Bush holds court in suite of bankrupt Houston hotel


HOUSTON -- The plumbing's a little balky. The carpets have cigarette burns. The rattan furniture has gotten, well, ratty.

Even the second floor, where President Bush keeps his official residence, is showing signs of age: a nick here, a scratch there, a few stains on the carpet.

In short, when Mr. Bush came home yesterday -- to his official residence, the Houstonian Hotel and Conference Center -- he found that the place has gone downhill.

It's hardly been a secret. In recent months, the Bushes' home -- already scoffed at by critics as a tax dodge -- has become a target for new jokes because of its owners' financial problems.

The hotel declared bankruptcy in February, after trying to wrest $3 million from its lender to buy new furniture and carpeting. It badly wanted to renovate itself in time for the Republican National Convention and became increasingly hysterical in legal papers as it tried to renegotiate its loan in time.

Its lender refused to budge, however.

So in the last few weeks, the 300-room hotel has been making do, trying to put on a good appearance on the cheap -- carpet shampooing here, a bunch of red, white and blue banners there, a couple of topiary Republican elephants on the lawn.

Maybe the slight raggedness of its furniture will make the old-money Bushes feel at home. In any case, the first couple is expected to stay, for the duration of the convention, in the place they have called their official residence since the hotel was built in 1980 -- a two-room suite overlooking a swimming pool and a jogging path.

The Houstonian has one of the city's prettiest locations. Set in 18 acres of wooded, steep-ravined hillside, it provides respite from the flat, scorched roadways and impersonal towers that otherwise define the city.

Behind its gates and guardhouse, the complex includes a conference center, offices, 300-room hotel and an opulent health club that costs $3,000 to join. Both the Bushes and their son Neil, who recently moved to Houston, belong.

Compared with their unofficial residence in Kennebunkport, Maine, where they spend summer vacations, the Bushes' Houston home is a simple affair. There are two rooms: a bedroom with blue-green carpeting and walls and a single king-size bed, and a large wood-paneled living room with a dark wood dining table that seats 12.

The Bushes picked the hotel because they used to live in the neighborhood. They owned a house right on the hotel property that's now used as a private dining club, said Larry Seelig, president of HFUND Inc., which runs the hotel.

The complex also fits their active lifestyle. It even has a horseshoe pit. The president likes to jog around the one-mile Astroturf jogging path, while Mrs. Bush likes to don her swimsuit ("conservative," reports Mr. Seelig) and swim laps in one of the hotel's two pools.

Not that they're here much. Last year, even with the economic summit held in Houston, the couple spent only about 15 days in their official residence, said Mr. Seelig.

When the Bushes aren't home, other people may rent the Presidential Suite (which has a brass plaque on the door to announce it) for $500 a night.

Almost anyone can stay there. In fact, the hotel once unthinkingly rented it to a group of Russians, said Mr. Seelig, only to receive a tongue-lashing from the Secret Service.

On another occasion, a group of Democrats reportedly rented the suite to hold a "baloney party" -- a media event to show that Mr. Bush's official residence was nothing more than a tax avoidance strategy. (Texas has no state income tax; Maine, where the Bushes actually spend more time, does.)

The president doesn't pay the full $500 rate because he is a federal employee and limited by a per diem, said Mr. Seelig. (He would not say how much the president does pay.)

All Mr. Bush's staffers get a government discount, but because they use all but 20 or so rooms with each visit, the hotel still makes a profit.

The Houstonian needs all the profits it can get right now. Occupancy has been sagging for two years, and with it, cash flow.

It needs $3 million to replace carpeting and furniture, said Mr. Seelig. Without the renovations, the hotel is holding its rates at $129 during the week, and $79 on weekends.

In the meantime, the Houstonian has preened itself as best it can.

The Secret Service has also added its touches, arranging for sharpshooters on the roof and drug- and explosive-sniffing dogs by the guardhouse.

For now, the Bushes show no signs of moving their official residence to another hotel. As the Houston Chronicle put it, "The Bushes are loyal -- just ask Dan Quayle."

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