“You must be happy to work here!” a man in a business suit told the bartender who stood behind the huge bar in the atrium of the Old Post Office. The building, which is standing in the heart of capital, has been transformed into a hotel by Donald Trump. In it, the huge bar resembles the command bridge of a transatlantic ship, and the bartender has the physique of a security guard. And yes, he was happy. He served me a glass Lemelson Pinot Noir for $17 — decent — then moved to the man next to me, who was chatting with two ladies further down the bar. He ordered his second mojito. “He should do this kind of thing and not get involved with politics,” I heard one of ladies telling my neighbour.
“He” was Donald Trump, of course. Every single person gathered around the bar was in the place for him: the real estate billionaire who managed to get his hands on the huge building — much bigger than the White House just a few blocks away. That’s why I was there, too. I wanted to see if the newly opened hotel was doing any better than the golden Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue in New York that I visited recently. Trump’s New York headquarters gave me the impression that it was in the twilight of its years. Short on customers and visitors, the big, silent place almost seemed as to be getting a bit rusty.
Regardless of the tackiness of the bar’s tall shelves, filled with an endless collection of crystal glass whisky bottles, the building’s atrium is no doubt much more alive than Trump Tower’s empty halls and restaurants. The Old Post Office is enormous, and could easily serve as a concert hall or even a basketball arena. It would not be so elaborate if not for Trump, who used the steel structure that supports the glass ceiling to hang murano chandeliers, which he then forgot to light. It was early evening, and aside from two dozen of us sitting on the tall stools at the main bar, there were other people seated in comfortable armchairs around the low bar tables scattered across the ground floor of the atrium. The tables in the mezzanine restaurant that served an early dinner were pretty full. But I didn’t see anybody checking in or out at the various reception desks, nor any cars coming or going in front of the hotel, which is meant to be the biggest and most luxurious of its kind, as Trump announced — and the most expensive, too, as cynics added. How else can Trump bring back the $200 million that he spent on transforming an abandoned “cathedral in the desert” into the jewel of the hotel industry?
The mojito man sitting next to me said that he was of Cuban origin, now an estate businessman and American citizen. And clearly a Donald Trump fan: ”These kinds of people should be banned from coming in here,” he said angrily about the two ladies down the bar, who obviously did not like Trump as a politician. I asked him why he likes Trump, and he told me his name was Scarface. Yes, an Al Pacino type — or rather, Tony Montana, the determined Cuban immigrant who took over a drug cartel in Miami in the 1983 Brian de Palma film. It rang a bell, but I did not quite understand the connection between Scarface and Donald Trump.
A new guest sat next to me. Robert was born in Spain and became an American because one of his parents was American. He was in his mid 50s, and in 2010, he ran to be the mayor of Jacksonville. But he had to give up politics, since he did not raise enough money for a decent campaign. He now advises on reorganization of companies — most of them military. And perhaps with Trump in power, when America is “great again,” there will be more money for him to run for a public administration job again. Who knows?
Robert shares Trump’s opinion on immigration and on the inefficiency of the Obama administration. “Time to end with this political class,” he said to me, giving me an impression that he could vote for Bernie Sanders, too. If only Bernie had a hotel like Trump’s…
However, none of the folks I spoke with were hotel guests. They were there because they were curious or because they supported Trump and wanted to belong. The hotel had a soft opening in September, and it’s meant to open for good in late October with a grand gala. The hotel management is already selling a package that’s worth $500,000 for next year’s inaugural parade, when the new president will be sworn in. The package includes a dinner for 24 people, first-class tickets to D.C. for a couple from anywhere in the U.S., and of course, a grand view of the parade along Pennsylvania Avenue.
“There ain’t gonna be any formal opening,” a security guard told me at the entrance of the hotel when I went back to the place after the second presidential debate. I wanted to feel the atmosphere and see what supporters thought of the new situation — would they, too, put Hillary Clinton in jail?
Well, I found that the three doors that used to be the main entrance to the Post Office were bolted. They obviously closed them after the minor protest earlier that day. As the security guard told me, they closed the three doors that faced Pennsylvania Avenue for security reasons: ”You want to know who you let in, since there are many important people in our hotel. Plus, there is no need for the formal inauguration — the whole country already knows about this hotel.”
As I walked into lobby, I felt like I was the most important person in this half-empty hotel. The bartender recognized me when I was wandering around, came up to me and shook my hand. But I did not feel like a drink. All of a sudden, I thought that the International Trump Hotel in Washington, D.C., might be another one of Trump’s failures — that somebody set him up in a trap.
The building, which looks like a pretentious Disneyland castle, can hardly be considered a piece of architecture that is part of the power structure in America’s capital. The buildings where power resides are all important pieces of neoclassic architecture, which dominates the Federal Triangle, the most important cluster of administrative buildings in the capital. But the Old Post Office, built in 1899, with its 96-meter-tall clock tower, was never really loved by the locals. Built in an early variety of Romanesque Revival style known as Rundbogenstil (“Round-arched style”) that was popular in German lands and amongst the German diaspora beginning in the 1830s.
The building got jinxed a year after opening by an accident that took the life of D.C. Postmaster James P. Willett. On September 30, 1899, Willett fell 90 feet (27 meters) down an open elevator shaft. Nothing more than a flimsy wooden barrier prevented access to the shaft. Willett died a day later.
The building only served as a post office until 1914. In the 1920s, when Congress set out its plan to build the Federal Triangle with the Department of Commerce, the Internal Revenue Service building, the Department of Justice, and other important government buildings, the Post Office was added to the list of buildings to be demolished.
But as much as it was hated — senator Joseph Roswell Hawley called it “a cross between a cathedral and a cotton mill” — the creature, which had been designed by Willoughby J. Edbrooke, survived to this day by shear luck. Plans to raze the redundant building had to be put on hold due to a lack of funding during the Great Depression. At the beginning of the 1970s, Congress finally decided to tear down the now dilapidated building. But a local preservation group, led by Nancy Hanks, head of the National Endowment for the Arts, opposed the demolition due to the presumed historical and architectural significance of the building. They convinced Congress to reverse the decision, and the Old Post Office was declared a historic national landmark.
Ten years later, the building was renovated by Arthur Cotton Moore, who turned it into a multifunctional building featuring a food court, shops and an entertainment stage.
But it was obvious that the government wanted to get rid of the building somehow. They could not use it for any administrative purpose. With the enormous hollow space in its belly, the building was inappropriate for use as offices. And it does not give off the air of the federal government’s austerity or might.
Having their hands tied after the building was declared a historic landmark, the General Services Administration (GSA) decided to lease the building out. After period of bidding, the GSA handed the building to Donald Trump in a 60-year lease. Trump won the deal in competition against many other contenders largely because he accepted the renovation plan that was suggested by architect Arthur Cotton Moore, who renovated the building in the 1970s. The Trump Organization also pledged to spend $200 million on the transformation of the Post Office into one of the greatest hotels in the world.
However, once Trump obtained the lease and started the renovation, he fired Moore and took a loan of $160 million from Deutsche Bank, which financed most of the renovation, reported Buzzfeed.
There are several stories about how Donald Trump got involved in this dubious project. One of them is that it was Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, who set her eye on the project and became passionate about it. Or perhaps it’s a vice of the rich or a desire to set foot in Washington, D.C.? To run a huge enterprise just around the corner of the White House — hoping, perhaps, to host a future White House Correspondent’s Dinner, since it has become a grand gala event?
On the eve of the soft opening of the Trump International Hotel, Mother Jones published an article that sums up some of the reasons why Trump’s new venture might turn into a financial disaster. One of the most frequent observations is that in order to cover the cost of the renovation and lease — the building is still owned by the GSA — the hotel rooms would have to be extremely expensive:
After the project was awarded to Trump, a Washington Post columnist calculated that Trump’s new hotel might have to charge average rates of as much as $750 per night. At the time, Ivanka Trump responded angrily that “his numbers are pure speculation and, simply put, wrong.”
Yet it was Ivanka who was wrong. On weeknights this fall, the hotel’s least expensive rooms will go for between $735 and $995 a night. On many days, the hotel is as expensive or more so than the Four Seasons. (Ivanka Trump had said that Trump Organization originally aimed to have lower rates than this high-end hotel.) And it’s not at all clear whether Trump’s hotel can command such steep rates in a market already crowded with luxury hotels—especially because Trump’s hotel will lack some of the amenities initially promised.
One of the opinions that argues against the high prices is that the hotel’s profit will not be coming from the 263 luxurious rooms, but from renting the space in the atrium and the Presidential Hall, both of which are suitable places to hold big events. While Washington has enough hotel rooms, space for big events is scarce, some people say.
On top of the billionaire’s usual ambiguous financial schemes, Trump’s involvement in politics and his presidential ambitions have already made him lose three of the most famous chefs in Washington, D.C., according to Mother Jones:
Trump had said his DC hotel would feature two high-end restaurants. He had originally signed up two celebrity chefs, José Andrés and Geoffrey Zakarian, to open highly anticipated restaurants in the hotel. Then Trump launched his presidential bid by calling Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals, and both restaurateurs backed out. Trump is now suing each of them. The ongoing litigation has generated heaps of bad press for Trump. The lawsuits, coupled with Trump’s controversial statements on the campaign trail, have also made the project toxic to other well-known chefs who have apparently steered clear of the project.
Top Chef‘s Tom Colicchio, the owner of Craft and a number of other top restaurants, tells Mother Jones that he was approached by the Trump Organization after Andrés and Zakarian backed out. But he quickly turned down the offer. Colicchio says he was put off by the way the Trumps had treated Andrés, a friend, and by the GOP candidate’s comments about immigrants.
Colicchio says the battle with Andrés has hurt Trump’s standing in the restaurant community and Trump’s comments on immigrants have made it tough to work with the reality television mogul. “He’s clearly a racist and makes racist comments, and we have an industry that has always reached out to an immigrant population and built on the work of an immigrant population,” Colicchio says. “I think that the remarks [Trump] makes would make it very difficult for anyone to stand up in front of their staff and want to be part of what he’s doing.” …
The loss of Andrés and Zakarian could affect the hotel’s profitability. The contracts they signed were quite lucrative for Trump. Under the deals, the chefs would have owned the restaurants, footed the bill for millions of dollars in renovation costs, and been fully responsible for any losses their operations sustained. Andrés and Zakarian would have paid rent and a percentage of their profits to Trump. The hotel, meanwhile, would have benefited from hosting two destination restaurants with almost no financial risk.
Has Trump entered the presidential race just to polish his less-than-shiny brand? To attract investors who would improve the cash flow of his companies? (Forbes recently listed the worth of all of Trump’s assets, and it’s quite remarkable how their value has decreased recently.)
If so, it would not be the first time in recent political history that this has happened. I keep repeating the fact that, on much smaller scale — as much as Italy is smaller and less important than the United States — this was exactly what Silvio Berlusconi did in his own country. In order to protect his own crumbling economic empire, which had lost political sponsorship, he established his own party, and then ran for and became the prime minister of Italy. Once he became part of the political establishment, he managed to replenish his media empire while Italy went down on its knees.
It is hard to comprehend what Trump’s real plan is in all this. He is too erratic for anybody to predict his next move. But what is worse is that America, once the most powerful country on this world, is following suit and becoming as erratic as he is.
But let me return to the Old Post Office Hotel that might crumble after this election by quoting chef Zakarian.
In a recent deposition, Zakarian, who owns a Michelin-starred restaurant in New York City and who is a judge on the Food Network show Chopped, said that the Trump kids may want to reconsider whom they’re fighting in court. According to the Washingtonian, Zakarian said that, “If they should be suing someone, they should sue Donald senior, because he fucking did this. He did this. … He rendered this Chernobyl. He did it. So they should sue their dad.”