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A Washington Landmark Transformed - 2002-07-28

A crumbling, old abandoned building in Washington where the Pony Express and home delivery of mail began- has been transformed into an elegant new hotel. In an unusual partnership, the U.S. government has leased the former postal and tariff building to a private developer, the Kimpton Group, to save a National Historic Landmark building. The four-story Hotel Monaco was restored and constructed at a cost of $34 million, and formally opened at a gathering of government and business leaders this month.

Before the opening ceremony, visitors to the Hotel Monaco marveled at how well the 1842 all marble building was restored. It was the first of its kind in Washington. The arched, five-meter-high ceilings in the corridors and the rooms are decorated with modern art and brightly-colored lighting fixtures. Other features include a grand, spiral staircase and furnishings based on famed 20th century designer-architects such as Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe. Besides being an aesthetic triumph, District of Columbia Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton praised the economic victory for her city and the federal government:

"This is a moment that we, in the District of Columbia and many of us in the Congress have long awaited. We are seeing today the opening of a splendidly beautiful building the revival of what was a dilapidated old government building that also happened to be a Federal masterpiece. In reviving it, we have a 'win-win' for the Federal government and the District of Columbia. The government gets out of mothballs a building that could only bring shame to the government's inventory. Instead, it derives economic benefit from one of its properties."

The San Francisco-based Kimpton Group developers got tax benefits for their preservation efforts of the historic building. Donald Williams, regional director of the U.S. General Services Administration, the agency that owns the building, praised the hotel company and was among many officials noting the special significance of the building.

"Let us consider the important place this beautiful granite-and-marble structure holds in our Nation's Capital. When this city-block-sized, think about that, a whole city-block-sized building, was completed, we could have looked out of these windows and seen open space in our Nation's Capital. Andrew Jackson, 'Old Hickory,' was president."

That was one hundred sixty years ago. The entrance to the Hotel Monaco's restaurant was the original carriage-way portal for the horses that carried the mail during the 19th century. Joyce Carrier of the U.S. Postal Service described the historic aspects of mail delivery that began in the building.

"We were a tenant in this building the Post Office Department for 143 years. Now it's a hotel. Some hotels have a cache' if it's haunted, though I'm not saying it's haunted. But if it was, some of the sounds the guests might hear might be horse hoofs walking down the hall. Because it was in this building that they invented the Pony Express.

You might hear footsteps of a letter carrier coming down the hall because home delivery was started right here. You might hear cash registers starting because the concept of money orders was established here in this building. You might hear a train whistle, because putting mail on trains was started here. This place has an amazing history for us, as well as for this city."

Delegate Norton noted that the same architect who designed the Washington Monument and the U.S. Treasury building did the Hotel Monaco.

"We are in a Robert Mills building. Robert Mills was the first American-trained architect. He was the first architect of the United States, born in this country and mentored by [President] Thomas Jefferson. He was responsible for a number of the first great buildings in the District of Columbia 160 years old."

Another government agency, the Tariff Commission, replaced the Postal Service as tenants of the building. But 16 years ago, the building was vacated. The marble in the boarded-up building began to crumble and the surrounding area declined as well. Legendary sports executive, Abe Pollin, owner of Washington's men's and women's basketball teams, said he had serious doubts about building the huge, nearby MCI Center arena which became the catalyst in the rejuvenation of the area known as "Penn's Quarter." "I came down here about seven years ago with my family and walked around. At that time, it wasn't even safe to walk in the daytime. There was nothing here. But, there really was a lot here. This is the Nation's Capital these buildings, other buildings are a few blocks from the Mall. So we talked long and hard about whether this would be the right place to invest in this major development for us. Most people never build an arena in their lifetime. You've gotta' be nuts to build a second one in your lifetime. That's me."

When the MCI Center sparked a neighborhood revival, officials of the Kimpton Group whose founder, Bill Kimpton, died last year, decided to convert the Postal and Tariff Building into a hotel. Niki Leondakis, the company's executive vice president, says preserving historic buildings had been a hallmark of Mr. Kimpton's goals. "That's based on Bill's 'Junk to Antiques' theory. In San Francisco, where the Kimpton group is based and where Bill first started in 1982, there were a lot of undervalued buildings that had a lot of beauty and great character that Bill saw that had potential. It made good sense from a financial standpoint to restore, because they were so undervalued. He could take these buildings at a reasonable acquisition price and restore and turn them into fabulous boutique hotels."

As city and business officials finished their salutes to the preservation of a Washington landmark building, it was time for the ribbon-cutting opening at the Hotel Monaco.