Tuesday, June 29, 2010

A Neighborhood Runs Through It: The Hilton Washington

By Beth Herman

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.”

Down to Business

To meet increasing demands of the thousands of annual convention and business travelers who call the Hilton Washington home, the concept of lobby as business center is now illustrated by a communal table for laptops, with seating, and with connectivity possible just about everywhere. The division between lobby, dining room and bar is gone; ordering food or drink while “laptopping” is encouraged, with surrounding flat screen TV’s that flash news and sports landscapes replacing what might have been prints of Frederic Church landscapes in the 1960s. Lobby vistas also include interactive signage - upwards of 30 touch screens - many positioned just outside meeting rooms that enable guests to investigate what’s going on in the hotel, throughout D.C. and flight schedules for that matter. A series of state-of-the-art meeting rooms (drop down projection screens; whiteboards; blackout drapes) that open to outdoor spaces have names such as Katharine Graham and John Jay – with brief histories – which reflect the more familial and community aspects of Washington, as opposed to allusions to the federal city which may characterize other establishments. This is something the architects decided would better define a community-oriented hotel, one where neighbors even have pool memberships.

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.


Anonymous said...

I believe FLW's vision for the site was actually more like a Crystal City, neighborhood within the neighborhood of skyscrapers.

Anonymous said...

Agree with above. FLW was horrible at urban design and buildings. This building is no beauty queen either, but I guess we have to save some of them as a reminder of how bad architecture got in the increadibly wealthy post WWII years!

Anonymous said...

What happened to the condo project? A new condo building was going to be built around the new plaza but I heard it got delayed indefinitely because the developers couldn't get the financing.

Beth said...

I mentioned the condo tower. Please see last sentence, and yes, it was delayed because of the economy and changing trends. It was recently green-lighted again though. -Beth Herman

Anonymous said...

I was disappointed when they decided to landmark and renovate the Hilton instead of tearing it down and rebuilding something that would improve the neighborhood and ultimately provide more value to the property. Unfortunately, this all means that we will be stuck with this eyesore for generations to come.

Anonymous said...

Ugh, nice PR piece produced by the hotel publicist?

A pig with lipstick is still a pig. And the condo tower, so bitterly opposed by all neighbors due to its scale, was pretty much rammed through the development process. Sorry to hear it is "green lite" again. Developers got their way, neighborhood got nothing. And please don't patronize the neighbors by saying that some plastic touches make the hotel turn toward the neighborhood. It's insulting. It's a fortress in the middle of the most livable neighborhoods in the country. What a shame the owners can't see past their profits to embrace that.

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