It’s curious how banks – those establishments of buttoned-up seriousness – are often reimagined as glamorous hotels. In fact, some of the world’s most famous hospitality properties have been carved out of former financial institutions, including Hotel de Rome, A Rocco Forte Hotel in Berlin, The Woodward in Geneva and the recently opened Gleneagles Townhouse in Edinburgh.
Riggs Washington DC, located in the city’s Penn Quarter, is found in a landmark Romanesque Revival building – one of the last of its kind left in the city. Look up as you enter, and you’ll spot the original signpost still hanging over the entrance door: ‘The Riggs National Bank’.
References to its banking history are found throughout the grand property – from the lofty ceilings to the period architectural details – amounting to be a rich, visual snapshot into its past life. The hotel is part of the Lore Group, which also counts Sea Containers London and Pulitzer Amsterdam under its belt, and its design was overseen by the group’s creative director, Jacu Strauss, who wanted to do justice to its prestigious heritage. It was known as the ‘Bank of Presidents’ throughout the early 20th century, due to the fact that 23 U.S. presidents banked at Riggs, which was at the time, the most important bank in the most important city in the world. In concepting the hotel, Strauss invoked the spirit of the former financial institution while preserving and restoring many of the property’s original design features, including the marble pillars, original barrel-vaulted lobby, ornate ceilings and bank vault.
This all comes to the fore at check-in, when you arrive at the wondrous bespoke wood and brass, L-shaped desk, inspired by a teller counter (are you getting keys or making a deposit, you might wonder.) Above you, you’ll see an oversized medallion of Juno Moneta, the Goddess of Money, once found on the original banking doors and which now presides over the room. Rich jewel-tones and elegant Art Deco lamps add to this imposing first impression.
Then, it’s to the restored lifts – still as well-oiled as the slick service here – to be swept to your room. Strauss’s design across the 181 bedrooms is theatrical, incorporating rich colour – think wine-red, royal blue and coral tones – marble wallpapers and opulent velvet headboards. In short, this is as far away as you can get from corporate grey.
The First Lady Suites are a delight and are inspired by the eccentricities of a select few presidents’ unsung better halves: Ida McKinley’s love of flowers; Angelica Van Buren’s opulence; Louisa Adams’ passion for music and Caroline Harrison’s extensive collection of porcelain. In the latter room, this plays out with Wedgewood-style porcelain plates adorning the walls, miniature ceramic portraits as artwork and an opulent four-poster bed, seemingly straight out of 1889, when Caroline became a First Lady, married to President Benjamin Harrison.
Adding an eclectic touch are plush, sapphire velvet stools, jaunty dog lamps and swirly wallpaper. Cool details add a further finesse and include full-size toiletries by hip New York perfume brand, Debaser, and a quirky mini-bar found in a mini steel safe – in baby blue with brass trims. There are also silk bathrobes and soft slippers to add a luxe feel to your stay.
It’s as though designer Strauss has let his imagination run free. And it works. It’s a welcome antidote to the usual cookie-cutter approach to urban hotel design.
Found in the old banking hall, with a glamorous bar at its centre, Café Riggs is a highlight. Inspired by the grand brasseries of Europe, the lofty room has original marble columns, ornate plasterwork ceiling and custom furniture, including jewel-coloured velvet dining chairs. Look out for the two-story glass display-case housing supersized handmade, sculptural flowers to add even more character to the space.
Just like those brasseries of old, the Café offers the sort of menu from which you want to order everything (don’t – the portions are very generous!) and is the sort of place that feels buzzy all-day – from breakfast and brunch to late-night supper. What to choose? The ‘Raw Bar’ serves oysters and a stand-out tuna tartare, spiked with avocado and caviar and don’t miss the crab cake starter with lobster sauce. For mains, you can go for one of the crowd-pleasers from the ‘For the Table’ section – such as crispy chicken with a roasted garlic dip (add a side of brussels sprouts with almonds for a sublime combination) – or opt for a classic, such as steak frites or the prawn risotto, elevated from a humble dish to something sensational, with saffron, pea and pickled ramps (wild leeks).
Post-dinner, head downstairs to Silver Lyan, a subterranean cocktail bar, by acclaimed bartender Ryan Chetiyawardana (known as Mr Lyan). It packs a punch, not only with its sumptuous design but also because of its boundary-pushing cocktails. Reimagined out of the original vault, this feels decidedly ‘after-hours’, and calls on the storied nature of the hotel throughout its ethos.
Described as a ‘public space for private affairs’, the aesthetic is a collaboration by Chetiyawardana and Strauss, bringing a mixed palette of rich oak wood flooring, striking marquetry, an illuminated Japanese-style Nori curtain entrance and pops of color. The innovative cocktail menu. meanwhile, is full of surprises – each drink has been given a back story and is full of unique ingredients. It’s as if you have opened a book of spells. ‘Buck Hill Freeze Life’, for instance, is a taste sensation, with Courvoisier VSOP, Cotton + Reed white rum, Mastika liquor, silver Muscat wine and grilled peach. (Who’d have thought?)
For a special occasion, check out the Champagne Booth, a secluded hideaway, with a corner banquet framed by glass panels, a lush crimson velvet curtain and red marble tables. Deliciously decadent.
A stay at Riggs Washington DC places you in the heart of the city, and in a prime spot for exploring all the sights, including the White House (less than a mile away). Opposite the hotel is the National Portrait Gallery, one of the Smithsonian museums which are free to enter, and within walking distance is the National Museum of African American History and Culture – another must-do when in the city.
Start your day early with breakfast at Riggs Café. The menu is varied – from French toast with almonds and raspberries, a superb overnight oats and the ‘Riggs Royale’ (smoked salmon, hash browns, poached eggs and Bernaise sauce). It’s timeless yet modern, just like the hotel itself.