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

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.

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.

''Oh, Michael, that looks wonderful!'' she says to Michael Haskins, the design coordinator supervising the paint buckets, sanding, and chaos of a lounge being redecorated. Stepping onto an elevator, she spots a thumbprint on the mirror and a strip of brass that isn't burnished enough, then sends a message down to have it taken care of. ''I am constantly either complimenting or reprimanding the staff,'' she notes with a smile.

She stops to wrestle a crooked brass lamp into submission in one room and note a mismatched chair in another. The white-uniformed housekeeper, Miss Essy, follows her with notebook in hand, jotting it all down.

It's that sort of attention to detail, apparently, that attracts the affluent movers and shakers of society. When Mrs. Narva took over the renovation and running of the old Jefferson Hotel here, for instance, five members of the then-new Reagan Cabinet, and their families, moved in after the inauguration to enjoy its sumptuous comforts: Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger; Attorney General William French Smith; Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis; Labor Secretary Raymond Donovan; and William Casey, director of central intelligence. At one point so many top administration figures were there, it was dubbed ''White House North.''

Mr. Smith murmured to the Washington Post that the Jefferson was ''about as much like home as it's possible to be in a hotel.'' The Sheraton chain chose Mrs. Narva as general manager when it decided in the late '70s to spend $6.3 million to restore the slumping Sheraton-Carlton. She guided the renovation, which included slews of antiques, bowers of fresh flowers, upscale period redecorating, and a lobby court for tea and dining.

Not bad for a woman from Brooklyn who learned the hotel business from the dust ruffles up. The daughter of a Brooklyn construction company owner, she says she always had a yen to be involved in the work of grand hotels she knew in New York: the Astor Hotel (now torn down), the Plaza, the Pierre, the Sherry-Netherland.

When her husband's job as rear admiral in the Navy Medical Corps brought them from California to Washington, Mrs. Narva managed a Maryland resort hotel called Linden Hill. When the cook didn't show up, she fixed breakfast for the guests; when one of the chambermaids quit, she made beds. She'd also been a night auditor at a Los Angeles hotel, worked at Columbia Pictures, and learned about promotion at an advertising agency - all the while nurturing her own dream.

At the Hay-Adams, guests are pampered with butler and valet service, English biscuits by the bed at night, and a security system that includes photoelectric beams outside the balcony windows.

With their wood-burning fireplaces, glowing colors, and fresh flowers, and long windows, most of the rooms look like pages from House Beautiful. They have the sort of comfortable elegance that makes the hotel's affluent clientele feel right at home - even at rates that go from a low of $150 a night to a high of $ 225 (for a White House view).

Some of those ''low rent'' rooms face into the nearby windows of writers for Time Inc., and Mrs. Narva says that just won't do. ''I'm thinking of asking Time to pull down their shades,'' she sighs.

Only Rose Narva would consider asking a news magazine to cover up something, even a window. She just might charm them into doing it.

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