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The presidents' hotel.


You're sure to enjoy dining at"Nicholas," a new haute cuisine restaurant just off the bronze-doored entrance to the newly refurbished, circa 1925 Mayflower Hotel in downtown Washington, D.C. But as beautiful as the new restaurant is, Nicholas has a long way to go before it commands the kind of loyalty J. Edgar Hoover gave its predecessor: Local lore has it that the FBI director lunched on grapefruit salad every day at the same table for 20 years. In true crime-fighting style, they say, Hoover sat with his back to the wall, in a corner where he could scan both the entire restaurant and, through a nearby window, the sidewalk scene outside.

The Mayflower Hotel, a historicaltreasure little known in the hinterlands, is a name recognized mainly by history buffs who've seen it crop up in one of those 800-page narratives of the New Deal or the Kennedy administration. It's part of unofficial Washington history. The parades passed it by; the tourist guides give it short shrift; and its imposing architecture has been lost among the monumental glories of our nation's capital. It's rather been a part of everyday life in the capital, a short walk from the White House, its massive facade looming over Connecticut Avenue, its girth extending east to 17th Street. Through its full-city-block promenade (one of the first enclosed pedestrian malls in the world), a daily stream of Washingtonians--both political and downtown-business types as well as foreign dignitaries and celebrities--has made its way. In happier times, long before the White House became a compound surrounded by anti-car-bomb fortifications, Harry Truman was known to stroll up Connecticut Avenue to the Mayflower to get his shoes shined.

Once every four years the Mayflowerabandoned its private-citizen role and became part of official Washington. From Calvin Coolidge to Ronald Reagan, every elected president scheduled an inaugural ball in the Grand Ballroom. (Reagan ended the string in 1985; Coolidge missed his own party in '25 because he was in mourning.) Between inaugural balls the hotel maintained its quasi-official status by receiving such midcentury superstatesmen as de Gaulle, Churchill, and Krushchev; providing a Washington residence for vice presidents (Dawes, Curtis) and members of Congress (Everett Dirksen, Emanuel Celler); hosting an Eisenhower prayer meeting that included V.P. Nixon, Cabinet and Supreme Court members, 89 senators, and 300 congressmen; and setting up a temporary embassy in 1973 for 35 officials of the People's Republic of China (mandarin cuisine and Ping-Pong table included).

In early 1933 a president-elect stayingat the Mayflower turned to more serious matters than planning his inaugural ball. Seated in his Mayflower suite, Franklin Roosevelt drafted the speech that would bolster millions of Depression-weary Americans: "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself," the new president would promise.

So for six decades the lifeblood ofWashington--statesmen, politicians, royalty, movie stars, artists, and writers--passed through the huge bronze doors on Connecticut Avenue. But those whose work or patronage spanned that time could hardly miss the gradual change that had taken place. One by one the grand features in the vast promenade and the four high-ceilinged ballrooms were "remodeled"; enormous skylights disappeared to maintain the WWII blackout; and later, to keep up with the times, the gold-decked columns and the wrought-iron railings in the front lobby were covered by paneling. Walls with Italianate murals were hidden; the bronze doors gave way to stainless steel and glass.

Now $65 million has made theMayflower very nearly what it used to be. Since 1982 Stouffer Hotels has uncovered the lobby's columns and decorated their capitals with 23-karat gold leaf. It has removed the paneling and a lowered ceiling to reveal a 26-by-60-foot skylight over the lobby and a smaller, domed skylight over the Cafe Promenade, where Eleanor Roosevelt liked to take her tea. Chandeliers are once again dangling, carpets have unfurled, and service plates once part of Evalyn Walsh MacLean's estate have been brought up from the sub-sub-basement. (Appraisal determined the plates to be fire gold-gilded-rather than solid gold, as hoped.) The Mayflower Hotel has reclaimed its rightful place upon the National Register of Historic Places; and in an era no longer so self-conscious about magnificence for its own sake, the hotel has become a gracious, living museum linking us with the recent American past.

Where else could a visitor be sosure to hear a story like this one?--Mayflower legend has it that one day J. Edgar Hoover, having seated himself at the aforementioned corner table in the restaurant now called Nicholas, began to scrutinize the luncheon clientele with a practiced eye. Even the hard-bitten crime-fighter was amazed by who turned up at an adjoining table--a member of Hoover's own elite, ten-most-wanted list! What to do? Determined not to let the scoundrel upset his daily routine, Hoover calmly strode to a pay phone in the lobby and informed headquarters of his find. FBI agents duly arrived and took the foolish felon away while Hoover methodically polished off his grapefruit salad.

If you tip the maitre d', you mightget J. Edgar's spot for yourself.
COPYRIGHT 1986 Saturday Evening Post Society
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Copyright 1986 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Mayflower Hotel, Washington, D.C.
Author:Roberts, Robin
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Jan 1, 1986
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