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The duchess of D.C. hoteldom learned from dust ruffles up

By Louise SweeneyStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 27, 1984


ROSE Narva sits at a window table in the dining room of the prestigious Hay-Adams Hotel. Her back is to Lafayette Square and the White House. Her copper hair is drawn back from a striking face: wide brown eyes, prominent cheekbones, makeup so perfect she might have just posed for Vogue. On her left hand is a gold rose ring with a diamond dewdrop.

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As president of the Hay-Adams - and generally acclaimed duchess of capital-city hoteldom - Mrs. Narva knows how to maintain her poise. Which is fortunate. In the middle of the interview there is an enormous crash overhead, like an elephant tripping over its tusks. Mrs. Narva barely blinks. It has been that kind of day. Early that morning the laundry broke down, which in a 165-bed hotel could be a drip-dry tragedy.

But such problems are only small wrinkles in the day of the woman who has transformed three Washington landmarks into luxury hotels. ''A hotel is a city, '' she says, ''where people are eating, sleeping, meeting.'' While the plots are perhaps less steamy than those on ABC television's weekly ''Hotel,'' Mrs. Narva says there's plenty of intrigue in any grand hotel. ''It's all intrigue in the back of the house,'' she says. ''It's the biggest grapevine in the world.''

Managing such an operation requires some improvisation - as it did when, in a hotel she previously managed, the water pipes broke. Mrs. Narva had to send out an S.O.S. to a neighboring hotel for buckets of water, which were toted in by hand and the water boiled to provide baths and hot water for babies' formulas and board members' morning shaves.

Nothing that challenging has happened during the Hay-Adams's recent multimillion-dollar renovation, which has been done as discreetly as possible. The walnut-paneled lobby, with its persimmon velvet sofas and chairs, its tapestries and paintings and antiques, resembles the drawing room in an English manor house - although, in hidden corridors a few feet away, chunks of plaster, exposed electric wiring, and paint buckets hint at the chaos of renovation during business-as-usual.

Despite the renovation, the Hay-Adams stands like a gray Medici palace, on the historic site of the turreted Victorian homes designed by Henry Richardson for writer Henry Adams and Secretary of State John Hay. California developer and entrepreneur David Murdock has just celebrated the hotel's renovation with a ''Return to Elegance'' black-tie dinner dance, including music by Peter Duchin. Just three days before, the hotel was upended for another major fete, an ''Arabian Nights'' party tossed by Houston socialite Joanne Herring for Prince Bandar ibn Sultan, Saudi Arabia's new ambassador to the United States.

Mrs. Narva scarcely blinked one long auburn eyelash over that one. There was, of course, the problem of how to move the lemon-colored rugs, 1,000 pounds each, out of the dining room for the party. They wouldn't fit in the elevator, and even King Kong couldn't carry them up several flights of stairs to the storage area. But she improvised and found a spot to stash them.

Like a general moving among the troops, Rose Narva quietly dispatches orders among her 130 employees. Have the new outdoor monogrammed carpet Scotch-guarded at 1 a.m., then let it dry till 5 a.m., and have it stored until the reopening, she orders quietly.