Historic hotel becomes residence hall

The University purchased the Premier Hotel on Virginia Avenue and plans to house almost 400 freshman students there starting this fall, said Jan Mitchell Sherrill, associate dean of students for the Community Living and Learning Center.

The new residence hall – which will be called the “Hall on Virginia Avenue,”- was bought last week for $19 million after months of speculation and negotiations.

The hotel, which was formerly a Howard Johnson Hotel, played a role in the Watergate burglary that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon in 1974.

Incoming freshmen received information about the new hall this week, and were given the chance to change their first choice in residence halls. In addition, students could submit essays to participate in one of two living initiatives, one that will study the effects of Watergate and one that will encourage healthy living, Sherrill said.

“We’re guessing there will be a number of people who will change their first choice,” he said.

Sherrill said the University plans to house 386 freshmen in the building with eight community facilitators and a staff member. The hall will have security features similar to Thurston Hall, which includes a University Police officer at the main desk.

Although the Certificate of Occupancy has not been completed for the building, renovations are being made to accommodate student use, said Robert Chernak, vice president for student and academic support services.

Although the interior of the building does not need to be changed because it received a $3 million renovation in 1996, the hotel must be fitted for Internet capabilities and extra phone lines, he said. Chernak said improvements should be completed when students arrive in late August.

America’s Best Diner, which was in the hotel’s lobby, will be turned into a student dining facility and will be closed to the public, he said.

The Premier Hotel is a stop for many tourists in Washington and will forever be associated with the country’s history. Room 723 of the hotel served as the lookout point during the Democratic National Committee headquarters burglary at the Watergate June 17, 1972. The incident and its cover-up led to Nixon’s resignation two years later.

Since then, that room has been converted into a museum for Watergate memorabilia, with hotel guests paying extra to sleep in a part of Washington history.

Sherrill said the University will use the room as a place to host guests, and students on the seventh floor will study the effects of Nixon’s resignation and the Watergate investigation as part of a community living initiative entitled “America After Watergate.”

The “Healthy Living Community” will be housed on the eighth floor of the hall and the 38 residents will be asked to commit themselves to a college experience free of alcohol, drugs and nicotine, Sherrill said. Candace Miller, a health educator on campus, will advise the floor and lead them on trips and programs.

Although University officials are excited about the prospects of their new property, people who work and live in the Watergate apartment buildings said they were not happy about their new neighbors.

Ruby Barnhard, who leases and sells apartments in the complex, said she believes the increased noise will effect the re-sale value of the apartments.

“The neighbors are up in arms about it,” Barnhard said. “They don’t like a dormitory across the street.”

She said she fears kids will be streaming in and out of the area and said residents are disappointed the diner is closing.

Foggy Bottom Association President Ellie Becker said the news was “dreadful” but said she was not surprised the University was expanding.

“The University is somewhat insensitive to its neighbors,” Becker said.

But GW President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg said the purchase of the hotel kept with requests he has heard from community residents.

“About 10 years ago, the community made it clear to us they wanted a majority of our students in University-owned housing,” he said.

The Hall on Virginia Avenue represents a 10 percent increase in on-campus housing space. With the purchase of the Premier Hotel, the University now has about 4,100 beds for students on GW’s Foggy Bottom and Mount Vernon campuses.

But Becker said the community does have a desire is to see more on-campus housing, but within the University’s borders. She said she is upset the University is expanding outside its campus plan and said she will be investigating the legalities of it.

“I don’t know if we have any basis for legal action,” Becker said. “It’s too soon for us to really know what to do.”

As for the noise, Trachtenberg said he is unconvinced college students are louder than bus-loads of tourists who used to frequent the hotel.

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