WASHINGTON – When the Watergate complex was built in the 1960s, it was just a group of buildings on the western edge of the nation's capital. Then, 40 years ago Sunday, police in Washington arrested five men breaking into the office of the Democratic National Committee there.
Scandals, from Monicagate to Troopergate, haven't been the same since.
These days, though, there's little marking the location of the 1972 crime that ultimately led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon. The office building that was the site of the break-in is still in use, though tenants have changed. The adjacent hotel where the burglars stayed is currently closed. And another hotel across the street where a lookout watched the night of the break-in, with a walkie-talkie on hand, has been turned into a college dorm.
Jane Freundel Levey, the chief historian for Cultural Tourism DC, a coalition of city cultural and heritage groups, says there's talk of installing a set of historical signs in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood where the buildings sit. If that happens, the spaces that played a part in the Watergate drama will certainly be marked, she said.
"We are a nation of people who make pilgrimages," she said, adding that people like knowing when they're standing on a historic spot.
Now, however, most tourists visiting Washington head to see the Capitol, the Declaration of Independence, the theater where President Abraham Lincoln was shot and the Smithsonian museums, where interactive exhibits and tour guides await. There's nothing like that at the Watergate, which sits along the banks of the Potomac River next to the city's John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
The site is about a half-mile from the nearest subway station and not on the route of the city's red, double-decker tour buses. The surrounding neighborhood is full of George Washington University students and federal government workers, but the Watergate is a little farther away.
"It's somewhat quiet down there," said Carolyn Crouch, founder of Washington Walks, a group that takes people on neighborhood walking tours and who leads a tour of the area about twice each year. "It's really pretty peaceful."
What visitors get if they make the trek is city dwellers, going about their business.
The Democratic National Committee, the burglars' target, moved out of the Watergate long ago. The group's offices are now across town, just south of the U.S. Capitol. The sixth-floor office space the committee once occupied now houses the office of the Iraqi embassy's military attaché and a doctor's office. A real estate company that bought the building in 2011 has plans for millions of dollars of upgrades, but half the building is currently vacant.
Empty, too, are the more than 200 rooms of the Watergate Hotel, the building next to the office where the burglars checked into rooms 214 and 314 under assumed names. When police arrived to search the rooms, they found electrical equipment, blue surgical gloves and thousands of dollars in brand-new 100-dollar bills. The hotel was closed for renovations in 2007, and its current owners have said they plan to make changes including adding more than 100 rooms, but the hotel won't open until at least 2013.
Perhaps the biggest changes have been to what was the Howard Johnson's Motor Lodge across the street from the Watergate office building. That's where former FBI agent Alfred C. Baldwin III sat in a hotel room and listened to telephone wiretaps placed by the burglars at the Democratic National Committee offices during a first, undetected burglary in May. Baldwin was in room 723 on the night of the second fateful caper, June 17.
The hotel's owners eventually capitalized on the room's fame, installing a brass plaque declaring the space "The Watergate Room" in 1996. Inside, they hung framed reproductions of newspapers from that era and stocked the room with Watergate videos and books. It didn't last.
George Washington University bought the hotel three years later and turned it into a dorm. Students assigned to the seventh floor initially participated in Watergate-related activities, and Room 723 remained empty because of its historical significance. But the university changed its mind in 2001, gathering up memorabilia that had been in the room, depositing it in the school's archives and assigning the room to students.
Sarah Steckler, who graduated in 2007 and is now an attorney in New York, lived in the room her freshman year. She said she remembers students taking pictures with the plaque outside her door or knocking and asking to see inside. The students, born years after Nixon's infamous resignation, were generally disappointed with what they saw.
"Inside it was a standard dorm room," she said.