Washington, D.C., is no stranger to events large and small. Whether it’s a presidential inauguration on the National Mall for a million people or an everyday power lunch for two, the District has a place for everyone.
So to help you plan your next gathering, we’ve compiled a list of some of the area’s top spots based on event size, type and fun details such as high-tech perks, historical details and the ghosts of famous visitors past.
Great Place for Multiple Uses:
Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center
1300 Pennsylvania Ave., NW
Owned by the General Services Administration (GSA), the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center is based on a public-private partnership and houses a high-powered mix of tenants: the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Environmental Protection Agency, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection; private-sector companies such as the Association of Foreign Investors in Real Estate and Aflac insurance; as well as the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business D.C. campus and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
In fact, the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center, opened in 1998, is the first and only federal building dedicated to both government and private use. As its name suggests, one of its chief missions is promoting trade, commerce and cross-cultural dialogue, although that’s just one facet of the building’s wide-ranging portfolio.
The massive complex, which occupies a prime chunk of real estate along Pennsylvania Avenue, is the largest building in D.C. — at 3.1 million square feet, it’s the second-largest facility ever built by the federal government; only the Pentagon is bigger. If that weren’t enough, it’s home to 65,000 square feet of flexible event space, a 625-seat amphitheater, a 15-room conference center and six Signature Spaces for a more dramatic ambience.
As such, the multifunctional building is no stranger to embassies. The Embassy of Georgia celebrated 20 years of U.S.-Georgia relations in the spring there, for example, and ambassadors regularly hold talks or participate in conferences at the building. Notable visitors have included Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as well as her predecessors Madeleine Albright and Colin Powell, among many others. Annually, the building hosts Cultural Tourism DC’s Embassy Chef Challenge and the Washington DC International Food and Wine Show, a four-day extravaganza of food, drink and crafts.
Many events such as the Embassy Chef Challenge take place under the building’s most stunning architectural feature: a cone-shaped, horizontal glass skylight that soars over the 170-foot-diameter Atrium, which can be transformed depending on the décor and mood of the event.
The sheer size of the building also allows for a variety of spaces to be used at the same time for different purposes. On average, the building hosts roughly 28 events each week ranging from breakfast meetings, panel discussions, movie premieres, car shows, press conferences, product launches and large galas. Another plus is the building’s direct access to Metro and large underground parking facility, along with the fact that it’s within walking distance of the White House, Capitol and National Mall.
The site of the Ronald Reagan Building was not always so auspicious, however. It was known in the 1890s as “the plague spot of Washington” for its brothels and saloons, and it spent 50 years as a parking lot when the Depression hit in the 1930s. In 1987, Congress passed the Federal Triangle Development Act, authorizing a federal building complex and international cultural and trade center to complete the redevelopment of Pennsylvania Avenue.
Today, the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center stands as a crown jewel in Federal Triangle, one that’s equally versatile playing host to a sparkling evening reception as it is holding a serious trade symposium.
Great for Large Galas/Fundraisers:
Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium
1301 Constitution Ave., NW
When it was built between 1932 and 1934, the classical Mellon Auditorium was the largest government-owned meeting space in D.C. Today, the column-lined auditorium continues to do its original job. In the 77 years since the space was inaugurated, it has borne witness to history.
On Oct. 29, 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt started the Selective Service System lottery there. On April 4, 1949, the North Atlantic Treaty, establishing NATO, was signed there, and most recently, NATO held its 50th anniversary summit in the building. The Mellon Auditorium also hosts more than 100 events a year, although the General Services Administration must approve them first. The building is authorized for commercial, cultural, educational and recreational uses, and common events include nonprofit galas, fundraisers, inaugural balls and corporate gatherings.
Named for a former U.S. Treasury secretary, the auditorium’s 14,000 square feet of event space can be divvied up to accommodate as many as 1,000 guests, depending on the configuration of tables and other needs such as booths.
“It is very much a blank slate and can be used in many different configurations,” said Sarah Cooper, an event emissary at the auditorium. “We are solely an event venue, which allows each group significant time to set up a large-scale production without having to work around other exhibits or museum restrictions. We also have extensive experience working with high-level security events, which appeals to many of our clients in the D.C. area.”
Federal organizations can rent the space for $7,500 on weekdays and $12,000 on weekends, while nongovernment entities can claim it for $12,000 any day. Most events run $15,000 to $20,000 for the building rental and support costs, Cooper noted.
Great Rooftop Spots:
Top of the Hay
800 16th St., NW
POV Roof Terrace
515 15th St., NW
Keep tabs on White House comings and goings from either the Hay-Adams or the W hotels, whose rooftops offer up-close views of Washington’s most iconic residence.
At the Top of the Hay, you’ll get a more direct vantage point from the 3,262-square-foot space atop the historic Hay-Adams. An intimate group of four or a party of 340 can look out over Lafayette Square during a corporate reception, product launch, executive board meeting or wedding. The spot has also been used for embassy signing ceremonies, and in June, Secretary of State Clinton and Israeli President Shimon Peres held a joint discussion there hosted by the Brookings Institution.
“The White House view is unparalleled. It is not just the best view in Washington, but truly the best view in the world,” beamed Colette Marquez, director of operations at the Hay-Adams, which has $10,000 event rental and $25,000 food and beverage requirements.
At the W, Obama family-watching happens more from the side than head-on. The POV Roof Terrace, however, unlike the more traditional digs at the Hay-Adams, has a chic modern flair that attracts hipsters from across the city. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have history, either. Indeed, Elvis met with President Richard Nixon at the property, Harrison Ford once bought rounds of drinks for the crowd, and parts of “The Godfather: Part II” were shot on the rooftop.
More recently, the 8,000 square feet of event space atop the Beaux Arts hotel has welcomed the Embassy of the United Arab Emirates, held national days for African countries such as Gabon, and hosted the U.S.-U.A.E. Business Council and US-China Business Council.
Another appetizing detail: Event menus are designed by Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s award-winning J&G Steakhouse.
Great for Large Conferences:
Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center
201 Waterfront St., National Harbor, Md.
The Gaylord National, whose management is set to be taken over by Marriott International this fall as part of a $210 million deal, opened in 2008 as an anchor to the new entertainment complex at National Harbor in Maryland.
Located eight miles south of Washington, D.C., the 2,000-room hotel has an attached 470,000-square-foot conference facility and is the largest combined hotel and convention center on the East Coast. The space includes four ballrooms ranging in size from 8,000 to 50,000 square feet; 82 meeting rooms that run from 600 to 6,000 square feet; and an 180,000-square-foot Exhibit Hall. The 50,000-square-foot Potomac Ballroom has a Broadway-scale permanent stage that can be used for presentations or performances.
Various international organizations have held events here. On May 27, the Gaylord hosted the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia and the Saudi Cultural Mission’s graduation ceremony for the King Abdullah Scholarship Program that included 6,000 Saudi graduates from U.S. universities (also see “A King’s Vision” in the education section of the September 2012 issue). The facility has also hosted the Ugandan North American Association Dinner and events for the Association of Physicians of Pakistani Descent of North America and all four branches of the U.S. Armed Forces.
One of the advantages of the Gaylord is that it offers everything under one roof: event space and meeting rooms, guest rooms, banquets and catering, networking areas, event-planning vendors, nightlife and a spa. The setting is also attractive. The 8,000-square-foot Cherry Blossom Ballroom is set inside the hotel’s 19-story tropical atrium, filled with trees, plants and a fountain that shoots water 60 feet up into the war. RiverView Terrace, which opened in May, is a new 15,000-square-foot outdoor water venue that features the Potomac River as a backdrop.
Great for Private Meetings:
Plume at the Jefferson
1200 16th St., NW
Good meetings can happen in small spaces. Plume, the über-elegant restaurant inside the revamped Jefferson hotel, is ideal for a discreet meeting because of its size: 607 square feet (plus another 393.6 square feet if you count the Greenhouse area). Plume can accommodate only 64 diners — or 100 if you do it reception-style and include the Greenhouse.
Events that have taken place here include book signings by Ron Reagan (President Ronald Reagan’s son) and Mark Shriver, a member of the Kennedy clan, in addition to the Global Health Corps reception with former first lady Laura Bush.
“Plume is known for its very intimate space that is sectioned for privacy by appropriate columns,” said Joan Esposito, director of sales at the Jefferson. “Nooks and crannies add to the privacy and intimacy. Tucked away in a discreet corner of Plume, the Bird’s Nest is the most romantic dining setting in D.C. for its discriminating guests.” The circular velvet-draped nook sits under a 110-year-old chandelier.
On average, lunches cost $25 per person and dinners $85 per person. Special touches that add to the refined ambience include the cellar, which contains many of the vintages enjoyed by 18th-century President Thomas Jefferson as well as the country’s largest collection of Madeiras, some dating to 1780.
Great for Small Weddings:
18755 Foggy Bottom Road, Bluemont, Va.
Located about an hour and 15 minutes from the bustle of the nation’s capital, Bluemont Vineyard feels like another, more serene world. With the Blue Ridge Mountains serving as the backdrop, the vineyard offers four options for weddings, rehearsal dinners and other events.
The most popular wedding spot is the 4,800-square-foot Stable, which overlooks Loudoun Valley and can accommodate 200 to 250 guests for $3,000 to $6,000. Most bridal parties opt to hold the ceremony on the lawn, cocktail hour on the veranda and the rest of the celebration inside, said Debbie Zurschmeide-Schoeb, who handles Bluemont’s wedding event sales and is the chief experience orchestrator at Great Country Farms.
“We assign an in-house event planner and a day-of coordinator to every event,” Zurschmeide-Schoeb said. “We also only do one event per day,” with an average of one to three events per week between March and December.
For rehearsal dinners, she recommends the 1,200-square-foot Cellar, which is situated at 951 feet above sea level and offers 280-degree views of the valley. Two other options are the Shed at Great Country Farms, which can seat 75 under cover or more on the lawn, and the Corn Crib at the farms, a 19th-century granary covered in lights and grapevines that accommodates up to 40. Each rents for a flat $250 fee plus $10 per person.
Great for Large Weddings:
National Building Museum
401 F St., NW
The National Building Museum is dedicated to the history and impact of America’s “built environment” — its architecture, engineering and design — but this majestic structure also adheres to one of its original intended uses: “to provide a suitably grand space for Washington’s social and political functions.”
Today, the Great Hall, which has about 28,000 square feet of event space, is available for an average of $26,000, exclusive of food, drink, decorations, music and other party elements. That buys you enough room to welcome up to 1,600 seated guests or 2,000 standing ones in a soaring space punctuated by 75-foot-tall Corinthian columns and a 1,200-foot terra cotta frieze.
“Size and location are a big factor, but I think the architectural and historic appeal of the building are the big draws,” said Chris Frame, director of special events. “Our proximity to the Capitol makes it a big draw when trying to appeal to members of Congress to attend the event, and our ability to seat large numbers for a fundraising dinner help organizations plan really large events.”
New presidents’ inaugural balls have been held here, as well as a G20 economic summit, when the president hosted 20 world leaders inside the museum. Notably, Hillary Clinton ended her bid for the presidency here in June 2008, when she gave her concession speech and endorsed Barack Obama.
On a lighter note, it’s also hosted countless couples looking for a grand space for their nuptials — one with a hint of Washington history.
“Knowing that you’re hosting an event in the same exact location that Benjamin Harrison had his first inaugural ball [in 1889] is always an interesting little touch I suspect many aren’t even aware of,” Frame said.
Great Out-of-the-Box Location:
House of Sweden
2900 K St., NW
“House” is a misnomer for this sleek venue, which hosts four to six events a week ranging from corporate receptions, dinners and award ceremonies. Although it does house the embassies of Sweden and Iceland, it’s also part art museum, event center, and conference and exhibition hall. The building’s all-glass walls provide spectacular vistas of the Potomac River, just steps away along the Georgetown Waterfront, as well as of the Kennedy Center, Air Force Memorial and Watergate.
The House of Sweden has 12,000 square feet of event space — which can handle up to 500 people — and is no stranger to famous faces. It has hosted former Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Clinton and singer Jimmy Buffett. Each year the Swedish ambassador hosts the Nobel Laureates, too.
“Our versatility is a function of our space and of our creativity,” said Cecilia Browning, general manager of the House of Sweden. “Most of the building material is from Sweden, most meeting spaces are decorated with Swedish arts and textiles, and it gives the building a different feel — a touch of Sweden here in Washington, D.C.”
The building, a striking example of contemporary Scandinavian architecture, is also environmentally friendly, with recycling bins, LED lighting and a filtered Nordaq drinking water filtration system to eliminate plastic-bottle waste.
Great for Techies:
1919 Connecticut Ave., NW
History meets the Information Age at the Washington Hilton, where on-site audio-visual specialists provide event support throughout the hotel’s 110,000 square feet of meeting space.
The International Ballroom, for instance, boasts a 48-foot hydraulic stage with a dividing mechanism that allows for two stage sets at the same time and has loading capabilities for vehicles to be brought into the ballroom.
Guests can find their way through the hotel using digital directional Wayfinding with touch-screen capabilities that map current locations and create a travel path to the desired location. More than 50 digital touch screens also let users pull up a map of Washington and search for nearby dining, attractions and more.
Tucked away in the Hilton’s vast expanse of meeting space — broken into four regions — is a specially designed holding room for the U.S. president, who routinely goes to the iconic hotel for the Presidential Inaugural Ball (held here every four years since 1969), the White House Correspondents’ Dinner and the National Prayer Breakfast.
“The hotel has been hosting D.C.’s most notable events for nearly 50 years. With that comes a tremendous amount of experience in providing exceptional service delivery, exceeding attendees and planners’ expectations,” said Steve Cowan, general manager at the Washington Hilton, adding that the hotel has 300 bilingual team members who, combined, speak nearly 40 languages.
Great Place to Get Back to Nature:
1800 Glenallan Ave., Wheaton, Md.
Part of Montgomery County’s park system, Brookside Gardens is a 50-acre garden within Wheaton Regional Park. It includes gardens dedicated to aquatic life, azaleas, butterflies, roses, as well as a Japanese-style and children’s garden in addition to the Woodland Walk, a one-acre expanse of forested wetland. The formal garden areas include a Perennial Garden, Yew Garden, the Maple Terrace and Fragrance Garden.
For events, Brookside has eight indoor and outdoor site options. The largest indoor space, the Reception Hall, can hold up to 125 seated guests, and a tent in the gardens can accommodate twice as many. More intimate gatherings are better suited for the Anderson Pavilion on an island in the aquatic garden’s pond, the Japanese Tea House or even two classrooms. Rates vary for Montgomery County residents and nonresidents and range from $300 up to $4,200 (renters are responsible for bringing in dance floors, catering and all set-up and clean-up).
About the Author
Stephanie Kanowitz is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.