Elegant Homes of Diplomacy: A Recently Published Book on Embassy Residences in Washington, D.C., Captures the History and Architectural Grandeur of These Once Private Mansions

Article excerpt

There is something magical about entering an embassy residence. It is like being instantly transported to a faraway place. And that is precisely how it should be, because an embassy represents a foreign country, and the ambassador's residence is supposed to feel like home. With embassies from 175 nations, Washington, D.C., is unique among American cities. In fact, the presence of a large and cosmopolitan international community plays a key role in defining the identity of the nation's capital. There may be consular offices and special missions in Boston, New York, San Francisco, and other cities across the country, but embassies are located only in the capital, the seat of the federal government and home to the American president.

As the highest ranking diplomats, ambassadors head delegations that vary in size from several individuals to hundreds. The delegations consist of political and economic advisors, consular officers, cultural attaches, and an array of others, including military and trade missions, and support staff. An embassy is the entity comprising all these individuals along with their workplaces and official residences. Originally, the head of a diplomatic delegation lived and worked in a single building. Usually, the only official residence is the ambassador's house, known as the embassy residence. It can also be referred to simply as "the embassy." Confusion arises when the same term is used to describe the office building. To distinguish the two building types, embassy office buildings are known as chanceries.

Unlike chanceries, which are "public" buildings because they serve a public constituency, embassy residences are private. Like any home, they welcome only invited guests. But they are no less significant to diplomacy. In fact, some may argue that what goes on at a reception or dinner party at an ambassador's residence is equal in importance to what takes place at a chancery. A residence provides an informal setting in which diplomats can mix and mingle with one another and with high-level U.S. government officials, business and civic leaders, educators, cultural figures, and local residents. The format may be entertainment, but the business is serious--promoting cross-cultural communication, trade, and national identity. To his credit, Pierre Charles L'Enfant envisioned a powerful city when he laid out the plan for the new capital in 1791. He even designated an area adjacent to the Mall for a row of palatial houses for representatives of foreign countries. By building impressive houses near the "White House and the Capitol, he thought, foreign governments would add legitimacy to the new nation. As it turned out, foreign governments did not build new buildings for themselves at that time, but L'Enfant perfectly understood the power of proximity. In the two hundred years since he drew up his plan, the foreign presence in Washington has grown steadily and embassy residences and chanceries have congregated as near as possible to the White House and the nexus of power that it represents.

Many of the elegant houses that now serve as ambassadors' residences and chanceries were not originally built by foreign governments for embassy use. Instead, they were constructed by self-made millionaires who flocked to town at the turn of the last century to hobnob with the politically powerful and to dabble in public service. (There were also those who sought access to the diplomatic community so their daughters might moot and marry the young noblemen who occasionally served as diplomats.) Often shunned by polite society elsewhere, these' newly minted moguls were determined to see and be seen. …

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