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A Washington Weekend in the Company of Thomas Jefferson at the Jefferson Hotel

Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer

August 2011. The economy in free fall. The international situation precarious. Faith in elected representatives seemingly at an all-time low.  As we pulled up before the Jefferson Hotel this rainy Saturday afternoon, we mused on the eponymous figure for whom it is named. What would he and the other Founders make of the current political situation?

But then our attentions were diverted as we entered the lovely 1923 Beaux Arts building on 16th and M, only four blocks from the White House. Directly before us, a pair of grand wrought-iron gates fronted an exquisite small dining room beneath a sky-lit barrel-vaulted ceiling; at its center, a magnificent floral arrangement was on display. Several Empire-style desks for check-in or concierge service were positioned at either end a long black-and-white-checkered marble floor laid on the diagonal across the width of a lobby defined by a wealth of ornamental plasterwork and classical architectural detail -- a combination that only enhanced our expectation that the weekend before us would be filled with the pleasures of luxurious accommodations, fine dining, and excellent service. And it was. At the same time, when we left Monday morning, there was the sense we had experienced something more, something intangible yet significant, important enough to remember even after all the rest had gone.

The Jefferson is a splendid 21st century, 99-room (including 20-suites) boutique hotel that is, at the same time, an evocation of and tribute to the third president of the United States. Through décor and artifacts, original documents and maps, paintings, photographs, and murals, even actual bottles of wine, the visitor is drawn into the life and times of Thomas Jefferson, his years spent in France when he was foreign minister, his fondness for Paris, his beloved home and estate Monticello, his many interests including architecture, history and philosophy,  agriculture generally and viniculture in particular, and most importantly his manifold contributions to the new Republic he played so major a role in establishing. 

How a hotel can reveal as much is the secret of this exceptional place. The process of discovery, however, is gradual. For us it began soon after our arrival when we had a late lunch in Quill. This smaller and more informal of the Jefferson’s two dining rooms (the other is Plume; the pair of names were chosen for their connection to the “Declaration of Independence”) is known for its house-made mixers and herbal-infused spirits, and for its illuminated glass bar which looks like a huge hunk of amber. (It’s the only illuminated bar in America, we were told; the only other one we’ve ever seen is in Paris’ Plaza Athenée.)

After being seated in a booth and placing our orders, we noticed a series of framed maps on the adjacent wall and stepped up for a closer look. Each of them documented a different portion of a wine-oriented journey Jefferson took through France, Spain, Italy and Germany, and along the margins of every map handwritten notes described impressions of vineyards visited and wines  sampled. An interesting little insight into one of the many passions of this man, we thought. Meanwhile our lunch arrived: a macaroni and cheese au gratin casserole made with comté, a Salad Nicoise with small rectangles of grilled tuna, white potatoes, and miniature quail eggs –a  couple of examples early on in our stay of the  understated Gallic influence that permeates the hotel.

Classical music pianissimo was coming from the radio beside the bed as we opened the door to our sixth floor corner suite. Slack-jawed, we stopped at the entrance and took in the scene. Several short square vases were filled to overflowing with gorgeous blooms: big, aromatic roses: pink at the center fading to pale rose, yellow running to scarlet, also calla lilies and small lemon-colored lilies, white hydrangeas. Fresh the afternoon we arrived, they were replaced as soon as they started to fade. These, along with flat-screen televisions, sublime Porthault bed and bath linens, modern bathroom fixtures including a television screen hidden in the mirror,  complimentary bottled water -- both still and sparkling, and well-placed and easy to operate electronic marvels, that attended to such details as temperature control and Internet connections, were part of the Jefferson modern luxury hotel scene.

But there were subtle evocations of the Jefferson’s historic theme as well: the bed’s headboard and footboard upholstered in a toile de jouy depicting the house, gardens, and fields of Monticello; a pair of 18th century portraits and a mixture of French provincial with contemporary American furnishings -- chairs with white-washed arms upholstered in velvet or silk in warm tones of brown, cocoa, and burnished gold; desks and tables polished to a high gloss; parquet floors in a pattern reminiscent of Monticello floors; window frames, door jambs, moldings and millwork made to the exact specifications of those in the historic property.

This last detail we learned from Joan Esposito, the Jefferson’s effervescent sales director, when we met her for dinner that evening.  Joan grew up on a military base in Norfolk, the daughter of a career marine who is buried in Arlington. “He was a great patriot,” she told us, and as she described the hotel’s connection to the life and legacy of Thomas Jefferson, it was clear the sentiment of the father had been passed along to the child.

“This property is so unique,” Joan said as we settled into a spacious round table in Plume,  a deep space softly illuminated by sconces and a stunning circular chandelier ringed with teardrop crystals. Across from us, a mural on a silk-lined wall depicted a Monticello vineyard.  Before us, silver-gray drapes had been parted like curtains on a stage to reveal the small dining space that had so enchanted us when we first arrived. Looking in from its opposite end, we could see the panes of glass in the barrel-vaulted skylight had been lit from above and were casting a golden glow.

“That was the greenhouse of the residential apartment house that was built here in 1923,” Joan told us as we began dinner with a lovely Fleur sparkling rosé and an unusual but amazing amuse bouche of foie gras with chocolate (!). “Today it serves breakfast and lunch; at night it is part of the Plume’s dining room. The exterior of the hotel remains just as it was in 1923, but the interior was transformed into a hotel in 1955. Nearly 50 years later, it was bought by the Philip and Connie Milstein, a brother and sister from New York. They had the property gutted to the core in preparation for what they expected to be a ten-month renovation. It ended up taking 30 months before the hotel finally opened August 31, 2009.    

“During that time the Milsteins had the opportunity to learn about Thomas Jefferson,” Joan continued, “his love of France and Monticello, how he was a farmer at heart but also an avid reader with an incredible appetite for education  having gone to the College of William and Mary and later on founding the University of Virginia. So much of what they discovered has found a place in the hotel.

“Look at these, for example,” Joan said pointing to a fanciful pair of silver birds on the table. “Ms. Milstein saw them in the gift shop at Monticello and purchased enough to put a pair on each table.

“And then there is the association with wine. Jefferson was the first purveyor of  wine in the United States. When he learned the soil in Charlottesville was similar to that of the vineyards he’d visited in France, he tried to grow grapes at home. That never happened while he was alive but subsequently a producing vineyard was successfully established.”

The hotel’s wine cellar contains more than 1,000 labels of the wines Jefferson loved and those sommelier Michael Scaffidi thinks he would have loved, especially the Champagnes, Meursaults and White Burgundies. Also Madeiras: 39 of them, offered by the glass, the oldest from 1780, the newest 2000. “Someone orders a Madeira every night,” Michael said. “We also have small wine tastings called ‘Fifty Years of Madeiras.’”

Michael also has a special fondness for wines from Eastern Europe and Rieslings, and when he learned of our interest in Austrian Rieslings, he suggested a 2007 Hirsch Gaisberg. Served in delicate Venetian glasses with slender green stems, it was a beautiful shade of yellow, had the fragrance and flavors of peaches and apricots, and proved an excellent accompaniment to a dinner which featured lobster “thermidor” made with a white wine and saffron glaçage and served with cherry tomatoes  and herbed fingerling potatoes; and grilled diver sea scallops – among the largest we’d ever seen, served with golden beet risotto in a beet reduction.

These were but two of the culinary creations of Executive Chef Chris Jakubiec in a menu featuring contemporary American favorites with a Gallic grace note. Good-looking, young, and earnest, Chris grew up in Middletown, Connecticut, the son and grandson of dentists on his father’s side. But instead of representing the third generation of his family in the dental profession, Chris went to the French Culinary Institute and became a chef.   

“As a kid, I always loved helping my mother in the kitchen,” he told us. “When I was a teenager, she purchased a small deli, and working with her there, I realized what I wanted to do with my life.”

Chris has since worked under the tutelage of such star chefs as Alain Ducasse and Damon Gordon. At the Jefferson, he works with local farmers to obtain the freshest and best quality produce and  eggs, uses Martin’s beef, Maryland crab; all his fish is local. “A hot point for me is local,” he said. “I do organic as much as I can; there’s a growing demand for it. If someone comes in who is vegan or vegetarian, I can always figure something out.

“There is such bountiful produce in this region,” he added. “I’m looking forward to the fall; it brings the heartier stuff: top apples, sugar pears – the tiny ones are superb, winter squash.

“I want to do things worthy of a venue like this. The cuisine has to fit with this beautiful room, the style of service, the whole experience,” Chris noted as the cheese tray was wheeled up. Predictably the French were well represented in the domed cart which slides open on either side, but we decided to forego the comtés and morbiers this time around in favor of several American cheeses including a terrific cheddar from Pennsylvania.

Amidst the flowers in the Greenhouse:
Sales Director Joan Esposito

 The son and grandson of dentists:
Executive Chef Chris Jakubiec

Following dinner, Joan escorted us on a little tour. In the lobby, she pointed out  original documents signed by Jefferson hanging on the walls. She opened the door to a private dining room with a lovely impressionistic-styled mural of a vineyard at its far end. Sharing space with a dumbwaiter that brings wines up from the cellar (a Jeffersonian invention), were floor-to-ceiling glass-fronted cabinets down either side of the long room, their shelves filled with bottles of wine, including some of the rare Madeiras. And she showed us the inviting Book Room, a paneled retreat where Afternoon Tea is served. With comfortable furnishings and a wood-burning fireplace, one could imagine curling up with one of the 800 plus books arranged on open shelves. “Most of them deal with Jefferson,” Joan told us. “But you’ll also find copies of books donated by their authors who have stayed here. We’ve had quite a few along with dignitaries, heads of states, major figures from the arts. We don’t call the press with such news. It’s important to us that we guard the privacy of all our guests.”

This is Joan’s 26th year working in Washington hotels, and, she insists, none of them can compare to the Jefferson. We understand. Everywhere you look is something to take note of and admire. Hallways are miniature art galleries showcasing 18th-century prints and etchings; public rooms and suites are decorated with museum-quality paintings. “There are about a thousand pieces of art in the building, most of them belonging to Ms. Milstein,” Joan said. “She has a great eye; worked hand-in-hand with the architect and design team.”

Lit skylights in the barrel-vaulted Greenhouse

The private dining room with wine
cabinets and mural of a vineyard

Clearly the Milsteins have fulfilled the promise implicit in the name they chose for their hotel. One wonders at the effort and imagination expended in learning about, locating, collecting and inspiring the creation of the multitude of objects displayed throughout to such moving effect. At the same time, the Jefferson is more than a hotel that doubles as a museum. For one thing, it brims with the vitality born of a universally charming, competent, and helpful staff  numbering 145, all of whom share in the spirit of this very American institution even though many are not American. “We have many international guests,” Joan said, “and we want to have someone around who speaks their language.” Among them are servers Salvador Cañas from El Salvador and Attila (no relation to the Hun, he assures us) Lajko, from the oldest city in Hungary, who trained in Switzerland and worked on Crystal Cruises for seven years before deciding he’d like to be in one place for a while. Janelle Johnson, an aesthetician in the Jefferson spa, however, is American, moreover a native Washingtonian.

 At the front door: Antoine Pitroipa

 In the dining rooms: Attila Lajko

We met the beautiful and bubbly Janelle when she came to our room to personally escort us to the spa – a royal introduction to a royal facility. This full-service operation offers an array of massages, body rituals, facials, salon services, and for men only, a classic barbershop experience courtesy of Truchitt & Hill, British groomers that go back the time of Jefferson.  With only three treatment rooms and services limited to only a few at a time, there is a sense of privacy and intimacy. And the use of products based on botanicals and herbs from Monticello and vinotherapies enhance the Jeffersonian connection. So does the etching of the “Declaration of Independence” etched on the windowpanes

The life and legacy of Thomas Jefferson had been a subtext throughout our stay at this remarkable place, and the thoughts and sentiments it inspired linger to this day. Looking up some of his famous commentaries, we are stunned by their prescience. Not only did they provide guides to the establishment of a new nation back in the 18th century, they speak with wisdom and conviction to the current political debate.

Witness: “A wise and frugal government, which shall leave men free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned - this is the sum of good government.”

And: “My reading of history convinces me that most bad government results from too much government.”

And: “Peace, commerce and honest friendship with all nations; entangling alliances with none.”

And perhaps most au courant: “I believe that banking institutions are more dangerous to our liberties than standing armies.”

For us, however, the start of the “Declaration of Independence,” still taught to every American child, continued to have the greatest resonance. After the little preamble, the business of all men being created equal, of being “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. . .”,   leading to the deduction that separation from a government that abuses such rights is therefore justified.

All on the heels of the simplest of statements, overwhelming in power, remembered, and unassailable:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident.”

1200 16th Street, NW
Washington, DC 20036

Phone: 202 448 2300

A Relais and Chateau Property 

Photographs by Harvey Frommer

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About the Authors:  Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.

They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

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