When most of us think of Watergate today, we think of a bungled break-in, a crooked president, Woodward and Bernstein, Deep Throat, and Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford in neckties as wide as tablecloths.

But if you'd asked a Washingtonian in 1936 about Watergate, he would have said, "Don't you mean Water Gate, bub?"

And you would have said, "Who you calling 'bub'?"

And it would have gone downhill from there.

Here's the story: When construction began on Arlington Memorial Bridge in 1926, plans included a curved set of steps leading down to the Potomac on the Washington side. This was envisioned as a ceremonial entrance to the city, where VIPs could arrive by barge. It would also, The Post reported at the time, "afford a landing place for small boats."

Answer Man supposes that VIPs could have arrived there by barge, but the spot's real virtue was recognized in 1935, two years after bridge construction was completed. As the sun was setting on July 14 of that year, the road that hugged the river was closed to traffic. People found seats on the 40 stone steps that marched up toward the Lincoln Memorial or took their places on folding chairs that had been set up in the roadway. Opposite the audience, on a barge that had been rented from the Navy Department, the musicians of the National Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Hans Kindler, tuned their instruments. The program opened with Wagner and closed with Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture."


These "Sunset Symphonies" caught on in a big way. The National Park Service, sponsor of the concerts, estimated that by 1946, 2 million people had attended performances at what became known as the Water Gate. The NSO was a fixture. So were Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Army Air Forces bands. Frank Sinatra and Paul Robeson appeared there

A more elaborate barge, built at a cost of $75,000, was unveiled for the 1948 season. It was a gleaming white structure, rectilinear, like a square hatbox. In fact, it looked a bit like the Kennedy Center.

All in all, a lovely way to spend a summer evening in Washington.

But is it how the famed Watergate office-hotel-condo complex got its name? There are a few other theories. Rock Creek spills into the Potomac just upriver from the present Watergate buildings. Not too far away are the remains of the first lock that raised and lowered boats on the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal. (Or the last lock, depending on the direction you were coming from.) A lock is, quite literally, a water gate.

But Answer Man is skeptical that the imposing Watergate complex, designed by Luigi Moretti, was named after the shattered remains of a failed canal.

Nor does he think it was named after a restaurant called the Water Gate Inn, which stood on the banks of the Potomac at the extreme western end of F Street. Owned by Marjory Hendricks, who also ran the Normandy Farm Inn in Potomac, the Water Gate Inn was a popular establishment that served Pennsylvania Dutch cuisine. It opened in 1942 in an old riding academy and was demolished in 1966 to make way for construction of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

Answer Man believes that both the restaurant and the office complex (which, incidentally, was originally going to be called "Watergate Towne") took their names from the 40 steps that were the site of annual concerts.

The concerts ended in 1965, when jet planes screaming down the river to land at National Airport made it hard to hear the music. The barge was towed away while members of the service bands played taps on their trumpets.

By John Kelly. Julie Feldmeier, helped research this column.
Monday, December 13, 2004 © 2004 The Washington Post Co