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 An All-American Renewal at the Washington D.C. Park Hyatt

Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer

With two sons living in the DC area, we’ve had many occasions to visit the nation’s capital, most recently for a college graduation last May. And for that event, like so many others in the past, we headed directly to the lovely and luxurious Washington, D.C. Park Hyatt. Over the years, it had taken on dimensions of the proverbial “home away from home.”

We can still remember when we checked in for the first time and how pleasing our first impression was. The hotel was built in 1986, and its simple brick and sandstone façade and uniform corner lines seemed such a welcome alternative to the gaudy glass and steel boxes that had proliferated during the 1970s. Yet with a soaring lobby atrium, marble expanses, and art by such as Georges Braques, David Hockney, and Frank Stella on display, one could hardly say it was lacking in drama.

This time, however, the drama came from an announcement that greeted us soon after arrival: If we planned to be in Washington between August 1 and the spring of 2006, we’d have to find another place to stay. The Park Hyatt would be shutting down for nine months while it underwent a complete transformation, a “reconceptualization,” according to Michel Morauw, the new general manager.

The Park Hyatt’s new g.m. Michel Morauw - click to enlarge
The Park Hyatt’s new g.m. Michel Morauw

Belgian-born, fair-haired and youthful-looking, Morauw regards his appointment as a kind of coming full circle. He began his career with Hyatt International at the Washington Regency in 1984 (back then trainees were sent to the United States to launch properties) and subsequently worked in a range of company properties across the globe before landing in Paris as general manager of the Hyatt Paris Madeleine and then the Hyatt Regency Charles De Gaulle Airport Hotel.

“When I was offered this project and the opportunity to return to Washington where it all began, I said yes immediately,” he told us over dinner at Melrose, the hotel’s award-winning restaurant. “I opened both Paris properties, and I can tell you opening a hotel is one of the hardest things to do in the industry. But the more you do it, the more you want to do it. It’s a very creative time.”

Morauw beamed when we told him the Madeleine, an 86-room gem on the Boulevard Malesherbes in the eighth arrondisement, is one of our favorite hotels in all the world. “I felt I was running my own little Relais and Chateaux,” he said. “The property had been a hotel before Hyatt acquired it although by that time, it had been closed for fifteen years. When our ten month-long renovation was completed, only the bare structure of the original place was left.”

Now facing with a similar challenge, Morauw envisions an equally transformed hotel in terms of public and private spaces, restaurant and landscaping. “It will all be one concept,” he told us, “an all-American hotel with a cutting edge that will set a very new trend in D.C. Luxurious but not ostentatious which, to me, is the true test of luxury. You touch the tablecloth, and you feel a fine fabric. You sit by the fireplace in the lounge after a long trip and have a tuna tartar and a glass of good wine in a crystal glass. You feel like you are at home.

“But luxury is not about white gloves at the door,” he continued. “We are in a world where you can shake someone’s hand. You don’t need someone in a red hat and coat with brass buttons.  Our style is more informal, more American. Employee fashion can be business dress, not uniforms. And we want to remove the step of check-in. Like in a true boutique hotel, we want any of our employees to be able to welcome you at the door, show you to your room, act as concierge, do everything for you. You don’t have to worry about whom to go to for tickets to a show or information about a museum or to change money. Any employee can help you. My passion in this business is to get people out from behind the walls and bring them to the front.”

Accordingly the vast split-level lobby with the front desk a distance to the rear and on a level above the entrance will give way to a long open corridor and a desk moved considerably closer to the front door. An American ambience will emerge not only from an informal environment but repeated images of American ikons -- cherry trees and classic Windsor and rocking chairs. The presently enclosed Windsor Park function room will be opened up to and become part of the lobby. At the same time, it will be a spacious lounge/bar, “the heart of the hotel,” according to Morauw.  

The new 217 rooms and 120 executive two-bedroom suites will look and feel like deluxe contemporary apartments with clean lines, warm colors, quality yet simple fabrics and beautiful woods. Bathrooms will be mini spas made of Indiana limestone with rain showers and deep tubs where water overflows into the shower area. “A vision that is very local, very American,” Morauw said.

The vision belongs to Tony Chi, the internationally renowned architect and interior/ landscape designer primarily known for his restaurant design –Asiate on the 35th floor of the new Mandarin Oriental Hotel in New York’s Time Warner-Columbus Circle complex is a recent heart-stopping example. At the Park Hyatt, which will be a work of mid twentieth-century American modernism, he will be designing an entire hotel for the first time.

But it would come as no surprise if special attention were to be paid to Melrose which over the past seventeen years has earned an identity of its own, considerable critical praise, and a loyal following. Chi’s plans include a glass-enclosed wine cellar (if it is anything like the one at Asiate, it will be spectacular) and an open kitchen with wood-fired oven. The entire space will be transformed, even the lovely patio it opens onto although the landmarked fountain on the corner of M and 24th is likely to remain.

So will the ever popular chef Brian McBride whose crab cakes are highlighted in many a D.C. dining guide. A shift in emphasis is on the way, however. “From farm to table,” is the way Morauw puts it.

“The restaurant will focus on seasonal products,” he adds. “We will reduce the radius of distance of our suppliers because we want to give a local taste to the hotel; we want to be a Washington hotel. It’s a challenge for a chef to work with local products. When you mix local products, they work amazingly well together. In France when you get the bread and the cheese and vegetables from one village, it’s better than if you get the bread from one village and the cheese and vegetables from another village.”

“Brian’s very much into focusing on the local purveyors, and now that will be even a greater concentration of his,” said food and beverage manager Tom Harlander whom we met for coffee the next morning. “If things are not available, we won't have them. When peaches are in season, there will be so many dishes made with peaches. The hotel will smell of peaches.  No fad diets of low carb, low fat. The concept is going to be very residential, simple.”

He continued, “We plan to go back to cooking techniques and serving styles that are down to earth. We want people to come in here, sit down, and feel comfortable with the menu and the environment. Comfort food, ample portions. It’s all about being together, sharing a meal.”

It all sounds very democratic, very American, very apropos for Washington, D.C. We’ll count on returning to the Park Hyatt in the nation’s capital when the cherry blossoms bloom along the Potomac bloom once again.

The Park Hyatt
1201 24 Street NW
Washington, DC 20037

Phone: 202 789 1234

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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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