Bruce Bradley smiles the smile of a man whose dream has come true—because with the opening of the Capella hotel in Georgetown, he believes it has. Bradley is the managing member of the DC-based Castleton Hotel Partners, which built the 49-room luxury hotel project that took five years from the day the deal was closed until the soft opening this past weekend. Originally Bradley hoped to open the hotel in January, in time for the inauguration, but the complex reality of hotel construction set in, and instead he is welcoming the first guests at cherry blossom time. “This is a better time,” he says, “for the market and the industry.”
Bradley invited The Washingtonian to have breakfast and a tour Wednesday morning. We met in the light-filled marble lobby, had fresh-squeezed orange juice, eggs, blueberry pancakes, and coffee in the Grill Room, overlooking the C&O Canal, and then explored the hotel from the shiny new kitchen to the presidential suite, with its 2,000-pound marble bath for four, to the almost-finished rooftop deck with a black slate infinity pool, a large wood deck, and expansive views of Georgetown, downtown DC, and Virginia. Bradley wants to make a statement with the Capella. He also wants it to be Washington’s top luxury hotel. Time will tell.
Until the Capella, Bradley’s business was building embassies and office buildings, including some government and historic properties. It turned him into a world traveler, with highly discriminating taste. He wanted to apply his experience and taste to a hotel in his hometown—and the commercial office market had turned soft in recent years. “It hasn’t been the ideal time,” he says of his standard line of work. “It generally is a steady growth industry, but in the past couple of years we had the phenomenon of the federal government cutting back on its budget, which almost never happened before.” The hotel industry, on the other hand, “has taken off, and Washington is one of the strongest hotel markets in the country.”
Bradley says right off that building an embassy is quite different from a hotel project and made for a challenging learning curve. “It’s much more intricate. I feel like I got my [hotel] PhD in the past couple of years,” he says. “Now I know precisely what to do with the next one”—which could be in Miami or Milan. An ex-Leo A Daly design principal, Michael Winstanley, oversaw the design of the hotel. “It was such a complex project, the level of finish and detail,” says Bradley. “It’s like making a Ferrari, where you have to put on ten coats of paint.”*
The elements of the design are something Bradley enjoys talking about and showing off. “Every piece of furniture is custom-made for the hotel,” he says as we walk through the “living room,” a quaint but lavish private area for hotel guests that features a towering crystal chandelier reclaimed from the original Italian Embassy. The upholstered pieces are from Germany, other items of furniture from Italy, the ebony-finished woodwork from “the best factories” in China, the millwork from Austria. Even the chef, Jakob Esko, is imported—from Sweden by way of the Capella Singapore. The hotel’s general manager, Alex Obertop, comes to DC from Düsseldorf, Germany, where he oversaw the opening of another Cappela hotel, the Breidenbacher Hof.
When we make our way to the sunny rooftop it is nothing short of a construction site, swarming with carpenters, electricians, and tile setters. I venture a guess that it will be another three weeks before it is finished. Bradley scoffs. “Oh, no,” he says. “We will have water in the pool by Friday. It will all be finished.” A motivating factor is a private party planned for this weekend for friends of Bradley and his wife, Sharon, his partners, and their friends. He expects about 150 people. Next week there’s a much larger opening party for the public. He doesn’t even try to guess how many people will come to that soiree.
The rooftop deck, pool, and bar area looks like it could be one of the choicest pieces of summer real estate in the city, but, frustratingly for locals, it will be only for hotel guests. If a Saudi prince comes and takes over two floors of the hotel, for instance, he will want privacy.* Saudi princes, other heads of state, business moguls, movie stars, and the just plain rich are the clientele Bradley hopes to attract. He’s off to a good start: Tuesday, the hotel’s private dining room held a dinner hosted by a trio of ambassadors. It went into the wee hours. Bradley says that’s the scene he expects at the Capella. Could he change the rooftop policy? He pauses, starts to speak but stops, and ultimately doesn’t answer the question. He has a few things to say—but only off the record.
There’s no mistaking that the Capella is a hotel for people of means, or at least generous expense accounts. Rooms, which are lush, cost in the $600-and-up range. On Monday evening, three cocktails and two glasses of wine with friends, and no food, came to $105. But the cocktails were delicious. They have Manhattans on tap, which is a nice touch at a place named the Rye Bar. The bar food, on the other hand, is curious. Yes, there are conventional items such as crabcakes and sliders—along with the latest DC food craze, doughnuts—but will patrons go for bone marrow canapes and potato skins with oxtail? The dinner menu is tempting, with grilled meats and fish and rotisserie chicken ($26) among the highlights. A 12-ounce strip steak is $40, beef tartare $22, roasted wild rockfish is $34, sole meunière $48, and a cote de boeuf for two is $70.
Bradley wants the food to be sophisticated but not too exotic. Again, he models it on favorite hotels in other countries. He’s proud of a Champagne cart that will make the rounds of the tables at dinner (and lunch, too, if you ask). He also hopes to become the spot for the so-called power breakfast in Washington—the current top contender is the nearby Four Seasons Hotel, where Bradley says he’s been a regular breakfast patron for years. How will he woo those customers to his dining room? “Word of mouth.” He wants the community to come in the doors and feel comfortable, and he acknowledges there’s a delicate balance between serving the community and serving the hotel’s guests. “But we’ll do it,” he says.
Even though the Capella is the product of a team of partners, and is operated by a noted global chain, it’s at heart a very personal statement for Bruce Bradley. It has occupied so much of his time that he’s not pursued any other commercial projects while getting it finished. “There was a need to be hands-on,” he says. He reminisces about some of his favorite hotels—the Plaza Athénée in Paris, the Bauers and the Gritti Palace in Venice. “In every hotel you see something you love, little details, and you want to have them. I remembered these things and brought them here,” he says.
Bradley is at the hotel daily now, meeting friends and associates, pointing out the details, introducing his staff. Has he spent the night in his own hotel yet? “No,” he says, but very soon he will come with Sharon and their children and have—what else?—a family sleepover.
*This post has been updated from a previous version.