Earth: The Watergate complex, famous for more than just burglars and tapes.

This is the famous Watergate complex, a cluster of residences, hotels and office buildings located along the Potomac River in Washington, D.C. There are five major buildings here, all named Watergate, which used to be under unified ownership and management, but are now owned and operated separately. Once upon a time this was the most desirable real estate in the D.C. area. The shot above, from Google Earth, uses 3-D digital models to simulate the buildings. I’ve been here in real life, and the Watergate Office Building and connected Watergate South–the crescent-shaped structure–is surprisingly imposing especially if you’re standing in the courtyard. The complex was constructed between 1963 and 1971, designed and built mostly by Italian firms, and there was considerable controversy involving zoning, design and financing of the project. Thus, the place had a checkered history even before the scandal to which it gave its name.

Forty-three years ago today, on June 17, 1972, Frank Wills, a security guard at the office building in the complex, noticed that somebody had put tape over the latches of a couple of doors leading from the underground parking garage to the offices. He removed the tape. When he came back a bit later, he saw someone had replaced the tape. Wills called the cops, who bagged five creepers: Bernard Barker, James McCord, Eugenio Martinez, Frank Sturgis and Virgilio Gonzales. It turned out they worked for the White House. Six days later President Richard Nixon said something during a meeting that he would later regret. When his oopsie became public knowledge in August 1974, because it happened to have been caught on tape, he ragequit the presidency and went to go build his library in Yorba Linda. Every political scandal in U.S. history since this one has been compared to Watergate, which got its name from this building.

Watergate is justifiably important in American history for its role in the scandal, but even without that the history of this complex is pretty interesting. A lot of powerful people have lived here over the years, including actress Elizabeth Taylor, Caspar Weinberger (Reagan’s Secretary of Defense), Monica Lewinsky (Bill Clinton’s friend-with-benefits), and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who may well be the single most powerful woman in America. Even before this complex was built in the ’60s, Watergate was the name of a famous restaurant that occupied this site beginning in World War II, and itself refers to the terminus of the old Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, originally built in 1831. Thus, there’s a lot more to the site’s history than burglars and tapes. History is like a layer cake, and when you bite into it you have to taste it all.

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