The Great American Hotel

From poolside drinks and afternoon tea to beautifully ornamented guest rooms complete with crystal chandeliers, these are the country's swankiest, most dazzling hotels.

The Hay-Adams: Discreet Old-Boys’-Club Luxury

The Hay-Adams hotel in Washington, DC.

From $349 per night | 800 16th Street NW, Washington, D.C. | 202-638-6600

A few years ago, a family of four relocated to Washington, D.C. Their home wasn’t ready yet, so they moved into the Hay-Adams hotel, a nine-story cocoon of luxury in the middle of Lafayette Square, and lived there for 12 days. It’s a typical snag in the thorny logistics of moving, but what makes this story less typical is that the head of this particular family is the president of the United States. The home they were waiting to move into was the White House.

I didn’t see the suite that housed the Obamas—someone else (perhaps another head of state?) was sta­ying there—but I toured a similar one during my stay at the Hay-Adams. It’s grand, naturally, but not in the way you might think. There are no chandeliers dripping with cut crystal; intricately latticed moldings are painted white rather than splashy gilt; and pale green toile is used in everything from draperies to lushly canopied beds. The secondary connecting doors aren’t for waitstaff, but for Secret Service members or visiting dignitaries who require an inconspicuous exit. The luxury here is discreet, quiet, tucked in places where people attuned to these things will notice it, as in the intricately hand-carved rosettes dotting the egg-and-dart molding in the hallways. It’s the sort of subdued grandeur that has been often and lately replaced by in-your-face displays of wealth. (See: the 90,000-square-foot Versailles-inspired palace that was being built for a Florida couple in one of America’s most gaudy parades of excess—before they lost it all.)

No doubt the original owners of the land on which the Hay-Adams was built—and for whom the hotel is named—would be pleased. John Hay, Lincoln’s personal secretary and, later, the Secretary of State under McKinley and Roosevelt, lived in a grand home on the site. His neighbor and dear friend was Henry Adams, a descendant of presidents John Adams and John Quincy Adams. Both homes were razed in 1927, replaced by this Italian Renaissance 145-room boutique hotel. But instead of building out, the architect simply built up. Stay in a south-facing room; anything higher than the sixth floor offers a jaw-dropping view of Lafayette Square, the White House, the soaring Washington Monument (our own arrow-straight Tower of Pisa), and tourists feverishly snapping photos of it all. (Bring your camera.)

I wonder if the Obamas gazed at their future home from their perch in the Hay-Adams. I’m sure they relished their last few days of relative normalcy in the sweet confines of this plush, hushed hotel. I’d have asked for the designer’s name (if you’re curious, that would be Thomas Pheasant, who oversaw the hotel’s $20 million renovation in 2002), so the Hay-Adams brand of warm elegance could be replicated within the White House’s imposing walls. But that’s just me.

The staff is used to power players breezing through the small, intimate lobby. They’ve seen countless dignitaries take the secret elevator that leads right up to the highest floor (where top-secret meetings are held, as well as weddings). They’ve served members of various administrations stiff drinks in the clubby, secluded downstairs lounge, Off the Record (where you’ll want to try the Washingtonian, a citrusy concoction that looks delightfully feminine in this otherwise dark-walled, red-tufted space). They’ve shined the silver for breakfasting politicos in the Lafayette, a restaurant that features some of the only crystal chandeliers in the place. And they’ll eagerly snap to attention for you, too, noting the names of your kids and bringing them milk and cookies before bed, because they know—in the way so few do—that real luxury and world-class service go beyond crystal and gold leaf and the bigger-is-better behemoth hotels that anchor most cities. It’s really about making you feel at home, whether you actually live in a grand mansion, a tiny apartment or the White House. –Emily Goulet