DIPLOMATICA Vol. 1
Molly McCluskey Edited by Ana Rold
Copyright ÂŠ by DIPLOMATICA and Molly McCluskey 2020 All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. First Published 2020. Published in the United States by Medauras Global and Diplomatic Courier. 1660 L Street, NW, Suite 501, Washington, D.C., 20036 Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data DIPLOMATICA, Vol I / Molly McCluskey ISBN: 978-1-7349157-0-9 (Digital) ISBN: 978-1-7349157-1-6 (Print) NOTICE. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form (except brief excerpts for the purpose of review) without written consent from the publisher and author. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of information in this publication; however, the author, Diplomatic Courier and Medauras Global make no warranties, express or implied, in regards to the information and disclaim all liability for any loss, damages, errors, or omissions. For permissions, email email@example.com. PERMISSIONS. For permissions please email: firstname.lastname@example.org with your written request.
DIPLOMATICA BY MOLLY MCCLUSKEY A multimedia exploration of the people, histories, and culture behind diplomatic properties around the world. EDITED BY ANA ROLD
DIPLOMATIC COURIER | MEDAURAS GLOBAL WASHINGTON, DC
CONTENTS 006 FOREWORD 011
YOU CAN’T SELL SENTIMENT IN WASHINGTON
023 THIS IS WHAT BRINGS ON REVOLUTIONS 035 THE CAPITOL ALTERNATIVE 047 THE UNWITTING SHRINE 057 A SPY’S DEFECTION PROMPTS AN EMBASSY 067 THE INVISIBLE LINE THROUGH WASHINGTON 079 WASHINGTON’S WONDER HOUSE 091
AN ISLAND IN THE CITY
THE PASSIONATE SOUL
A MONUMENT TO THE MODERN
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he first time I ever set foot in an embassy was during Passport DC, the monthlong celebration of Washington’s international community that features open embassies on several weekends in a row. I had traveled abroad before, but unknowingly only to places that issued a visa upon arrival, and so until that spring in 2010, I was completely unaware of the vast tapestry of diplomatic properties in Washington. I would spend the next decade making up for that lack of knowledge. I became a diplomatic correspondent for The Washington Diplomat and a senior correspondent for Diplomatic Courier, which opened the doors of the magnificent houses along Embassy Row, International Circle, 16th Street meridian, and more. Then, as a foreign correspondent for a wide range of global publications, I was frequently in and out of these buildings in cultural and diplomatic capitals around the world for visas, press briefings, social engagements, and interviews. As my time in embassies, residences, and diplomatic cultural centers grew greater, so too did my fascination with their histories. Whether because of their proximity—I lived across Rock Creek Park from the Embassy of the Czech Republic and was often kept awake at night by their parties—or because of their mystery—the Embassy of Indonesia is allegedly haunted by the last owner of the Hope Diamond—each embassy I encountered unveiled a story. Some were well known, others were unknown even to the ambassadors themselves. I wanted to know them all. This book is the collection of the first ten embassy and ambassador’s residence profiles of Diplomatica, a series which began as a newsletter and later grew into a dedicated channel on Diplomatic Courier, where I remain Editor-at-Large. It features profiles of countries large and small, buildings old and new, more than one haunting, and quite a few scandals. These buildings were chosen for their histories, their architecture, and/or their place in the tapestry of Washington. But more than that, each is simply a building our team found fascinating, and hope you will, too. 6 | DIPLOMATICA
This series would not be possible without early support from the many people who opened their embassies, their offices, and their homes to Diplomatica. We are grateful to Ambassador Maguy Maccario Doyle of Monaco; former Ambassador Budi Bowoleksono of Indonesia, former Ambassador Martin Dahinden of Switzerland, Representative Stanley Kao of Taiwan, Ambassador Hynek KmonĂcek of the Czech Republic, Ambassador Andris Teikmanis of Latvia, Ambassador FayĂ§al Gouia of Tunisia, Ambassador Kirsti Kauppi of Finland, Ambassador Javlon Vakhabov of Uzbekistan, former Ambassador Hector Posset of Benin, and Stuart Holiday, president of the Meridian Center. There are more than 175 diplomatic properties in Washington, and thousands more around the world. Let us begin.
Molly McCluskey Washington, DC July 2020
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YOU CAN’T SELL SENTIMENT IN WASHINGTON “I believe I should like to live a life of contented love, with you, in preference to all else.” -Warren G. Harding to Carrie Fulton Philips
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Everything Old is New Again
The residence of the Ambassador of Monaco, in Kalorama, is the former home of Warren G. Harding. Photo by Molly McCluskey.
n the gentlemanâ€™s study in the house at 2314 Wyoming, cigar smoke once hung so thick in the air that it was nearly one hundred years before it could all be cleared away. It was in this study that a newspaper publisher turned senator wrote steamy love letters to his mistresses, plotted to pay off those mistresses with his friend and fixer, and drafted the speech that would become his inaugural address when he would be sworn in as president in March, 1921. Now the residence of the Ambassador of Monaco, and redecorated personally by the current ambassador, Maguy Maccario Doyle, to be a suitable home for diplomatic entertaining, the house that once belonged to Warren G. Harding might have become just another home in Washington were it not for an extraordinary series of events that left their imprint, like the smoke that clung to the walls, for many years after. DIPLOMATICA | 13
Florence adjusts Warren’s tie in the driveway at 2314 Wyoming Ave NW. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Unearthing Secrets Harding and his wife, Florence, moved to Washington when he was elected to the Senate in 1914. They first rented a modest home in Kalorama before buying the three-story home at 2314 Wyoming in 1917 with money Florence had inherited from her father. Over the next several years, the couple spared no expense decorating the home and filling it with lavish furnishings, before selling the home, and most of its belongings, when they moved to the White House in 1921. This period coincided with the end of a longstanding affair with Carrie Fulton Philips, a married woman Harding knew from Marion, Ohio. A trove of often steamy letters between the two was unsealed by the Library of Congress in 2014, and raised eyebrows over their unabashedly erotic content. Many of them were so smutty that on Last Week Tonight, the late night show host John Oliver said they were something “a 40-year-old mother of two should be reading on her Kindle.” A century later, Harding’s study is a mixture of the old and the new, easy enough to imagine the president and his cronies 14 | DIPLOMATICA
lounging there, inviting enough to imagine spending an afternoon on one of the mocha-colored leather armchairs, pursuing the classic hardbound books adorning the shelves, or plotting diplomatic pursuits. There are two small dishes on the table, perfect for the odd candy, keys, or capturing the stray cigar ash, flicked carelessly from one century to the next. Although now, of course, the books on the coffee table are about Monaco, a country which was drafting its first constitution about the same time Harding was running for, and losing, his campaign for Governor of Ohio. (Despite subsequent revisions, the Monegasque constitution remains the shortest constitution in the world.) The U.S. and Monaco established full diplomatic relations in 2006, although the U.S. does not have an embassy in the small nation. Instead, the U.S. Ambassador to France is also accredited to Monaco, and the U.S. Consul General in Marseille handles most of the day-to-day diplomatic relations with Monaco. In 2007, Prince Albert of Monaco officially opened the Kalorama home. The Prince, the son of Grace Kelly, was educated in the U.S. and spoke fondly of his time stateside. (That fondness extended to the prince also purchasing his mother’s childhood home in Philadelphia in 2016.) On a recent tour of the house, my gaze was directed to a small access door to a crawl space above the third floor. There’s some speculation among staff that the area, never fully explored during the house’s many restorations, might contain additional Harding letters. My offer to discover the alcove’s secrets was politely, but promptly, declined.
Harding’s former study in what is now the residence of the Ambassador of Monaco. Photo by Molly McCluskey. DIPLOMATICA | 15
The Man Who Didn’t Want to be President “I am not fit for this office and never should have been here,” Harding once said. But he campaigned on a “return to normalcy” after the turbulent war years, and was a handsome man with a pleasing demeanor, fond of golf and cars, and had a populist message on the podium, and so he was elected. By all accounts, even his own, Harding didn’t particularly enjoy having the presidency. And many in Washington didn’t particularly enjoy his presidency, either, excepting, of course, those who benefited from it. A notorious land deal, subsequent payoffs and cover-ups and smear campaigns launched by the president’s allies against those deemed hostile, defined much of Harding’s short presidency. Although his affair with Philips did not continue once he entered the White House, he was not lacking for mistresses. When rumors
The Hardings and the McLeans together in Palm Beach, Florida. McLean, the publisher of The Washington Post and Harding’s fixer, was once called “more of a curse” than his wife’s Hope Diamond. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress. 16 | DIPLOMATICA
of the sheer number of affairs began to bubble within the Washington press corps (including one journalist who also was one of Harding’s mistresses), Harding told a stunned group of reporters at the National Press Club, “It’s a good thing I am not a woman. I would always be pregnant. I can’t say no.” The rumors were so rampant that dossiers were compiled of possible mistresses and enemies alike, private investigators were hired, and jobs were created in the administration to keep people from telling what they knew. Various women signed affidavits swearing they had no carnal knowledge of the president and when they wouldn’t sign willingly, Ned McLean, a friend of Harding’s, publisher of the Washington Post, and political fixer, was tasked with securing their compliance. (McLean, the gadabout husband of Evalyn Walsh McLean, who features in the Diplomatica profile, This Is What Brings On Revolutions, was once called “more of a curse than the diamond.)
The piano in the residence of the Ambassaodor of Monaco. The hand-crocheted silk piano shawl, which originally belonged to Florence Harding, was meant as a decorative accent for a piano, and dates to approximately 1910-1920. It was likely used in the Harding Senate home sometime between 1915 and 1920. It was presented to the embassy by the site manager of the historic Harding home in Ohio. Photo by Molly McCluskey. DIPLOMATICA | 17
Moving Down, Moving Up Following his election in 1920, a cheeky Washington Post article pondered what would become of the Hardings’ home in Kalorama when he took office on March 4, 1921. “One thing is dead certain,” the journalist wrote, “If he wants to rent the house he can get his own price, and have a long line waiting for the chance to take it. Aside from the historic interest that now clings to it, it is a very desirable home, in perfect repair, well within the fashionable center of the city, and splendidly adapted for entertaining.” That the Hardings already lived in Washington solved one frequent presidential problem—when incoming presidents send their belongings to the White House in advance, “the outgoing President’s things and the incoming one’s have usually jostled each other on the presidential stairs.” Not so in Harding’s case, when “few passersby will know that a modest procession of trucks rumbling down Connecticut Avenue early on March 4th will contain the new president’s dearest possessions, every one of which will become historic and liable to be handed down as precious heirlooms for generations to come,” the Post wrote. But those dearest possessions ultimately did not include much of the prized furnishings and other items in 2314, which the Hardings sold along with the house, and which, following a scandal a few years later, would fetch paltry sums at auction.
An Auction that Followed an Election, a Scandal, and a Suicide When Harding moved to the White House, he sold 2314 to Charles F. Cramer, a friend who he would later appoint as chief counsel for the new Veterans Bureau, the precursor to today’s Department of Veterans Affairs, created to care for the health needs of soldiers returning from World War I. The man Harding would appoint as the first director, Charles Forbes, would go on to embezzle nearly $250 million from the agency through a series of shady land deals, overbilling contractors, and selling medical supplies meant for veterans at a discount to corporate interests. Although not from the president’s home state of Ohio, Forbes was known as part of the “Ohio Gang,” a team of high-ranking officials engaged in corruption at all levels of the Harding administration. And Cramer? Caught up in the embezzlement scandal, Charles Cramer drafted a letter to the president on the same dining 18 | DIPLOMATICA
room table the then-senator and his wife had purchased for 2314, then went to the bathroom, and shot himself. The letter promptly disappeared. Following Cramer’s death, 2314 was sold to a realtor, Captain Ennalls Waggaman, who made it his home. On October 16, 1923, a red auctioneer’s flag hung outside the house and the furnishing that had once belonged to a president were placed on public display. “From the prices bid on scores of articles, which, besides having intrinsic value, had the additional sentimental association of the President of the United States,” wrote the Washington Post the day after the auction, “it was more or less evident that the greater number of purchases were made for the opportunities they offered for getting a ‘bargain’.” With bids repeatedly being driven down by lack of interest, the auctioneer shook his head at the nearly obscene prices—a fourpiece mahogany, upholstered velour living room set consisting of a sofa, two armchairs and a side table sold for $45.00—and loudly and repeatedly proclaimed, “You can’t sell sentiment. Not in Washington.”
A plaque at the entrance to the Monaco ambassador’s residence boasts of its storied past. Photo by Molly McCluskey. DIPLOMATICA | 19
THIS IS WHAT BRINGS ON REVOLUTIONS “I am sitting back on the sidelines letting the curse and the blessing fight it out together. Personally, I have so much faith in goodness and right working out in the end that it never worries me.” -Evalyn Walsh McLean
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The Mansion at 2020
The Mansion at 2020, built by Thomas Walsh in 1901, is now the home of the Embassy of Indonesia. Photo courtesy of the Historic American Buildings Survey.
our enough old houses in Washington and youâ€™ll find rumors of hauntings in nearly every one, and the stories of hauntings in embassies and diplomatic residences are as varied as the former inhabitants thought to be haunting them. The Latvian embassy is thought to be haunted by the ghost of its builder and original inhabitant, the artist Alice Pike Barney. The residence of the Ambassador of Monaco allegedly has a former president wandering around his old home. And with dozens of other grand estates still intact, albeit now the homes of foreign dignitaries, thereâ€™s more than a fair share of disenchanted ghosts wandering around. But the story of the Embassy of Indonesia, and the ghost who resides there, canâ€™t quite be lumped into the same categories DIPLOMATICA | 25
as all the others. After all, no other embassy has a tale that includes a Great Dane named Mike, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, and a diamond. An absolute doozy of a diamond.
Photo Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.
The (Nearly) Million Dollar House Thomas Walsh was a newly rich, Irish immigrant who struck it rich gold mining in Colorado when he bought the land at 2020 Massachusetts Avenue in 1901. The home he would build there was a feat with 60 rooms, including a classic ballroom. A Louis XIV salon off the front entrance once held grand affairs, an adjoining room boasts a stunning, floor-to-ceiling Baroque wood organ, now in disrepair, and the ceiling features stained glass the color of Irish fields. A mahogany stairwell, modeled after one Walsh had admired on a German steamer, still graces the foyer of the building’s ceremonial entrance. Walsh was rumored to have stored gold bars in the house, although like many pieces of the Walsh legend, that can’t quite be confirmed. The home was nicknamed “The Million Dollar House” in local news reports, although the actual cost of building it came in just 26 | DIPLOMATICA
shy. Among friends, it was known simply as “2020,” a moniker still used today. The builders and the Walsh family also dubbed the home Mansion 2020. The stables Walsh built nearby on 1511 22nd Street also remain, designated a historic place in 1986. “It is a handsome and well-designed building by noted Washington architect Lemuel Norris, it is one of the few remaining unaltered stables in Washington, designed to service a lavish and elegant mansion, and as such is a reminder of the social and cultural era which no longer exists in Washington,” reads the petition to have the stable added to the National Register of Historic Places, “and it is associated with Thomas Walsh, the owner of one of the world’s largest gold mines who not only contributed to the social and cultural development of the Nation’s Capital, but also left an architectural legacy.”
The grand entryway in the Walsh-McLean house, now the Embassy of Indonesia. Photo credit: Molly McCluskey.
Hope and Tragedy at 2020 Evalyn Walsh, Thomas’s only daughter, was by all accounts a young socialite who found creative ways to spend her inheritance. In a report about her marriage to The Washington Post heir Edward “Ned” McLean, she was described thusly: “She is an unusually handsome girl, vivacious, accomplished, and extremely popular.” DIPLOMATICA | 27
She wanted for nothing, was known to spend so much money on a single piece of jewelry that the price back then would buy a modest home in Washington D.C. today, even without adjusting for inflation. She fell for a con that sent her on a wild chase to recover the Lindberg baby. And, seemingly on a whim in 1911, Evalyn bought the most famous, and perhaps most cursed, diamond in the world. Discovered in India in 1642, what is now known as the Hope Diamond began as a 115 carat gem that was cut to 69 carats by King Louis XIV of France - yes, he of the salon - in 1673. It was stolen during the French revolution in 1792 and was thought lost forever until it reappeared in the collection of Henry Philip Hope in 1839. A series of sales brought on by the misfortunes of the families who owned the diamond added to a growing rumor that the diamond was cursed. After all, Tavenier, the man who had sold the diamond to King Louis, was torn apart and eaten by wild dogs. Louis and his wife, Marie Antoinette, who wore the diamond, were both beheaded during the French Revolution. In 1908, Pierre Cartier showed Evalyn the diamond while on her honeymoon in Paris with McLean and regaled them both with its tales. Several months later, Cartier reset the diamond, “and left it on her dressing table for a weekend.” Evalyn was both fascinated and undeterred by the diamond’s legacy, telling a friend, “Objects unlucky for others are lucky for me.” Which was perhaps the best attitude with which to approach both the gem and her marriage, as Ned enjoyed a rather scandalous, and thoroughly earned, reputation, and was deemed “more of a curse even than the diamond,” by a local newspaper. Whether to play into the legend or for more pragmatic purposes, the Cartier sales contract had a rather odd clause. “Should any fatality occur to the family of Edward B. McLean within six months, the said Hope Diamond is agreed to be exchanged for jewelry of equal value.” McLean’s mother died shortly after the purchase, prompting Evalyn to have the diamond blessed in a church. During the consecration, the legend goes, “a huge tree across the street fell with a mighty crash as if struck by lightning.” Evalyn was infamous for her rather cavalier treatment of the monstrous gem. Mike, her Great Dane, was often seen with the Hope around his neck. Evalyn’s daughter teethed on it. During parties, Evalyn would often hide it around the house so that others might enjoy the quest of finding it, or simply stumbling upon it. She pawned the diamond many times over the course of her ownership, using the funds to pay the caterers for parties 28 | DIPLOMATICA
Evalyn Walsh McLean, the previous owner of 2020 Massachusetts Avenue, now the Embassy of Indonesia. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress. DIPLOMATICA | 29
so extravagant, one senator is said to have exclaimed, “This is what brings on revolutions.” “At lavish parties, she often wore it together with the 94.8-carat Star of the East and the 31.26-carat McLean Diamond,” The Washington Post wrote in 1997. “She wore the Hope during delicate surgery, friend Alice Roosevelt Longworth said. She wore it to races, while swimming and on an Arctic fishing trip.” Tragically, the McLeans’ 9-year-old son had the diamond in his pocket the day he was killed by a passing car. The child, Vinson, was named after Evalyn’s brother, who had been killed in 1905, also in an automobile accident. Years later, her daughter would die of a sleeping pill overdose. Evalyn herself was seriously injured in the earlier wreck that killed her brother, and was subsequently addicted to painkillers as a result. While breaking the habit, Evalyn took to walking the halls of 2020 with her nurses late at night. It’s this image of her, as a younger woman, pale and walking the floors of 2020 until the sun returned, that more modern residents have claimed to have seen. 2020 was many things in the years between Thomas Walsh’s building it and the Embassy of Indonesia buying it. After Evalyn’s parents died, she inherited the property, although lived for many years with her husband at their home, Friendship, in what is now the McLean Gardens complex off Wisconsin Avenue, one and a half neighborhoods away from what is now called Friendship Heights. In 1937, Evalyn tried to turn 2020 into a hotel, but the Dupont Circle Citizens Association fought her plans. The house sat mostly empty, save for the occasional social function, until 1940, when, like many local manors during World War II, it was used for war efforts. McLean temporarily turned over the home to the American Red Cross and the Washington Committee of the
Like many grand mansions, 2020 was temporarily used to assist with World War II efforts. Photo credit: Library of Congress. 30 | DIPLOMATICA
American League for Finnish war orphans. The DC Red Cross used the home as their Roll Call office, offering training courses, and parenting refresher classes for grandmothers. In 1941, 2020 became the home of the Washington Theatre School, and a workshop for the arts offered “registration for spare time art classes for government workers, business and professional people...” including the choice of 19 different “hobby” courses such as painting and sketching, short story writing, drama, modern dance for women, and others. Evalyn died in 1947 wearing the Hope. Upon her death, J. Edgar Hoover took the diamond, and put it into an FBI safe. Shortly after, one of her many obituaries read, “Until late in life, she did not have much idea of what to do with money save display it. She spent it fabulously and often foolishly.” The family sold the Hope to jeweler Harry Winston. In 1951, after 2020 had sat vacant for several years and was badly in need of repair, Indonesia purchased the property for $335,000. Although the embassy is widely believed to be the most haunted embassy in DC, which staff openly admit, Margaretta Puspita, the third secretary of the Embassy of The Republic of Indonesia told me after my recent tour, “We don’t like to talk about the ghost.” In 1958, Harry Winston donated the Hope to the Smithsonian, sending it via postal mail. In doing so, he secured Evalyn’s legacy as the last private owner of the most stunning, and some say, cursed, gem in the world. But Evalyn herself, while she may have enjoyed the legend of the curse, didn’t seem to put too much stock in it. She wrote in her memoir, “I had it blessed myself and I am sitting back on the sidelines letting the curse and the blessing fight it out together. Personally, I have so much faith in goodness and right working out in the end that it never worries me.”
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THE CAPITOL ALTERNATIVE Swiss Embassy Builds Roots at Historic Single Oak Site at Dumbarton
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The Rock of Dumbarton
Visitors to the Swiss Ambassador’s residence might not notice this nod to the property’s history as they enter the drive. Photo credit: Molly McCluskey
he story of the Swiss property in Washington begins, as so many great stories begin, with a tree.
It’s an ancient tree, planted long before there was a Swiss Embassy in Washington, or even a legation, before there was a neighborhood along the street where the Swiss Embassy and residence now lie—before there was even a street. It dates back so far that, before there was a Washington, DC, that tree sat on a swath of land that was known as the Rock of Dumbarton. The Rock of Dumbarton (as in Dumbarton House, Dumbarton Oaks, Dumbarton Oaks Park Conservancy, Dumbarton Bridge, etc.) was a tract of 795 acres deeded to Scotsman Ninian Beall in 1703. Beall was a particularly tall man with flaming red hair, exiled after being captured at the Battle of Dunbar and is widely regarded as the founder of Georgetown. (Some people contend that Dumbarton should be spelled Dunbarton, because Dunbar was the town where Beall and other Scottish soldiers were imprisoned by the British, so it’s likely he named the area Dunbarton as a wry reference to his capture.) DIPLOMATICA | 37
“Ninian was patented multiple land grants of which it is said many he never claimed,” Scott Scholz, the deputy director and curator at the historic Dumbarton House, told me. “One such land grant of his was the land that the White House sits on today.” Another one of the parcels became part of Observatory Circle, transferred to the federal government in 1901 for “the preservation of delicate astronomical instruments from smoke, the heat of crowded dwellings and undue vibrations caused by traffic,” read one newspaper article at the time of the transfer. In 1751, the town of Georgetown was formed in what was then the colony of Maryland, partially by land sold to Maryland by Beall and, later, by land confiscated from his son. The remaining land was then sold and developed in part and parcel over the subsequent centuries, until one parcel of that land became Single Oak, which later became the land that now houses the Swiss delegation.
A view of the Washington Monument, and historic trees, from the expansive patio of the Swiss Ambassador’s residence. Photo credit: Molly McCluskey.
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Strong as Oak “Historic home within city for sale,” read a listing in The Washington Post in 1939. “Rock of Dumbarton stands on ridge once figured for Capitol site.” “One part of the Rock of Dumbarton tract has been called Single Oak because it is dominated by a giant age-old tree of that variety, standing out in stately grandeur from among many other beautiful old trees,” it continued. It may have just been a claim to enhance the mystique of the property, but legend has it that George Washington himself once looked at Single Oak and thought, “Now there would make an ideal spot for our federal seat.” In 1926, future Vice President Henry Wallace built a house there. Even today, in the face of modern traffic and local condominiums, this property on a hill is a stunning spot comprising six acres of greenery close to the National Zoo and the Washington Cathedral. It’s steps away from the empty plot of the Benin Embassy on Cathedral Avenue, sparsely populated in a city where space is at a premium. The Swiss government purchased the property in 1941, majestic oak and all. In August of that year, the Swiss celebrated their country’s 650 years of democracy with yodeling heard throughout the neighborhood. In 1953, the legation upgraded to an embassy, and the Swiss in Washington welcomed their first official ambassador. For the first few decades of their residency, the Swiss team operated from Single Oak. A new chancery was built by Swiss architect William Lescaze in 1959, while the ambassador lived in Wallace’s Single Oak manor. In 2004, the embassy tore down the home and replaced it with the current residence, a modernist building impressive for its deceptive minimalism, designed to evoke the grey and white of the Alps in winter. From the air, the residence resembles the Swiss cross, built on an axis so that visitors entering the front door have a direct line of sight from the arctic entryway to the Washington Monument, visible thanks to a break in the tree line that seems rather mysterious and not at all sanctioned. An authentic Swiss clock, similar to the one functioning as a meeting point for wayward travelers in Zurich’s HB train station, adorns the drive. A flat, glassy water feature lays parallel to the parking area—a hazard, I’m told, for more than one driver who has attempted to leave after a cocktail reception and found themselves, and their vehicle, swimming. DIPLOMATICA | 39
Portraits of Civil War icons William Tecumseh Sherman and Robert E. Lee by Swiss artist Frank Buchser, who lived in the U.S. during the Civil War, donated to the Swiss government, and now hanging in the residence. Photo credit: Molly McCluskey.
An authentic Swiss clock adorns the drive. Photo credit: Molly McCluskey.
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Questionable Math, Untouched Real Estate If you’re scratching your head and wondering if a prime piece of real estate such as the Rock of Dumbarton would really sit vacant for nearly 200 years, the answer would be, “Dear reader, I suspect it did.” At what is now 3000 Cathedral Ave. NW, there was once a 17-acre estate called Woodley. That estate, not coincidentally also once part of the Rock of Dumbarton, was the location of a summer home owned by Presidents Martin Van Buren, John Tyler, James Buchanan, and Grover Cleveland. It passed hands among dignitaries and military officials and hosted foreign diplomats and relatives of future national anthem lyricist Francis Scott Key, who allegedly carved his initials into the woodwork there as a young boy. In 1929, then-Secretary of State Henry Stimson owned Woodley and, upon leaving office, attempted to give the property to the federal government to become the official home of subsequent secretaries of state. His offer was declined, lest all government officials come to expect a grandiose estate of their own. Woodley was also offered as a backup site for the National Gallery of Art if the Constitution Avenue location fell through, and floated as a suggestion for the vice president’s home. I suspect that in all of those years, with various owners selling the land but keeping a few acres here and there for themselves, and then later selling those few acres, that Single Oak was left largely untouched during much of that period. That includes a front lawn where croquet was played and views of the Washington Monument were left unobstructed. A current map of 2920 and 3000 Cathedral Ave., NW, in what is now Woodley Park shows they still sit on the same property, undeveloped except for a private, K-12 prep school next to the embassy and residence. According to Scholz, the section of the rock that includes the Swiss Embassy was named “The Addition, to...” as in, “The Addition to the Rock of Dumbarton,” and was detailed in a deed from Beall’s son George to George’s son (another George), in 1757. “‘The Addition, to’ was approximately 1,200 acres and went roughly from just south of Massachusetts Avenue to just north of the Cathedral, roughly Wisconsin Avenue to the east side of DIPLOMATICA | 41
the National Zoo,” Scholz wrote in an email. “Wouldn’t we all like to own this tract of land today?” he mused. Wouldn’t we all, indeed.
Did You Know? Shortly after the Swiss announced their intention to tear down Single Oak and build a new residency, the Arbor Day Foundation held a four-month-long open voting process, after which the oak tree was designated America’s National Tree.
The existing chancery was built in the late 1950s. Plans are underway to replace it with something more modern. Photo courtesy of the Swiss embassy.
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THE UNWITTING SHRINE A historical home serves as the de facto embassy for an envoy without formal diplomatic ties.
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The historic Twin Oaks property, which serves as the de facto embassy of Taiwan. Photograph: Kathleen Sinclair Woods, courtesy of the National Register of Historic Places.
e don’t allow people upstairs,” Daniel YiLung Huang, the press officer at the Taiwan Economic and Cultural Representative Office in the United States (TECRO) says as he removes a velvet rope from the bottom of the staircase. “But for you, we have permission.” It’s a rainy afternoon and Daniel and I are the only people in Twin Oaks, the grand estate in Washington, DC that sits atop the winding drive that leads up a hill. I’ve signed a guest book and we chatted in the parlor, an imposing room complete with a baby grand piano and a sweeping view of the National Cathedral. The classic home, built in 1888 by Gardiner Greene Hubbard, the founder of National Geographic Society, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986 for being one of the earliest surviving examples of Georgian Revival architecture in the U.S. Set on 18.24 acres, the property is larger than the White House grounds, which is on 18 acres, not including Presidents Park. It, like the Swiss property, is also part of the swath of land formerly known as Dumbarton. Since 1937, Twin Oaks has also served as the de facto embassy of Republic of China, i.e., Taiwan. DIPLOMATICA | 49
Gardiner and Gertrude Hubbard lounge on the porch at Twin Oaks. Photograph courtesy of TECRO.
The government of Taiwan bought Twin Oaks from the Hubbard family in 1947, after a decade of renting the property, and for many years, Twin Oaks served as the official embassy and residence of Taiwan. To this day, the first floor of the property looks as you’d expect from a home that serves as a ceremonial and cultural home to a diplomatic contingent, and the cultural events that are held here, including an annual celebration of Taiwan’s National Day. However, Taiwan and the U.S. severed official diplomatic ties in 1979 as part of U.S.’s One China policy. Twin Oaks is no longer officially recognized as an embassy, and any hints that it might function as one is fraught with diplomatic minefields for the U.S.-China relations. In one recent example, when the Taiwanese flag was raised at Twin Oaks on New Year’s Day in 2015, the first time the flag had been raised at the property in decades, it raised alarms that the U.S. had altered its policy toward Taiwan. The State Department immediately issued a statement that it had no prior knowledge of the flag raising, and assured China that the status quo hadn’t changed. After the One China policy, Twin Oaks was sold to a nonprofit organization friendly to the Taiwanese cause, only to be sold back to the Taiwanese government after the Taiwan Relations 50 | DIPLOMATICA
Act of 1979 allowed for the re-establishment of economic and cultural relations, and, importantly, the ownership of Twin Oaks. The policy brought two other significant changes. First, Taiwan’s chief diplomats, which had previously held the rank of ambassador, are now “representatives” (although many people in Washington still use Ambassador as an honorific title when addressing the representative). Second, the representative is forbidden from living at Twin Oaks. Which explains the second floor.
Photos from the second floor of the Twin Oaks estate reflect the period in which it was still an embassy and residence. Photos by Molly McCluskey. DIPLOMATICA | 51
Climbing the stairs from the first to second floor is like stepping into a time machine. A pair of cross-stitched wall hangings celebrate the American centennial (not the bi-centennial, mind you, but the centennial), vintage first editions of classic books line shelves, and wicker and wrought iron furniture evoke an atmosphere of a Southern plantation at the turn of the last century. Impeccably clean and lovingly preserved, the second floor is both homey and old fashioned, a shrine to another era. To wander through the second and third floors is to come upon a surprising artifact of American innovation: early prototypes of Alexander Graham Bell’s phone. The Scottish-born Bell invented the first working telephone in 1876, and, under Hubbard’s tutelage, established the Bell Telephone Company 1877, which would later become AT&T. Perhaps not coincidentally, Bell also married Hubbard’s daughter Mabel in 1877. Bell was one of the founding members of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, which would become the Institute for Electrical and Electronic Engineers, which would later become simply IEEE (pronounced I-triple-E), where, full disclosure, I have worked as a staff member, volunteer and consultant for over a decade. In the house that Hubbard built, his son-in-law’s early prototypes, kept under a glass museum case in a historical home in a pseudoembassy for a government that is no longer formally recognized by the United States, seems a fitting symbol of a promise of an earlier era, not unlike a radio tower that was never built, or a time when spies could pass classified information through ground-floor windows. Like the house itself, hidden behind the gates, you might not know it’s there, if you didn’t know to look for it, or if someone, letting down a velvet rope to allow you to pass, didn’t show you the way.
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A SPY’S DEFECTION PROMPTS AN EMBASSY MOVE “You know, it’s like a satirical movie,” -Czech Ambassador to the United States, Hynek Kmonícek
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A Diplomatic Rebellion
The former Czechoslovakian Embassy, now owned by the government of Cameroon, on Massachusetts Ave. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.
he bold, beautiful Christian Hauge House, which has, for years, been surrounded by construction fences and cloaked in a sense of forsakenness, holds a prominent place on Washington, D.C.’s Embassy Row. Currently owned by the nation of Cameroon, its storied past includes acting as the legation to the now-defunct Czechoslovakia. And, were it not for an open window, a bold defection, and a decree from Prague that the embassy was too close to downtown, and should be moved “to the forest,” it might still be the home of the Embassy of the Czech Republic today. The first Norwegian ambassador to the U.S., Christian Hauge, purchased the property and the modest house that sat upon it from two sisters in 1906, before expanding and building the house into what it is today. When he died, it passed to his wife, who in turn passed it to her brother upon her death, who then passed it to his daughter, and so forth, until in 1929, it was sold to the “Czechoslovak Republic” for $165,000 US. In 1933, it was badly damaged by a fire caused by a short-circuiting wire between the second and third floors. DIPLOMATICA | 59
In 1939, after Czechoslovakian president Emil Hácha signed away his country’s independence to Hitler in Berlin, officials from the German embassy entered the Czech legation in Washington and demanded the property be turned over to Germany. It was a move that was being repeated around the world, as Hitler had demanded all Czechoslovak embassies, legations, and chanceries be relinquished to Germany. Then-ambassador Colonel Vladimir Hurban refused to surrender until he received official word from Prague. Shortly after, he informed his government that he “did not recognize President Hácha’s capitulation to Chancellor Hitler as valid, inasmuch as it is unconstitutional,” as was reported at the time by The Washington Post. His refusal to surrender the legation prompted the State Department to announce that it also would not recognize the German acquisition of Czechoslovakia. “I took an oath to obey the laws of the Czechoslovak government,” he told a reporter. “No one has the power to force me to act against the law.”
Gone to the Forest For many years, I lived in upper Northwest Washington, D.C. On long summer evenings, I was occasionally kept awake late into the night by the sounds of music and laughter ringing across the Melvin Hazen spur of Rock Creek Park and into my open windows. A little bit of sleuthing determined the sounds were originating from the Embassy of the Czech Republic, on the other side of the spur on Tilden Street NW, where a small cluster of embassies and residences now live, tucked behind the trees of Rock Creek Park. I mentioned this proximity when I met Czech Ambassador Hynek Kmonícek. Kmonícek confirmed that the embassy and residence were on Tilden Street and then asked, in an odd stroke of conversational fate, “Yes, but do you know why we’re on Tilden?” According to the Ambassador, it involved an open window, a bold defection, and a decree from Prague that the embassy was too close to downtown, and should be moved “to the forest.” And it wasn’t a fire, or Germans, or the breakup of Czechoslovakia that prompted the move. There were a number of asylum requests from Czech officials not only in the U.S., but around the world, leading up to the 60 | DIPLOMATICA
Prague Spring. Which was scandalous enough to panic officials in Prague? The general who defected to the U.S. with $72,000, who the Czech government called “an embezzler, but not a spy”, and tried to have extradited? It couldn’t have been the second secretary at the embassy, whose official title was “scientist” but appeared to do little scientific work, and wasn’t known within the local community, as that request came in 1970, after the welcome ceremony but before the embassy and residence were fully functional. No, it was someone whose asylum request was reported almost in passing, who was described as “a pleasant man with little to say,” whose sudden disappearance raised few eyebrows, and fewer headlines, and whose daring, if incredibly absurd, escape still causes the Czech ambassador to roar with laughter while telling it, who caused all the trouble. It was a man named Tisler.
The Famous Tisler case From the very early days of the Czechoslovak legation in the Christian Hauge House, the Soviet Union pressured the Czech government to move to a less accessible location. But the Czechoslovak envoy was accustomed to withstanding pressure, and resisted these demands, as well. “The argument was, why would we move? There was never a problem,” Ambassador Kmonícek said when we were finally able to meet over tea and cookies at his residence to discuss the move. (And indeed, from my vantage point in his parlor, the trees, bare from winter, offer an unobstructed view into the windows of my old apartment.) “There had to be a problem, and the problem had to be connected with the location.” “And a happy break, from the Soviet point of view, that we are not so experienced, came in the mid-50s, with a military attaché named Tisler. And it was the famous Tisler case.” “Tisler was known as for being lazy, not speaking any languages and providing no intelligence,” Kmonícek said with a laugh. “So, perfect to be sent to spy in Washington.” In his free time, according to Czech government archives, Tisler began a relationship with a female employee at the embassy, which, when discovered, resulted in him being sent to DIPLOMATICA | 61
a “requalification course” that included “morale and character strengthening.” When the attaché returned to the embassy, and the business of spying, he was more successful, and within a month, much to the delight of his superiors, he cultivated an American asset. “He recruited an American spy in the way that he went to the car repair shop. He met there an American, and they talked to each other about the troublesome life in Washington, and that some parts for the car to be repaired are in a short supply and you must wait for them, “Kmonícek said. “And after some words like that, he confided in him that he has the problem that not only car parts are missing but even he is missing information for his bosses.” “So, I need a muffler, and tell me about troop movements?” I asked, incredulous. “Nobody found it suspicious,” Kmonícek said. “It went for some time, everybody was happy and first of all, who was happy? The American counterintelligence, because obviously, the reality was the other way around,” the Ambassador said, laughing. “The American hired the Czech.” For years, the American gave the Czech fake information, which he then passed through Prague to the Soviet Union. This bit might have continued on for many more years, except a dispute within various factions of the Czech government caused ripples in Washington. Abruptly, the attaché was recalled to Prague, under the cover of his previous indiscretion with his colleague, moral strengthening be damned. Embassy officials arrived one morning to discover all of the water taps had been turned on, the building was flooded, and the safes had been emptied. The Czechoslovak government’s cypher was gone. So, too, was Tisler. “And that was probably the final break for the Soviets because they said, we told you,” the Ambassador said. Now, Washington has its history of bold defections and this one might not have been enough to force the Czech embassy to move, except for one seemingly small detail that emerged shortly after Tisler and his family had fled. “They found somehow that all these years, four or five years, 62 | DIPLOMATICA
he was providing information for Americans, in the most stupid way you can imagine,” Kmonícek said. “He was putting it through the window. No dead drop. Just here, you take the papers, you take it out of the window. They would copy it then give it back.” “You know, it’s like a satirical movie,” Kmonícek said.
Old Fences and Open Doors And so, the embassy moved to the forest. “Well, the point was that you want to have people locked safe with their materials where they are better watched,” Kmonícek said. The current location, seven and a half acres at 2612 Tilden was purchased in 1960, for US $325,000. The Christian Hauge House was sold to the government of Cameroon. After seven years of contentious relations with the neighbors, the Czechoslovaks replaced the existing house with a new residence, and built the embassy next door on a road which was later named, in partnership with the also-relocated Hungarian embassy across the street, Spring of Freedom St. In 1993, with the breakup of Czechoslovakia, the Czechs kept the house and the embassy on Tilden, while the Slovaks created a new embassy in International Circle. The Czechs kept something else, as well. Between the Czech residence and the Indonesian ambassador’s residence next door is a standard black iron fence, overgrown in places with vines and branches. Look closer, however, and you’ll notice a second, smaller fence, one topped with barbed wire, and angled spikes. The spikes face inward. This gulag fence, as Kmonícek calls it, was put in place when the embassy first moved to its present location, and is the only of its kind in Washington. Unlike most embassies, which have fences to keep people out, this one was designed to keep its staff from escaping. I asked Ambassador Kmonícek if he’d ever considered climbing it, just to see if an escape was possible. “I don’t need to climb the fence,” he said with a chuckle. “When you’re ambassador, they open the doors for you.” DIPLOMATICA | 63
THE INVISIBLE LINE THROUGH WASHINGTON The prime meridian connects the Jefferson Memorial, the White House and other key sites to Washingtonâ€™s home for diplomats.
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A Northward Gaze
The White-Meyer House on Meridian Hill, one of two diplomatic homes now serving as the campus of the Meridian International Center. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress
f you stand at Jefferson’s feet in the memorial built to honor him, and turn your gaze north across the Tidal Basin toward the White House, you might not know it, but your gaze is following the path of one of Washington’s four prime meridians - a circle of constant longitude passing through a given place between the earth’s surface, and its terrestrial poles. This particular meridian, along 16th Street is as invisible as its siblings. But for those who seek it out, the signs are there. Between the Jefferson memorial and the glimpse of the White House visible through the trees surrounding the Tidal Basin, for example, three spots—the Jefferson Pier, the Meridian Stone, and the Zero Marker—all mark the way. It’s easy to overlook, this invisible line, in an area so enshrouded in history that even the sidewalks have been stamped with it. Further up 16th Street, however, the line makes it presence known, in landmarks named after it—Meridian Hill Park, a number of apartment buildings and co-ops, and of course, the Meridian House. DIPLOMATICA | 69
The entrance to the Meridian House at 1630 Crescent Place NW. Photo by Molly McCluskey.
The Prime Meridian? It was Thomas Jefferson who erected many of those points along the meridian, beginning in 1793 when he placed a post on the grounds that now house the Washington Monument. In 1804, the post was replaced by a small granite marker, known as the Jefferson Pier. That same year, Jefferson placed another marker on what is now 16th St. That marker is long gone, but a plaque at Meridian Hill Park commemorates its existence. The idea of a meridian that would not only be for Washington, but for the world, took hold during Chester A. Arthurâ€™s administration. The forty-seventh Congress held an international conference focused on establishing Washingtonâ€™s meridian as a global standard. â€œBe it enacted by the Senate and the House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, that the President of the United States be authorized and requested to extend to the governments of all nations in diplomatic relations with our own an invitation to appoint delegates to meet delegates from the United States in the city of Washington, at such time as he may see fit to designate, for the purpose of fixing upon a me70 | DIPLOMATICA
ridian proper to be employed as a common zero of longitude and standard of time reckoning throughout the globe...” It wouldn’t be successful, and the grand Washington meridian was officially recognized neither internationally, nor at home.
The view along the meridian from the Jefferson pier to the Jefferson Memorial. Photo by Molly McCluskey.
A Memorial on the Water The site that is now the Jefferson Memorial was initially set aside in 1901 by the McMillan Commission which called for a “round, domed, Pantheon-like structure around which were to be grouped the statues of illustrious men of the nation...” according to the National Park Service’s Jefferson Memorial Documentation Project of 1994. This building was then to be surrounded by buildings containing baths, a theatre, a gym, and other buildings. When those plans didn’t come to fruition, an artist named Alice Pike Barney successfully led the charge to put a theatre on the Mall, anyway. Reading the original plans, I wonder what the Mall would look like today if that plan had come to pass, and if instead of massive memorials spread out along a large stretch, we instead DIPLOMATICA | 71
had memorials in one large Pantheon on the Potomac. (And one only has to see Park Police chasing sunburnt tourists being out of World War II Memorial fountain in mid-summer to know the bath houses might have remained a major draw, even in modernity.) In 1925, a design competition was launched for a memorial for Theodore Roosevelt to be housed on the Tidal Basin. The winning entry, crafted by an architect named John Russell Pope, failed to be funded by Congress, and again, the plans faltered. Luckily, Pope found other ways to keep himself busy.
A Full Circle on an Invisible Line By the time he won a competition that was a victory in name only, Pope was already well known in Washington. A prominent architect schooled in the Beaux Arts tradition, which still defines much of the historical architecture in D.C., Pope had served for five years on the Commission of Fine Arts, created to oversee the architecture and planning of Washington. In 1915, his newly-finished temple to the Scottish Rite on Meridian Hill was called the “finest building of the year” by the Architectural League and in 1932, named the fifth most beautiful building in the world by the American Institute of Architects. I’m afraid I couldn’t do the stunning temple justice here. If you haven’t been, do take one of their free tours, and report back. It’s really quite extraordinary. Pope also designed the DAR Hall, the National Archives building, the West Building of the National Gallery of Art, and he would later design, you guessed it, the Jefferson Memorial on the Tidal Basin.
The White-Meyer House at 1624 Crescent Place NW. Photo by Molly McCluskey. 72 | DIPLOMATICA
Purer Here the Air Whence We Overlook the City A few years after completing the Scottish Rite temple, Pope built a home just a few blocks away for a diplomat returning to the U.S. from a stint abroad. It was so well received that the diplomat’s friend, also a returning diplomat, requested Pope build him a home, as well. Right next door. Pope had begun his career designing private homes, and in between designing some of the most prominent icons in the Washington landscape, Pope returned again and again to his early practice. Several of those homes are now home to embassies, and these two particular homes, on 16th Street, and across the street from Meridian Hill Park, are now aptly, the home of the Meridian International Center. It’s hard to imagine a Washington where two friends could decide they want to be neighbors, buy sweeping tracts of land, and have arguably the most prominent architect in the country build them an estate, but life in D.C. was different in the 1900s, and such things were possible. At this time, Meridian Hill was already taking shape as a neighborhood, willed into being by Mary Henderson, the wife of a former senator who wanted to make the enclave at the intersection of 16th Street and Florida Avenue a haven for senators, ambassadors and other socially “upstanding” people. Henderson owned much of the land in the neighborhood, and would often hire her favorite architect to design a house on her property, then sell it to a buyer who met her social criteria. (For a profit, of course.) Pope designed the first of the two houses, now known as the White-Meyer House, for Henry White, who served as the Ambassador to France, in 1912, for just shy over $150,000, which won’t buy much in the District these days, let alone a mansion on a hill. After White’s death, the house was sold to Washington Post owner Eugene Meyer, who raised his children, including daughter Katharine Graham, there. (Disclosure: The author’s treasured relative, also named Eugene “Gene” Meyer, is no relation to this Eugene Meyer.) Ambassador Irwin Boyle Laughlin, who served stints in Greece, Spain, Germany, Japan, Russia, and others, bought the neighboring land in 1912, and began building the Meridian House in 1920. Laughlin purchased a massive 17th century tapestry depicting Alexander the Great meeting Diogenes, with the intenDIPLOMATICA | 73
tion of hanging it in the not-yet-built dining room. Pope used the dimensions of the tapestry, still hanging today, to determine not only the scale of the dining room, but of the entire house, “in the interest of balance and symmetry.” The home stayed in the Laughlin family until 1958. It 1960, it was purchased by the newly formed Meridian International Center, which, among its other roles, serves as the welcoming and orientation center for new ambassadors arriving in Washington. It also offers a variety of public events, including tours upon request. (A video tour is also available.) In 2020, Meridian is celebrating its 60th anniversary, and the 100th anniversary of the Meridian House. “We are Washington’s home for diplomats,” said Natalie Jones, the Senior Vice President for External Affairs at Meridian. “We are an embassy to all embassies.” And many of those embassies can still be spotted along an invisible line that runs through Washington, through history, and through the legacy of the architect who designed them.
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WASHINGTONâ€™S WONDER HOUSE A New Woman Defines a New Washington
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Art and Culture, Dragged by Force
Latvia Embassy. The exteriors of the two buildings that comprise the Embassy of Latvia on Sheridan Circle. Photo by Molly McCluskey.
early a century before the building at 2306 Massachusetts Avenue NW became the Embassy of Latvia, it served as the place where culture and art exploded in Washington, dragged here nearly by force by a woman named Alice Pike Barney in 1903. Today, the building is the home of the Embassy of Latvia, and keeps many of the features that made the home the hub of social activity on Sheridan Circle at the turn of the last century. “What is capital life after all? Small talk and lots to eat, an infinite series of teas and dinners,” Pike Barney famously posited. “Art? There is none.” An American-born painter who had studied in Paris, Pike Barney had hosted several solo shows in galleries in Washington, including the Corcoran, and enjoyed courting the occasional scandal, such as when she installed a life-sized nude statue of her daughter, Natalie, on her front lawn, causing traffic around the circle to become more animated than usual. Natalie, who at the age of 24 began openly writing to love poems to other women (under her own name, nonetheless), once said scandal was the best way of getting rid of nuisances - i.e., the attentions of male suitors. DIPLOMATICA | 81
Pike Barney was instrumental in the building of the Sylvan Theater on the National Mall, providing not only funding but inspiration, connections, and occasionally, her own work for performance. After she retired to southern California in 1923, Pike Barney founded and directed Theater Mart, a playhouse focused on fledgling playwrights who otherwise would not have the opportunity to have their work staged. Married at nineteen to a man who strenuously objected to her preference for artistic pursuits over a more domesticated life, Pike Barney spent much of her marriage living separately from her husband, who ultimately drank himself to death. In her midfifties, she then married a man thirty years her junior. She was a prime example of the classification of the “New Woman” that emerged at the turn of the last century, a precursor to the suffragettes who would later forge a new path for women everywhere, and a scandal until the day she died.
Photo of Alice Pike Barney, who took Washington’s art world by storm at the turn of the twentieth century. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress. 82 | DIPLOMATICA
A Home That Reflects Its History “A perfect setting for old world dramas, for pageants of the New World, as well as for the daily round of luxurious living is the ‘Studio House’ belonging to Mrs. Alice Barney on Sheridan Circle at 2306 Massachusetts Ave,” The Washington Post wrote in 1927, at the height of the popularity of the Pike Barney House on what would later become Embassy Row.
Left top: A stained glass window greets visitors. Right top: Carved doors are featured throughout. Bottom left: A carving in the dining room keeps careful watch over diners. Bottom right: The modernized library. All photos by Molly McCluskey. DIPLOMATICA | 83
Her home, known as the Studio House, is an architecturally eclectic one, built with a love of the arts, and artists, and a desire to showcase all they had to offer. A drawing room off a dining room has a raised section for lectures and readings. A reception room boasts a double height studio with a balcony and stage, onto which is carved, “The highest problem of art is to cause by appearance the illusion of higher reality.” The building’s design also showcased Pike Barney’s love of European culture and architecture, with carved Spanish doors, and balconies of the sort from which one might catch roses from adoring fans after a performance. The rooms have huge beamed ceilings and whimsically and occasionally mischievously carved columns, handmade tile floors and stained glass windows, peepholes and fireplaces. It’s completed by a garden filled with the kind of sculptures that might stop traffic, were they in the front yard, rather than the back.
A Home Becomes a Museum In 1961 Pike Barney’s daughters, Natalie and Laura, by that time also renowned artists in their own right, donated the home, with its artwork and furnishings, to the Smithsonian. Fifteen years later, the home became part of the National Museum of American Art, now the Smithsonian American Art Museum. In April 1995 the Alice Pike Barney Studio House was placed on the National Registry of Historic Places.
One of the pieces of artwork in Pike Barney’s garden. Photo by Molly McCluskey. 84 | DIPLOMATICA
A Museum Becomes an Embassy The Smithsonian sold the Alice Pike Barney studio to the Latvian government in 1999, in what was a homecoming of sorts for the Baltic nation. During a visit to the embassy in late 2018, then- Latvian Ambassador Andris Teikmanis, said the adjoining townhouse, 2304 Massachusetts, had been the site of Latvia’s first consulate. However, during the Soviet occupation of Latvia from 1945-1991, the country’s legation lived in a much different environment. Teikmanis pointed to the coat of arms hanging on the wall behind him, the Latvian coat of arms that hung in the all of the Latvian embassies since the first legation. He wasn’t as focused on which building Latvia has owned during the past one hundred years, as he was about the longevity of the bilateral relations overall. “The most important thing is that the Latvian flag has been always here in this city, since 1922.” It is important, as the country has survived a series of three occupations, two by Soviets, and one by Nazi Germany, since 1940, the last one only ending in 1991. Latvia celebrated its centennial in 2018. “During the occupation time, we had a very small building, on 16th or 17th Street, and I remember, I visited it during the early 90s, and it was very small indeed,” Teikmanis told me in his office at the embassy, where a historical photograph of the Alice Pike Barney house
Ambassador Andris Teikmanis stands in front of the seal that has hung in every Latvian embassy in Washington since 1922. Photo by Molly McCluskey. DIPLOMATICA | 85
hangs over his desk. An inheritance with the building, he said. “Maybe for the occupation time, and the staff was quite tiny, it was sufficient, but no more.” “This is quite a famous building, and well-known building, and the owners were quite a well-known family. Alice Pike Barney was a very well-known person and related to the arts, and I think it was quite an interesting life here in this building,” Teikmanis said. “It was quite a well-known building indeed, and we are happy having it.” “It is a very particular building, with quite unique architecture, and the design indoors is quite unique, and we can be very happy. It is very convenient, also, for offices, and very good location, in the middle of Embassy Row.” When the government purchased 2306, they were able to expand their operations into the property they already owned at 2304 Massachusetts Ave NW, to form a multi-level chancery, exhibition space, and accommodations for visiting artists. In a zoning board hearing for the approval of the chancery, the neighborhood commission insisted, given the building’s history as both an art salon and an art museum, that the embassy regularly host public art showings.
A Lingering Presence Whereas the visits by members of the public have ebbed and flowed over the years, dictated by circumstance, building ownership and natural causes, there is one guest of the embassy who is rumored to visit still, not concerning herself with things like sagging floors or locked doors - Alice Pike Barney herself. Employees of the studio reported hearing the clacking of stilettos on the tile when no one was in the room, or catching a glimpse of a peacock feather, the sort that Pike Barney would often tuck into her hair, or hear the faintest hint of music playing from another room. Pike Barney’s daughter, Natalie Clifford Barney, all but confirmed the haunting when she wrote: Those who exist in the spirit are more easily with us Than those obscured by the flesh, For surely to haunt is more than to possess. Which begged the question, does Pike Barney still roam about her old home? 86 | DIPLOMATICA
“Previous residents of this building have reported seeing the ghost of Alice Pike Barney,” I told the Teikmanis. “Oh really? I haven’t met.” Teikmanis said with a chuckle. “Yet.” “Yet?” “Yet.” “Is there anything you would say to her if you did meet her?” “Well, I would probably say to her, thank you for this beautiful building,” he said. “We feel very comfortable here.”
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AN ISLAND IN THE CITY The Embassy of Tunisia lives in a building that was once a science experiment.
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Ambassador Fayçal Gouia, a longtime high-ranking member of Tunisia’s foreign service and current ambassador to the United States. Photo by Molly McCluskey.
ear the intersection of two of the most prominent and historic stretches of embassies in Washington, 16th St and Massachusetts Avenue, near Scott Circle, where a small maze of side streets wander around monuments, the Embassy of Tunisia lives on an island in a building that was once a science experiment. But before it was the embassy of the northern African nation, the building at 1515 Massachusetts was the headquarters of a prestigious scientific association, the home of a former diplomat who featured in a previous chapter of Diplomatica, the site of a spat of petty crimes, and the disappointment of Tunisia’s president. To walk by it casually, you might not know it’s an embassy if you weren’t looking for the telltale signs—the flagpole, the gate, the gold dedication plaque by the front door, invisible from the street. From the front, it’s more apparent; Embassy of the Republic of Tunisia is written in gold lettering in both English and Arabic, and a stunning tile mosaic adorns the entryway. But the building itself lacks the air of turn of the prior century, gold rush money that its peers further up Massachusetts Avenue exude, and alone, on its DIPLOMATICA | 93
island, it seems adrift, somehow. It’s a rather odd-looking building, all boxy and concrete, with strange slats adorning the outside. Because, unlike other countries whose embassies and residences occupy Beaux Arts mansions or floors in high-rise complexes downtown, the Embassy of Tunisia is in a building that was once a science experiment. “There is something very particular about this building. You see these pavilions here outside, they used to work according to the sun move. Of course now, they don’t work,” Tunisian Ambassador Fayçal Gouia told me with a laugh when I met with him in the embassy last year. “I don’t like them. When you look at them from outside, you ask, what is that?” It’s a question that has been asked by passersby no doubt since the original building was proposed in 1952 by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which envisioned turning the lot into their new headquarters. Prior to purchasing the property, 1515 Massachusetts was the site of a home, that belonged to US Navy Paymaster General George F. Cutter, who
Former diplomat Henry White lived briefly at the site that would become the Embassy of Tunisia before moving to his home on Meridian Hill. Photo by Molly McCluskey. 94 | DIPLOMATICA
died in there in 1890. When the home belonged to Miss Minnie Rynes, it was the site of one of the largest recorded thefts of liberty bonds, valued at $1000. And in 1930, when one Miss Charlotte Dooley resided at 1515 Massachusetts, $50 in cash and a check for $155 was rather intriguingly stolen from beneath her pillow while she slept. And most notably for readers of Diplomatica, in 1910, one former ambassador, Henry White, resided at 1515 before purchasing the property that would later become part of the Meridian Center on 16th Street NW. AAAS’s original building plans were denied by the zoning board, because the location for the proposed eight stories in a residentially zoned area was “not a proper place for a large office building.” Organizations were occasionally exempted from the zoning requirement if they met certain philanthropic requirements, which AAAS did not. About the same time, the NAACP and the Catholic Standard, the newspaper of the archdiocese of Washington, were denied building permits on similar grounds. A revised, smaller plan was proposed and that was granted. But the redesigned building plan called for large windows on multiple sides of the structure, and with them, a new problem—too much daylight. “By this time, we had discovered the vertical louvers, or movable sunshades, made of aluminum had been used successfully in the Far West to control the daylight in buildings, and we decided to look into these as a possibility,” famed Washington, D.C. architect Waldron Faulkner, who designed the headquarters building, wrote in Science, in 1952, in an essay entitled “The Architect Reviews His Files.” “They turn during the day by means of an electric motor controlled by an electric clock mechanism, and take certain predetermined positions at definite times, depending on the hour of the day and time of the year,” he wrote. On the east side of the building, the shades would be fully or partially closed in the morning, and open gradually throughout the day. On the west side of the building, the louvers moved in reverse during the afternoon. On the south side of the building, the shades were open in the morning, and close gradually until noon. “At this time, they rotate quickly though an angle of 180 degrees, and open gradually in the opposite direction in the afternoon,” Faulkner explained in his essay. DIPLOMATICA | 95
The goal of the louvers was ostensibly twofold—first, they reduced glare impacting workers at their desks. Second, they reduced heat absorbed by the windows, reducing the need for excessive cooling in the brutal Washington summers. But, perhaps it is the third goal which is the most telling. As Faulkner wrote, “In addition to these practical advantages, the shades give a decidedly novel appearance to the building on which they’re used.” In 1960, the Chemical Society adopted similar louvres, albeit horizontal ones, to the ones at AAAS. The AAAS headquarters building was completed in June, 1956. Just a few weeks earlier, on May 17, 1956, the United States became the first major power to recognize the sovereignty of Tunisia, newly independent from France. Before moving to the location at 1515 Massachusetts Avenue, Tunisia had a perfectly fine embassy further up Massachusetts Avenue, in a more traditional stretch of Embassy Row. But when then-President Habib visited Washington, he thought that the existing space wasn’t fitting for Tunisia’s relationship with the United States. After all, the United States and Tunisia had bilateral relations dating back to 1797, when they signed an agreement of “Friendship, Commerce and Navigation.” President Jefferson hosted the first iftar at the White House in 1805 with an envoy from the Beylik of Tunis, modern-day Tunisia. “We used to have a much smaller embassy on Massachusetts Ave, and when the president visited, he was very very upset,” Ambassador Gouia told me. “He said, what is this? We deserve better, as Tunisia. And he said, you sell this embassy and you buy a beautiful embassy on a hill, and I would like all Americans to see the Tunisian flag.” The Tunisian government bought the property in 1985. “So, they were looking everywhere, and they didn’t find an embassy with these characteristics, so they bought this building. When he came to inaugurate it, he said ‘I told you, I want the building to be on a hill.” “And they said, Mr. President, in Washington, there are no hills.” Ambassador Gouia chuckled as he recounted the tale. “And this is not a hill, but you see, there are some stairs, and people can see the Tunisian flag. So, he said, OK. I’m not very convinced, but it’s OK.”
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A plaque by the front door of the embassy marks the inauguration of the building by President Bourguiba in 1985. Two years later, he was ousted in a coup. His successor, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, also removed from office, allowed the plaque to remain. The embassy serves as the only consulate in the United States, which is unusual for a country its size, and for one with such a lengthy history with the U.S. A renovated consular section greets visitors when they enter the embassy, and stunning wall hangings drape otherwise drab walls. Gouia first served in Washington as cultural and press counselor in 1995, as its economical and commercial counselor in 1997, and deputy chief of mission in 1999. He assumed his ambassador post in 2015, and said the changes in the neighborhood have been dramatic over the past twenty-five years. “I remember when I started in the ‘90s we used to be on the limit of the red zone. 14th Street NW and 13th Street NW were a little bit scary and dangerous, but now look at the improvements on 14th, 13th, even 12th. So now our location is really really good. If I look out the embassy, I can see the Australian embassy, the Filipino embassy, etc. and yet, we are an island.” Ambassador Gouia has big plans for the embassy, but like his predecessors, he has discovered the challenges of zoning restrictions in Washington. “The building in its current state is not so attractive. If we made it a landmark where people would come and see it, it would act as a promotion for the country,” he said “I know the rules here are very very strict, but we make it look a little bit Tunisian, not magically, with blue and white and all these Tunisian colors. But with a good architect, and a good designer we can make from this embassy, beauty and jewelry.”
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THE PASSIONATE SOUL The Embassy of Finland holds a secret
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An Exercise in Nordic Understatement
The Finish Embassy was the first embassy to receive the U.S. Green Building Council Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) platinum certification, the council’s highest designation. Photo by Molly McCluskey.
igh on Massachusetts Avenue, across from the U.S. Naval Observatory and nestled between the Vatican’s embassy and a serene city park, the Embassy of Finland harbors a secret. On one cold January evening, I’m about to become one of its caretakers. And it, I hope, the keeper of mine. From the outside, the Nordic-designed building of glass and stone is imposing; all windows and light. As darkness cloaks Embassy Row, and Finland’s neighbors are quiet and still, the building itself seems a beacon, standing over neighboring Normanstone Park like a lighthouse warning sailors of a perilous coast. Designed by Finnish architects Mikko Heikkinen and Markku Komonen, and built in 1994, the embassy is one of the newer buildings built-for-purpose embassies in Washington, and the first to receive the U.S. Green Building Council Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) platinum certification, the council’s highest designation. As one brochure from DIPLOMATICA | 103
the embassy describes it, “At first glance, the building’s glass and stone exterior appears to be an exercise in Nordic understatement. However, underneath the polite and reserved outer surface lies a sophisticated and passionate soul.” “In this sense, the embassy is a lot like the people it represents.”
The Search for a Home Finland purchased the property at 3301 Massachusetts Avenue in 1991. It was the third, and most likely final, embassy location for the Finns, who had, in 1950, leased the property at 1900 24th Street. It was at that West End location where, in 1955, the Finnish delegation was elevated from a legation to an embassy, and its minister, to a proper Ambassador. The move was prompted by a change of Finnish law, which also elevated the status of their legations in the then-Soviet Union, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Great Britain, France, Italy, Poland, and China. Of the 79 countries represented in Washington at the time, all but a dozen had proper embassies. Although the U.S. and Finland established bilateral relations in 1919, following its declaration of independence from the Russian empire in 1917, Finland’s complicated alliance with Nazi Germany during World War II meant a halt in diplomatic relations between the two countries until 1945. (This period saw several changes in diplomatic relations between embassies and their hosts in Washington, as we noted in our profiles of the Czech and Latvian embassies.) The embassy moved, in 1978, to 3216 New Mexico Ave, and then, the Finnish government bought the property at 3301 Mass Ave. It took the Finnish government three years to find the location, and it put an offer on the property within twenty-four hours of it going on the market. They paid the full asking price of USD $6 million, even though, at the time, it was the site of a vacant home, previously belonging to former Congressman-turned-lobbyist, Charles W. Thompson, which would hardly be suitable for the newly relocated delegation. And, had it remained, the ghost of Thompson, a Democrat from Texas (who repeatedly voted against the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1960, and declined to vote on the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965) would hardly be a fitting roommate for the progressive Nordic country. The house was demolished. However, like many envoys have discovered upon searching for a home in Washington, stringent zoning board regulations 104 | DIPLOMATICA
meant the Finns had a few hurdles to jump through before gaining permission for their new embassy. The outcome was hardly foregone. The Swedish government had spent several years attempting to build an embassy nearby, before eventually moving their plans for what would become the stunning House of Sweden to the Georgetown waterfront. Further, according to DC Board of Zoning minutes from 1991, the site’s proximity to the Naval Observatory required consulting with the Secret Service and Naval Observatory that “the proposed height of the subject building will not have an adverse impact on either the observatory or the Vice-president’s residence.” The Board also requested “that the applicant submit into the record calculations on the intensity of light produced by the project for review by the Naval Observatory” before deciding that neither the light, nor height, of the proposed property would cause offense. In fact, the proposed light itself was deemed by the Finn’s architect as “designed to approximate distant starlight or candlelight and will provide no illumination.” But whereas the board might have pressed on, as it had with numerous other delegations, according to the minutes of the meeting, Finland’s history of assisting the U.S. government, and the beautiful property the U.S. embassy in Helsinki enjoyed, both landed in their favor. According to the meeting minutes, it was determined: “For many years, the United States Government has owned land in an excellent location in Helsinki for its diplomatic mission. It is in the federal interest to reciprocate. “In regard to foreign relations, the Government of Finland has been helpful to the Department of State in establishing adequate support facilities for the U.S. diplomatic mission in the Soviet Union. Such facilities play an important role in the State Department’s ability to function effectively in the Soviet Union, given the difficulties of operating in that country. Because of the support provided to the United States by the Government of the Republic of Finland, it is in the federal interest to approve the location of a chancery at the subject site.” It must have been a relief for the delegation, which had, at both of their previous locations, faced considerable neighborhood backlash on parking, noise, and at times, it seemed, their very presence in residential areas.
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And so the Finns moved to the neighborhood, with its view of the Naval Observatory, and joined many of its diplomatic peers on the land that was once the Dumbarton swath. But they didn’t just build a beautiful building, they built the most environmentally-friendly embassy in Washington. As I wrote for Washington Diplomat in 2015, when they received their platinum certification: In 2008, Finland became the first embassy in the United States to receive the Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star for superior energy efficiency. In 2010, the building became the first embassy in the U.S. to be awarded the U.S. Green Building Council’s prestigious Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certificate, then on a gold level. And in December 2014, it became the first embassy in the U.S. to earn platinum status, and only the second in the world. The first? The U.S. Embassy in Helsinki. “This [LEED certification] is not a certification you can keep forever,” then-Ambassador Ritva Koukku-Ronde told me at the time. “So, when we were working with maintaining the gold, when I came here I thought we should not only keep the gold, but get the platinum.” Other embassies have since followed suit. In April 2019, the new U.S.-embassy compound in the Hague, designed by Mason & Hanger, received a gold certification. The Canadian embassy in Washington became only the second embassy in Washington to receive platinum status in 2019. And when I toured the Swiss ambassador’s residence, the Swiss team made a point of mentioning that although the building had not gone through the certification process, Switzerland had built it to LEED specifications. But while other embassies might share the Finn’s LEED distinction, no other boasts the Finland embassy’s stunning sauna made of Nordic white spruce logs, or its role as the host of the Diplomatic Sauna Society.
The Diplomatic Sauna Society “The sauna in Finland is a place for political maneuvering, negotiations, bargains,” then-ambassador of Finland, Jukka Valtasaari, told the Washington Post when the embassy opened in 1994. “People can’t disagree in a sauna. You have only 10 or 15 106 | DIPLOMATICA
minutes before it’s too hot, so you know quickly what is at issue. If you can’t solve the problem in that time, well, it is difficult. I don’t expect to try to solve problems in the sauna here.” When I accepted my invitation to the Society, I mentioned it in passing to a friend who, had in turn, mentioned casually years before that she, too, had also once partaken in the special evening. She explained to me that the first rule of Sauna Club, as it were, was that you do not speak of Sauna Club. Indeed, in the days and weeks after our gathering, I discretely looked to the social media accounts of those in attendance, and took my cue from those who had gone before. But small leaks, here and there, like fissures of steam rising from rocks within the sauna itself, make themselves known. So, before writing this article, I emailed our sauna host, Helena Liikanen-Renger, and asked for the guidelines. Her response, “You can talk about the Diplomatic Sauna Society, but not what is discussed inside the sauna.” “What happens in the sauna,” she added, “stays in the sauna.” And here’s the secret; because while the Finns don’t hide that they have a gorgeous, fully-equipped 12-person sauna and changing area which they stock with Nordic toiletries and other treats for special guests, what is discussed in the sauna is strictly off-the-record. Not sharing the events of a truly extraordinary evening is, of course, itself an exercise in Nordic understatement. But there is no room for maneuvering, negotiations, or bargaining in that rule, and so until the day when we all follow the path, lit like starlight, back up Massachusetts Ave, our sophisticated and passionate souls will, like the embassy that briefly contained them, continue to hide underneath our polite and reserved outer surfaces.
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A MONUMENT TO THE MODERN A storied home both antiquated and modern now houses the Embassy of Uzbekistan.
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The home built by Clarence and Mabelle Moore now houses the Embassy of Uzbekistan. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.
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Washington’s Handsomest Residence
he bold home at 1746 Massachusetts has, by turns, been both a monument to the modern and a shrine to the antiquated, a home to a newly-emerging country, and to an ancient civilization. Its creator, himself a victim of modernity, would meet his end in perhaps the most ancient graveyard of them all, and his once contemporary home, over the span of its life, would be driven to the brink of obsolescence. Upon viewing the plans for a home to be built at 1746 Massachusetts Avenue, a Washington Post reporter extolled in 1907, “It will be one of Washington’s handsomest residences when completed. Particularly homelike in its interior arrangements.” Indeed, the American Institute of Architects later, and since, has declared it one of the finest homes ever built, in a city where such a title comes with fierce competition. Take its architectural contemporaries, for instance, the Alice Pike Barney studio, with its stained glass, sculptures, and performance stage, now serv-
The grand stairway hall in the Moore home. Photo courtesy the Library of Congress. 114 | DIPLOMATICA
ing as the Embassy of Latvia, or Mansion 2020, the last private home of the Hope Diamond and equally opulent design features, now the Embassy of Indonesia. But the five-story + basement Louis XV- style residence, designed by Jules Henri de Sibour, is a grand feat, with a Tudor library, a Georgian reception room, a Jacobean drawing room, 36 fireplaces, servants’ quarters, a grand staircase hall, reception and cloak rooms, and intricate wood carvings throughout. Reviews of the property included excited descriptions of the house’s most modern touches, including passenger and freight elevators, a dumbwaiter and a “vacuum cleaning plant.” Despite its grand nature, the building was intended “of giving a homelike appearance, rather than a showy or palatial one,” according to the Washington Post. To visit today is to see the house in its classic form, largely untouched, in the more than a century since it was built. That, too, is a rather impressive feat, given that in the past one hundred years, the building has served as a private home, Canada’s first foreign mission, the site of a hasty elopement, and a modern stop along the ancient Silk Road. Although not necessarily in that order.
A Titanic Tragedy In 1901, Mabelle Swift Moore, who came from family money, purchased the lot on Massachusetts Avenue that would, in 1909, ultimately become the house she would share with her husband, Clarence. Records show Mabelle purchasing the property and subsequent, surrounding lots, as the sole deed holder. Clarence, who was referred to in one local paper as a “West by God Virginian,” and Mabelle Moore moved into the home in 1909, three years after they began the building process. They, along with Clarence’s children from his previous marriage, no doubt expected to spend a lifetime there. But like in other grand homes that had seen grand tragedies, fate would have other plans. The couple only lived in 1746 for three years before Moore, a businessman who also served as Master of the Hounds at the Chevy Chase Club, sailed to Britain to purchase 100 foxhounds. His return voyage, aboard the RMS Titanic, sealed his fate as one of three Washingtonians to perish when the ship sank. Conflicting accounts initially provided hope that Moore had been rescued following the disaster, and only after the DIPLOMATICA | 115
Crowd awaits word of survivors aboard the Carpathia. Photo courtesy the Library of Congress.
Carpathia reached New York with the Titanic survivors it had plucked from the frigid waters, was it confirmed that Moore had perished. A survivor of the disaster later told the Washington Times that Moore met his death “like a man.” “Clarence Moore died beyond a doubt at the side of his friend and fellow-hero, Major Archibald Butt. They remained together while lowering woman and children into the lifeboats, and jumped at the eleventh hour when the boilers of the giant ship burst. “Repeatedly, Moore refused to take a place in one of the boats, the survivors who saw him say. His friend, Butt, knew that he was an oarsman, in fact, he realized that Clarence Moore could do most anything any true sportsman could, so he requested Moore to man an oar in one of the last lifeboats to leave the ship. “’No, major, I’ll stay and take my chances with you; let the women go,’ Moore said to his companion according to Robert William Daniels, one of the survivors, who is stopping at the New Willard. ‘And he evidently stuck with Butt until death took them both,’ said Mr. Daniels. ‘The two men jumped at the eleventh hour and were lost.’” 116 | DIPLOMATICA
A list of claims filed by the survivors of the Titanic, or the relatives of the victims, compiled by the National Archives, is a fascinating, detailed look at life aboard the ship, and in its final moments. Jewels, artwork and other personal effects now adorning the bottom of the ocean; injuries recorded by people jumping from the ship into lifeboats, and eyewitness accounts of the last moments of the disaster, are laid bare. Mabelle herself filed a claim for $510,000 for the loss of her husband. (Not lost? The foxhounds, which were not carried back on the ship, despite their depiction in the titular film.)
Thoroughly Modern Mabelle Three years after the Titanic, Mabelle shocked Washington society when she wed Mr. Axel Wickfield, a Danish citizen living in New York, at her home in a secret ceremony. The license was issued half an hour before the ceremony, too late to hit the wedding announcements section of the local newspapers, and few knew about it until the newlyweds were already on their way to New York. The rector who officiated had also recently officiated another secret society wedding, that of Senator Henry Lippitt and Lucy Herron Laughlin, sister of former First Lady, Helen Taft.
Prime Minister William Mackenzie-King, left, greeted by Acting Secretary of State, William Phillips in Washington, DC. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress. DIPLOMATICA | 117
A mere three people witnessed the elopement; the Danish minister, Clarence’s daughter Frances from his first marriage, and a family friend. Mabelle was married in her traveling suit, of a “smart, dark blue” with a matching hat, and left immediately following the ceremony. Friends speculated that the couple had gone to the west coast; instead, they showed up at the Ritz Carlton in New York. The subsequent wedding announcement, which nearly tripped over itself referring to Mabelle first as Mrs. Moore, and then Mrs. Wickfield, also mentioned an unsubstantiated rumor of her previous engagement to an unnamed Serbian prince when she was “prominent in the American colony of Paris”. (Other publications have referred to them as the “Wichfields” rather than “Wickfields, and a telephone listing at the address in 1916 referred to an Aksel Wichfield.”) In 1916, Axel/Aksel would become an attaché at the Danish legation, thus beginning 1746’s legacy of diplomacy. The Wickfields would live in the house another decade, even hosting Frances’ debutante reception there, before Mabelle, still the sole owner of 1746, sold the house, and changed its course forever.
True North, Strong and Free A bill of sale from May 1927 shows Mrs. Mabelle Swift Wickfield selling 1746, and its surrounding lots, to His Majesty George V, “in Right of Canada,” as the Canadians were still ruled by England, at the time. It would be Canada’s first mission abroad, and a symbol of the country’s emerging independence. Later that year, Canada’s prime minister visited the legation, and whether the Washington Post reporter was being cheeky, or the prime minister really was a “jolly fellow” is hard to say. “William L. Mackenzie-King, Canada’s jolly prime minister, arrived in Washington yesterday afternoon and announced that his sole purpose in coming here was to see Canada’s new legation and to meet old friends and new ones,” the Washington Post reported. “He insisted his visit had no political significance.” The prime minister’s arrival was delayed due to “disrupted train schedules” (a problem to which most Washingtonians can relate) and upon arriving at the legation, “he quickly changed from formal attire to a sack suit, and held an interview with newspaper men.” During the interview and after, Mackenzie-King declined to 118 | DIPLOMATICA
Interior of the Embassy of Uzbekistan in Washington, DC. Photo by Molly McCluskey.
discuss politics, including a newly announced anti-immigration law that forbade Canadian citizens living in Windsor, Ontario, from working in Detroit, a distance of approximately a mile across the Detroit River, now served by a bridge. In the years following, the Canadians’ status in Washington would be raised from a legation to an embassy, and in February, 1965, in a ritual repeated the world over, it served as the site of the raising of the now-famed Maple Leaf flag. When the Canadians moved into their stunning building on Pennsylvania Avenue in 1989 (itself a story, and one to be featured in an upcoming profile), they held onto the building at 1746, with an eye on turning it into a trade promotion center, owned by the Canadian government but operated by private funds at no public expense. “I think the sentiment for retaining Canada’s first chancery, first mission abroad, is still there,” a spokesperson at the new embassy, told The Toronto Star, “But in a time of austerity, you have to perhaps be a little more hard-nosed.” So, in 1992, the former Moore home joined a former Canadian consulate in Bordeaux, and a cultural center in Paris on the sale list. It was a difficult time to attempt to sell the luxuriDIPLOMATICA | 119
ous mansion, as the Washington real estate market was in the worst slump in decade. But five years later, the building still hadn’t sold, which itself was a surprise, given the high demand for embassy space from newly- and re-emerging countries following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The building had only been lightly used since the listing, including as the site of the National Symphony Orchestra’s annual, multi-monthlong Decorators’ Show House, and its features, once so modern, were now falling into disrepair. Despite this, even the building’s realtor was reportedly baffled by the difficulty in selling the building. “This is very unusual for us commercial brokers,” she said. “We don’t do much sexy marketing.” But, sexy marketing or no, in 1996, the embassy finally sold.
Enter the Uzbeks “A stately piece of property representing one of Canada’s splashy first steps as a fully independent country is about to be sold,” The Edmonton Journal wrote in 1996. “A former ambassador described it as like selling a piece of Canada.” They reported the sale price of “close to $6 million US,” which did not include many of the furnishings purchased by Canada from Mabelle. Those were transferred to the Canadian ambassador’s residence, where they presumably are to this day. The building, now the Embassy of Uzbekistan, looks nearly identical to early photographs of the Moore home, save for a few upgrades. The interiors, including the classic wood carvings, remain largely untouched, save for those needed repairs and upgrades, and to incorporate Uzbek design into the home. “Ever mindful of the building’s rich history, the compound has undergone interior restorations, designed to incorporate Uzbek decor,” states a guide to the building given to Diplomatica by the embassy, “allowing visitors a unique glimpse of renowned and rich Uzbek traditions in woodcarving, silk and carpet weaving, stained glass, and painting among others, while retaining the finest elements of the mansion’s distinguished European architectural heritage.” The library is now the Gallery of Ethnographic Art, and one of the first floor reception rooms, perhaps the one where Franc120 | DIPLOMATICA
es had her debutante tea, is now a showcase of Uzbek silk. The wall of the staircase hall is now adorned with the Uzbek flag, and stained glass depicting themes from ancient Uzbek cities. Original mirrored panels in the west parlor are now covered with Uzbek ganch, a mixture of gypsum and clay, carved into a lace-like design. Thirty-six fireplaces now have mantles made by Uzbek artists. Today, 1746 is, like the country that now calls it home, a blend of the old and the new, of an ancient culture and its modernization. And, in the house that was once intended to be a home, rather than a showcase, the Uzbeks have made their embassy inherently accessible to its visitors. Musical instruments are laid out, not in museum cases, but ready for curious hands. Silk robes adorn mannequins, welcoming to the touch. But look closely enough, and youâ€™ll still see the initials CM etched into the original wood carvings that still adorn the walls, a nod to the man who built the Uzbeks a home of legends.
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PRAISE FOR DIPLOMATICA Washington embassies and residences are silent witnesses of stories and history. With her explorations, Molly McCluskey gives us a key to discover them. I looked at many things differently after reading her texts. Martin Dahinden, former Ambassador of Switzerland to the United States It is hard to capture diplomatic history and make it accessible and relevant to the global challenges of today. Molly McCluskey does this remarkably well though her Diplomatica series. She thoroughly captured the unique and relevant diplomatic history of Meridian and its historic homes. I always learn something new and less obvious, but no less important through her work. Ambassador Stuart Holliday, CEO, Meridian International Center Diplomatica is a masterpiece of reporting and beautiful writing on a genius idea. Antonella Ciancio, Freelance Foreign Correspondent
Some of the world's most beautiful places have been the home of its most important discussions. Now serving as embassies, gathering places,...
Published on Jul 13, 2020
Some of the world's most beautiful places have been the home of its most important discussions. Now serving as embassies, gathering places,...