Washington DC's Eaton Workshop is a hotel with heart

To get an edge in a crowded marketplace, any modern hotels like to make a strong design statement. But it is rare to come across a hotel that prints pictures of The Pill on its stationary.

At the Eaton, in Washington DC, "Progress" is stencilled on my room keycard, and it could be stencilled on virtually everything in the room, too. A stack of books includes Toni Morrison and works addressing climate change, and a framed picture above the bed shows a black man burning the Confederate flag. Downstairs, copies of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights can be collected at the front desk.

"I'm using a for-profit model to achieve the same goals as an activist," Katherine Lo, Eaton's founder, recently told Bon Appetit magazine. Lo's vision marries the comfort of a luxury hotel with a community space that is, for want of a better word, woke. Indeed, the hotel is only part of the Eaton, which is more properly called "the Eaton Workshop". The guest rooms — beautiful, well-appointed, and aimed at anybody, "whether you're an entrepreneur, artist, activist or yogi (or all of the above!)" — are in some respects the least interesting part of a larger package.

Adjacent to the hotel is Eaton House, a shared community workspace; when I visit, the private office capsules are filled with people planning a Gender Summit and the Tibetan Film Festival. In the hotel lobby, there is Eaton Radio, "a community-based radio station with a DIY spirit." An in-house cinema shows a monthly film series of social documentaries — on migrant sex worker, say, or Black Doulas in Nigeria. A wellness centre offers Himalayan sound baths. A restaurant, American Son, offers a menu that doubles as a commentary on the Chinese American experience. Meanwhile, a large multimedia installation critiquing television journalism divides the welcome desk from a gorgeous library — stocked, of course, with activist literature.

"We had a guest who was a survivor of Hiroshima," Bert le Roux, the hotel manager, tells me as we stand before an exhibition case. "She left all these paper cranes."

In this day and age, any attempt by a company to be socially engaged seems to invite a certain level of skepticism: Do they really mean what they say, or is it just another way of selling a product? It is a testament to the Eaton that, during my two-night stay, it is a non-stop hive of activity: people who were not even sleeping here using the various spaces for meetings. "We're never going to succeed here unless we can engage with the community," le Roux said. So far, at least, it seems to be working.

It is not all serious, though. Allegory Bar, hidden behind a nondescript door, is a stunning Alice in Wonderland-themed speakeasy. (Alice is depicted in the wall murals as Ruby Bridges, the first black girl to be integrated into white schools in America.) Up on the top floor, Wild Days is the kind of bar that is destined for greatness, with its large band-friendly stage and an enviable terrace.

Funnily enough, the view from that terrace is perhaps the most provocative thing about the Eaton. You can see up and down K Street, which is most often associated with the Washington lobbying industry. In an act of epic real estate trolling, the progressive hotel, impossible to miss, sits right in the middle of a conservative stronghold.

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FLY

Qantas flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Washington DC, with a change in San Francisco. See qantas.com.

STAY

The Eaton DC offers well-appointed rooms, with turntables and record collections, from $US149 a night. See eatonworkshop.com.

Lance Richardson stayed courtesy of the Eaton DC and Destination DC.

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