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Published: Sunday, 6/6/2004

Washington hotel provides companions for its guests

It was a long debate. Should I bring George home to live in Michigan or leave him in familiar surroundings? Friends are important to anyone, and George surely had enough of them at his home in Washington, D.C.

Our friendship that began and flourished in my plush room at the Hotel Monaco was brief, but touching though we never touched.

I knew George figured his new companion was harmless because of the way he wiggled and came toward me when I whispered hello and tapped my fingers on the glass wall that separated us. There was little response when I asked George if he was warm enough or if the air conditioner was turned down too low.

If you are thinking the old girl not only had an affair out of town, but also is brazen enough to report it, you are dead wrong.

This is a fish story starring George, with Jerry in a minor role. They are goldfish that live happily in a large tank in the basement of the Monaco, until some visitor like me requests a fish for company.

Offering a goldfish as a companion to lonely visitors was an idea of the late Bill Kimpton, founder of the Kimpton Hotel and Restaurant Group of San Francisco, the company that leased and renovated the historic building. According to manager Colin McBeath, about half the guests, especially those with children, have thought it's a great idea since the hotel reopened in 2002.

My order for the delivery of a fish was more out of curiosity than loneliness. How can anyone be lonely in Washington, where there are so many things to do and see? I only scratched the surface on walking excursions in all directions from the downtown Monaco.

The fish are delivered by a bellman in a standard fishbowl. Jerry, my first fish, was swimming around a mini model of the Washington monument embedded in red and blue chips. I spent one night with Jerry, and I was constantly fussing with the thermostat from hot to cold for his comfort.

The next morning, the fish was listless and I insisted that he be fed. I said good-bye Jerry and went to lunch, little knowing it really was good-bye. Two hours later, I returned to find that Jerry had been replaced. And how can you tell one goldfish from another? It's not easy but seeing the bowl with a model of the capitol building and not the Washington monument was a clue.

The explanation was that whoever fed him decided he was tired and needed to be refreshed in the fish tank that is supplied with oxygen. (No one at the Monaco would say, "Lady, your fish was half dead.")

I named the new fish George. After all, I was in Washington. He was far more active and responsive to my voice and I have to admit I enjoyed watching something alive in my room until departure.

Then came the decision: Should I take George home?

The staff would bundle bowl and fish up for the journey.

The cost: $25.

It would have been interesting to try to take a fish through security at Reagan National Airport, or at any airport.

The decision to leave the fish came after Mr. McBeath invited me to see the fish tank in the basement. The large, well-equipped tank was full of fish in grand parade from one end to the other.

"Can you spot Jerry?" Mr. McBeath asked.

I pointed to the fish that stayed by itself near the glass. That was Jerry, I was sure.

With or without fish in the basement, the Monaco is a superb example of how a historic building can be recycled for a 21st-century purpose. The marble building covering an entire block was formerly the Old General Post Office designed by Robert Mills, who also designed the Washington Monument and other D.C. government buildings.

In the reported $34 million renovation, the basic architecture was respected. Changes were done gently in the conversion from an 1842 federal building to a 184-room hotel.

It still looks more like a Roman temple with colonnade than it does a big-city hotel. Vaulted ceilings and spiral staircases are restored. The third-floor library is now a ballroom. Instead of a bank of elevators, one suffices.

Precautions were taken in case the building is ever restored to its original form. Guest room bathrooms are removable modules and spacious headboards are not attached to the walls. A plaster bust of Thomas Jefferson on the mahogany armoire in each room recognizes his friendship with Mr. Mills and because he, too, was considered an outstanding architect.



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