said he prefers the prospect of the future to the lessons of the past. With burnished oak paneling, parquet floors and a series of authentic maps on the walls that illuminate Jefferson’s wine expeditions through France, Holland, Italy and Germany, the maps were a gift from hotel guest Scott Ballin who first stayed at The Jefferson with his father in the 1960s. Most illuminating, however, is the actual bar itself, a behemoth of glass panels threaded with a “light tape” that might make the future-thinking president rethink the need for fire in fireside chats (wrong president, but right idea).
In The Jefferson’s “private cellar,” adjacent to Plume, private parties can dine in wine-friendly temperatures surrounded by 1200 of the hotel’s 6500-bottle wine collection – wines of which perpetual viticulturist (viticulture: the growing of grapes vs. viniculture: the making of wine) Thomas Jefferson would have approved, and some of which he’d even discovered during his years (1784-89) as minister to France and selected for his own cache. After that time, wherein he’d spent 3 ½ months traveling through Europe studying the art of winemaking, grape growing, harvesting, collecting, conserving and serving, according to Arnold, Jefferson returned to Monticello and invented the dumbwaiter to ferry his wines from cellar to what would, in contemporary parlance, be his daytime study. A replica of the Monticello dumbwaiter exists in the hotel’s private cellar, alongside a dining table for 16 (20 if necessary) made from repurposed parquet floors in a nod to sustainability. A 3 X 7-foot hand painted mural with pastoral scenes of Monticello depicts what the nation’s third president would have seen each day, as do various murals in Plume.
“Jefferson believed wine was integral in bringing civilization to a country that was very agrarian back then,” Arnold said, affirming that the cultivation of wine implied sophistication. In fact through the years he was credited with serving as wine advisor to Presidents Washington, Madison and Monroe. But despite Jefferson’s relentless efforts to educate himself in the ways of the vine, and his unofficial partnership with Italian physician, entrepreneur, politico and vintner Philip Mazzei, Jefferson was unsuccessful in decades-long trials to establish vineyards at Monticello. His failure had little to do with climate or soil, as some had speculated, and much to do with the existence of the as yet unidentified phylloxera louse, which attacked his crop at the root.
Trials withstanding, in spirit and sentiment The Jefferson reflects its namesake’s affinity for wine and his myriad other interests, not only in its public spaces, but also in its elegant and individual guestrooms. While rooms vary in décor, many include Crema Marfil stonework from Spain, in some the choice of toile echoes the textiles from his time abroad, and in others framed quotes provide insight into an intellectual, a visionary and occasionally a humorist. Chandeliers are everywhere and linens are 300-thread count from D. Porthault in Paris, custom linen makers to such dignitaries as the John F. Kennedy’s, Charles DeGaulle, Sir Winston Churchill, Grace Kelly and Coco Chanel (Mr. Jefferson would surely approve). Embracing Jefferson’s penchant for invention, rooms are equipped with Bose systems and iPods, as well as wi-fi and broadband. Bathrooms boast in-mirror TV’s and individually controlled recessed heat above the bathtub. In short, why would one ever leave?
Acquired in 2005 and owned by DC CAP Hotelier, LLC, a subsidiary of NY-based Ogden CAP Properties, LLC, Arnold revealed the owners are “very engaged in the well-being of this property.
“Somehow it is very fortunate,” he said, “because nowadays in the world of international corporations, you don’t get people who are so committed to making the right decision and the long term decision. A lot of choices could have been made much more rapidly and probably in a less expensive way than what was actually done,” he stated. “However as the owners like to put it, they did this for their grandchildren.”
Interior photographs by Stirling Elmendorf