Monday, January 5, 2009

Washington Social Diary

Looking across Sidwell's turf field to the colonial-style headquarters of Fannie Mae, across Wisconsin Avenue from the campus.
By Carol Joynt

It’s two weeks until the historic inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th President, and while excitement still prevails in Washington, it is laced with a little doubt and dread.

The excitement accelerated this weekend with the arrival of the Obama family at the first of their temporary homes, the Hay-Adams Hotel. That’s where they’ll sleep until January 15, when they move into Blair House, and then from there to their new full-time home, The White House.
The Hay-Adams Hotel, home to the Obama family until January 15. Stairs leading up to the Hay-Adams dining room, which has views across Lafayette Park to the White House.
The lobby of the Hay-Adams.
The Hay-Adams dining room.
The view from the Hay-Adams portico to St. John's Church across 16th Street.
The Hay-Adams was a smart choice. It couldn’t be more old school and low key, luxury as defined by quiet quality – lots of wood paneling and brass rather than the glossier marble on marble style of the newly-renovated Four Seasons in Georgetown.

Also, the choice must make the Secret Service happy. The Hay-Adams, Blair House and the White House are all within sight of each other and array adjacent to Lafayette Park. It’s easier to keep an eye on things.
Blair House in the evening. Around the corner to the left is the Hay-Adams Hotel. Across the street to the right is the White House. In the middle is Layfayette Park. The paved area was Pennsylvania Avenue and open to traffic until President Clinton closed it in 2005.
Blair House in the mid-day sun.
The early move was attributed to the Obamas wish to have their daughters – Sasha and Malia – start school this week with their classmates at the Sidwell Friends School. The younger daughter, Sasha, will attend the school’s annex in Bethesda, while the older daughter, Malia, will be at the main campus on Wisconsin Avenue.

Sidwell’s in-town campus is basically a big construction site right now, but otherwise sprawling (for the city) on 15 acres. It is remarkably open, and just steps from one of Washington’s most traveled avenues. It is in a cluster of popular private schools.
The Zartman House administration building of The Sidwell Friends School sits in the middle of a massive school renovation.
This particular construction area was previous Sidwell's athletic field and track.
St. Albans School for Boys and National Cathedral School are just down Wisconsin Avenue to the south, and Georgetown Day School is just to the north, and the public high school, Wilson, is nearby, too.

It’s routine to see students walking along Wisconsin or gathering at nearby restaurants and shops after the school day. It’s a teen-infused area that recalls what Boston must feel like for college students.
Sidwell's Upper School is in one of the newer building's on the campus.
The message that hangs over the Sidwell Friends' administration building's front door. The portico along Sidwell's new turf field that sits on top of a large underground garage.
The Sidwell's cafe and school store, The Fox Den, is open from early morning to late afternoon.
Now, for the doubt and dread. This has mostly to do with locals who are trying to decide whether to stick around for the festivities or – among those who have the option - to get out of town. The blush of renting their abodes for big bucks has faded at the same rate as anxiety has risen with the question: Just what will these four days be like? Will the inauguration be fun and free-wheeling or a claustrophobe’s nightmare. Probably both.

The local news radio station has started to run anxiety-producing stories that sound like prep advice for heavy weather combined with how to survive a mosh pit of an estimated million or more people. For example, make sure the car has a full tank, and the kitchen cupboard has food for four days. The inaugural website warns that on January 20 major roadways, particularly the bridges from Virginia into Washington, may be open only to buses. Passes will be needed to enter the “security perimeter” that will sweep around the Capitol and along the parade route. The Mall will be open to the public, but – and this is a big but – no strollers, no backpacks, no camera bags, no coolers, no thermoses and no umbrellas. Not to mention the layers of police and troops.

What the Inaugural Committee does want attendees to prepare for is standing for possibly 6-8 hours in what they colorfully call “crush-level” crowds. Also, they say, be dressed accordingly and able to walk 3-5 miles to get from your hotel, your car or public transportation to the inaugural area ... and back.
The A+ seats are up on the inaugural platform, flanking the spot where Barack Obama and Joe Biden will take the oath of office (photo taken in early December).
It probably won’t be as intense as it sounds, though I say prepare for “crush-level” and then be happy if you have breathing room, no sleet or snow or rain, and a ride.

The social scene is sounds like a graduate course in chaos theory. Talk to any PR people or party planners and they say “a lot is still up in the air.” This much is set: there are ten official “balls” the Obamas will attend on January 20. Six will be at the Convention Center, offering a kind of one-stop ball-hopping opportunity. The others will be at Union Station, the DC Armory and the Washington Hilton Hotel. There are other non-official balls – dozens of them – that night and the nights before, but the most desired, the Illinois and Hawaii balls, the Hip Hop ball, and the Creative Coaltion ball, are sold out.

There will be a rich private party scene. Hosts include Donald Graham and Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, Arianna Huffington, Ann Nitze, Calvin Cafritz, the Kuwaiti Ambassador’s wife, Rima Al Sabah, Buffy and Bill Cafritz, Phyllis George, Ann and Vernon Jordan, Kelly and Robert Day, just to name a few. The BET Honors, an annual event, will get added weight with the inauguration.

On the eve of the inauguration, a dozen famous chefs will cook meals in private homes where Obama’s “biggest supporters” and advisors are promised as dinner guests. The committee organizing the evening for charity includes food celebs Ruth Reichl, Alice Waters and Danny Meyer. A cool $500 gets you a seat at the table. Much anticipation and speculation centers on the so-called “Oprah Ball,” though no one is sure when or where it will happen. Oprah apparently has nixed for now the plan to buy a Washington residence, but a good source told me she did book the $15,000 a night Royal Suite at The Four Seasons.

On the other hand, you could escape to serene Rappahannock County, Va., home to many farmers, artists, writers and retired spies, and check into the acclaimed Inn at Little Washington. Owner and chef Patrick O’Connell plans to set up a large HDTV in the Inn’s “ballroom,” where guests can feast on a delicious inaugural brunch and watch the swearing in and “crush-level” crowds in unique comfort.
Photographs by Carol Joynt. Carol Joynt is the host of The Q&A Cafe, a talk show at Nathans Restaurant in Washington, D.C.