Frank Lloyd Wright was right. The story goes that in the 1940s, the iconoclast architect stood on the site of the future Hilton Washington, next to a once grand but derelict Victorian mansion known as "The Heights," declaring it a prime location for a hotel. Two decades later, Conrad Hilton shared that vision and on March 28, 1965, built in the signature 1960s and '70s Brutalism style of the American modernist movement by architect William B. Tabler Sr., the hotel - at 1919 Connecticut Ave. NW - opened its doors to what continues to be a Washington keystone.
With more than one million s.f. of space and following a massive, three-year (concept-to-champagne) $150 million renovation - and in many spaces a painstaking restoration - the Hilton Washington is still going strong, having reinvented itself in time for a re-launch on May 25. Shepherded by OPX Global architects, under the auspices of owners Lowe Enterprises and the Canyon-Johnson Urban Fund which purchased the property for $290 million in 2007, the hotel has achieved historic preservation status in its quest to become a coveted landmark property, and also included community focus groups, to reestablish itself as a seminal neighborhood landmark.
Up to the Challenge
“They’re really trying to be a hotel that lives in Kalorama, lives in DuPont, lives in the U Street Corridor,” said W. David Owen, OPX principal, explaining that among other things, his firm opened up the property by improving the clarity of glass on the public levels so neighbors could see into the lobby when illuminated at night. Conversely, the profile of the landscaped dome outside was lowered for more visual access from the inside out to the sidewalk. Soon-to-be realized plans for a Starbucks just inside the lobby will serve both hotel guests and area residents, and in an effort to improve relationships with most of the neighbors, according to Owen, the loading dock, where facilitating large exhibits has been known to impede street travel, was redesigned in ways that included reworking turn planes and improving capability to accept larger bay trucks.
In the big picture, among the many design challenges for OPX Global was an effort to establish a sense of flow and make every space feel seamless, according to Owen, who noted it had been “chopped up” in prior renovations. In part this was achieved by establishing a basic palette at the front door with very light finishes in contrast to dark woods, something that resonates throughout the property. Bringing the building back to its modernist roots, in light of prior renovations, also posed a challenge, as did a 21st century dictum for the integration of pervasive and visible technology vis-à-vis “raising the hotel up into the luxury market.”
Around the Room(s)
According to Owen, when the hotel was built, “…it was kind of an interesting hybrid because the latest trend at that time was motor courts.” Accordingly, the 1,250 guestrooms – all of which faced out and curved per Tabler’s design – were very small, emblematic of the “clean, efficient, moderately priced” motor court credo. “It stood in contrast to some of the grand hotels that were here, which serves well for a convention market where people are not in their rooms for most of the day,” Owen explained. Efficiency withstanding, and without altering the guestroom footprint, OPX Global rallied to visually expand the stark, small, utilitarian “pie wedge-shaped” rooms to include warm bathroom granite-topped cabinetry that “looks like a piece of furniture,” and replace doors with translucent glass sliders. Bathroom floors are marble, and combination light/mirror fixtures both conserve and open up space.
The hotel is renowned for its legendary 35,815 s.f. International Ballroom which seats 2,700 and, according to one source, is one of the largest public hotel spaces south of NY and east of the Mississippi. The ballroom is the annual scene of the crime for the White House Correspondents Association dinner, among other glittering events, including one of 2008’s inaugural balls. A brand new 15,000 s.f. exhibition space, Columbia Hall, is part of an additional 20,000 s.f. of public space added to the hotel, and can be used as a whole or partitioned into four separate rooms or two banks of two with a center corridor. “Actually I believe there are almost 10 configurations they can do with walls around the center,” Owen said, with the center portions having 14-foot ceilings to comply with Hilton brand’s requisite for social event rooms.
“All of the construction was done while the hotel was operating,” Owen stated. “It never closed, except for one two-week period after holiday parties when things slow down, in order to relocate a massive amount of plumbing that involved the ceiling in the lobby area. Forfeiting 100 of the hotel’s 1250 guestrooms to the renovation, the hotel anticipates creating long term rental suites for business travelers replete with kitchenettes and other extended living-type amenities. The owners have also received approval from the District to build a condo tower on the property, wherein residents will be able to share hotel amenities such as maid service, health club, catering and more, according to Owen.