THE BLOG
11/21/2013 08:55 am ET Updated Jan 25, 2014

The Story Brought Down a President. Now Its Most Important Location Faces the Same Fate.

It is 2 a.m. in an underground garage somewhere in the Washington metropolitan area. Few cars are parked at this hour and the dark widespread garage is quiet except for the humming of an air conditioner and damped traffic noises. A tall, middle-aged man stands in the shadows besides a pillar in the last row of the level, barely visible except for the orange flash from his lighter and the white smoke from his cigarette. A second man, younger than the first one, walks towards him, his footsteps mimicking the sound of a gong in the silent garage. His name is Bob Woodward, 29, he is a journalist in the Metro section at the Washington Post. And he has come here at this late hour to talk to his informant.

"Forget the myths the media has created about the White House," the nameless man only known as "Deep Throat" says. "The truth is, these are not very bright guys, and things have got out of hand." Then he adds one final piece of advice: "Follow the money."

This scene may be from the movie All the President's Men, but the described encounter actually took place. Between 1972 and 1973, Woodward and Deep Throat met repeatedly in the underground garage, and it was here where the informant supplied information crucial for the Washington Post's coverage of the Watergate scandal that eventually led to the impeachment and resignation of President Richard Nixon in 1974 and the imprisonment of 43 men. The garage itself was immortalized in the 1976 Oscar-winning movie with Robert Redford as Bob Woodward and Hal Holbrook portraying the mysterious Deep Throat, but the location of it was not disclosed until after Deep Throat was revealed to be W. Mark Felt, the former FBI second-in-command, by his children in 2005. Today, the so-called "Watergate Garage" or "Deep Throat Garage" in Arlington, Va., is set for demolition, as part of the redevelopment process of two aging office buildings. The proposition by developer Monday Properties to the Arlington County Planning Commission resulted in a nationwide media buzz and a discussion about whether or not the garage should be protected for its historic importance.

watergate garage

"It's not only Arlington's history, it's also our country's history," says Cynthia Liccese-Torres, the Historic Preservation Coordinator of Arlington County, as she recalls the "crazy couple of days" at the end of August, when big media outlets picked up the story from small neighborhood blogs. Liccese-Torres, a youthful woman whose sparkly flower earrings match her lavender shirt, owes her five minutes of fame to the possible demolition of the garage. She was interviewed about it on CBS, a fact that still causes her to cover her face with her hands in embarrassment when she laughingly talks about it. But she understands the excitement, and sees the historic value of the garage: "Not all of our history is flashy history. Nor is it represented and manifested in grand buildings. Things happen in nondescript places."

The nondescript but infamous garage is located under two glass-walled office buildings at 1401 Wilson Blvd. and 1400 Key Blvd. in the center of Rosslyn, a busy built-up area on the Virginia side of the Potomac River, just north of Arlington Cemetery and the Pentagon. The area is made up mainly of office buildings and hotels and is currently undergoing a broad transformation process to become more residential -- most of the tall buildings are either new or under construction. After business hours, the streets are crowded with bustling professionals trying to get home, and the sheer number of parking garages makes it hard to find the specific one where Woodward and Deep Throat met. The best way to identify the small entrance to the garage on 1820 North Nash Street is the gray marker on a silver pole that Arlington County erected in front of the building in 2011 to commemorate the meetings that helped change the course of American history.

watergate garage

Liccese-Torres still remembers the challenge to tell the entire Watergate story in such a limited format. "We joke that it is like doing a marker haiku," she says.

On June 17, 1972, police reported a break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office complex in Washington. The two young Washington Post reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, were assigned to cover the story and bit by bit unveiled the involvement of the White House, all the way up to President Richard Nixon himself. As a result of Watergate, which became the emblem for the mother of all political scandals, Nixon resigned and 43 people went to prison, many of whom White House officials.

The information provided by W. Mark Felt played an essential role in their Pulitzer Prize-winning investigations. Felt, who was the FBI Associate Director at the time, functioned as an anonymous source on deep background, meaning that he either confirmed or denied information, but could not be quoted. It was Howard Simons, the Post's managing editor, who dubbed him "Deep Throat," in reference to a pornographic movie from the 1970s. As Woodward describes in his book, All the President's Men, Felt chose the garage in Rosslyn as a meeting place, urging the reporter to take several taxis to make sure he wasn't followed.

For over 30 years, the identity of Deep Throat and the location of the garage were one of the biggest secrets in American journalism and the source of much speculation. According to Woodward's book, The Secret Man: The Story of Watergate's Deep Throat, only six people came to know Deep Throat's identity over the years: Woodward himself, his wife, his colleague Carl Bernstein, two Washington Post editors and a lawyer who discovered the secret, but never revealed it. "We've kept that secret because we keep our word," Woodward said in an interview with the Post. Finally, on May 31, 2005, Felt's children revealed the secret about their 91-year-old father in a Vanity Fair magazine article. Woodward then confirmed the identity of his source and disclosed the address of the garage.

Since its recognition, the Watergate Garage has become an important part of Rosslyn's history, but if all goes according to Monday Properties' plans, the famous garage won't exist anymore in the near future. This summer, the real estate investment firm submitted a plan to the Arlington County Planning Commission, proposing to replace two office buildings from the 1960s, as well as the underground garage, with two mixed-use buildings. "These two buildings are at the end of their useful life," Tim Helmig, chief development officer at Monday Properties, told the French news agency AFP. The proposed new skyscrapers would have an overall density of over 900,000 square feet, including a public park, as well as a full-service grocery store. The Site Plan Review Committee is currently in the process of reviewing the application and meets every other month with representatives from Monday Properties and a wide range of their consulting firms. During the latest meeting on September 19, the group of about 30 people discussed building heights in the glazed conference room on the main floor of the Arlington County building. Aaron Shriber, the Arlington County Planner responsible for the project, estimates that the County Board will make a decision in "late spring of 2014."

The young man dons a white collared shirt with a black tie, but no jacket, while he carries a bunch of architectural drawings under his arm. "The historical significance of the building is an item of discussion in the agenda," he says, but he admits, that it probably won't be an important one.

There is no question that the Watergate Garage has seen better days. The wall paint is peeling off, the floor shows many cracks and the only color visible are the yellow lines indicating where one may park. Column D32, where Woodward and Felt apparently met, is located two levels below ground, right next to a big "EXIT"-door. A small laminated article about the late-night encounters marks the precise spot, hastily fastened with black and yellow warning tape. Nowadays the garage is well lit, with no dark spots or shadows to hide in.

Unlike the Watergate office complex, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the garage in Arlington doesn't have any protection and it is up to the owner Monday Properties to decide if and how they want to pay tribute to the history of the building. Although Monday Executive Vice President, Tim Helmig, initially agreed to be interviewed for this article, he was unable to be reached for a comment. A statement issued by a company's spokesperson says that, "As long-established members of the Arlington business community, Monday Properties is proud of Rosslyn and its role in American history." Regarding any kind of historic preservation, they "look forward to working with Arlington County and the community to preserve the commemorative sign."

Several Arlington-based community organizations are directly or indirectly involved in the site plan approval process and one can see their different priorities: "There is no question that the major historic significance of this site lies in the events that took place in the parking garage," says Molly McDonald, a board member of Preservation Arlington, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the protection of Arlington's architectural heritage. Jennifer Zeien, the President of the North Rosslyn Civic Association, is more interested in the community benefits of the new building, especially the promised grocery store. "And," she adds, "it's not like anyone will want to tour that gritty old garage or anything!"

While it is extreme to call the Watergate Garage, "gritty," it sure is in very bad shape. Today, the garage is open from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. and is mostly used by people who work in the building or go to the adjacent gym. One of them is John Quin, who parks his blue truck in D17 and judges the garage quite pragmatically: "It definitely has a spot in history, but it's not like it is the most visited spot ever." Although, he adds, he did see people taking pictures the other day, which he found surprising. An interesting idea comes from Tom Beacham, another garage regular, who used to work for the Department of Defense: "I think for history's sake, the actual pillar should be removed and put into the Newseum or the Smithsonian." According to Arlington County relocating the column would be a possible but "costly option." Christine Mundie, who wears a stonewashed jeans jacket and stands right next to her car in D25, hopes that there will be a plaque in the new building to remember the garage's importance. "We take a lot of things for granted that we drive by daily," she says.

It doesn't look like Monday Properties is going to try to preserve the Watergate Garage, and the relocation of the existing historic marker is the most likely outcome. The consensus between the developer, Arlington County, and many community organizations is, that the historic meetings between Woodward and Felt just coincidently happened there, and have nothing to do with the garage itself.

"Right now, this particular garage is not a protected site," explains Liccese-Torres while an airplane flies above her office in the Arlington County building. "It really is up to the property owner what they want to do with their property." But she also confirms the nationwide interest in the Watergate Garage, and says that she expects another media buzz in 2016 or 2017, when the actual demolition work is set to begin.

Surprisingly, those who were directly involved in the Watergate scandal don't mourn the loss of its most important location. In an interview with the New York Daily News, Bob Woodward himself explained that buildings "come and go, like Presidents and old reporters. Who could stand in the way of progress?"

Leonard Downie Jr., one of six people to know Deep Throat's identity before its revelation, shares his perspective. As Deputy Metropolitan Editor, Downie, then in his 30s, supervised much of Woodward's and Bernstein's Watergate coverage. Now, 40 years later, the longtime executive editor of the Washington Post, is a distinguished elderly man with gray hair and a tendency to wear his glasses close to the tip of his nose. Downie shares his take on the historic importance of the Watergate Garage with a journalism class at American University. "I would be satisfied with a memory plaque," he says. "It is just a garage. They all look alike."