Lifestyles of the rich and diplomatic: Embassy Row reveals the world and a posh past.
WASHINGTON - A Beaux-Arts mansion, its main entrance edged with wedding-cake trim and intricate ironwork, reigns supreme on Sheridan Circle like a miniature White House. Inside, the sparkling ballroom with red silk tapestry, sweeping double staircase, and rooftop garden reflect the lifestyle in what has been one of the city's poshest neighborhoods for a century.
The 40,000-square-foot mansion was built in 1915 for Cleveland industrialist Edward H. Everett, with the fortune he made in crimped-metal bottle caps, Texas oil, and Missouri beer.
But Everett and his heirs have long since turned over the mansion to a new owner - the Republic of Turkey.
Like so many of its neighbors lining Massachusetts Avenue, this newly renovated ($20 million) home at 1606 23d St. NW is part of a foreign embassy - in this case, the home of the Turkish ambassador. For neighbors, it has Romania across the street; the Republic of Korea around the bend; Kenya on the other side of the circle; and Latvia, Greece, and a dozen others a stone's throw away.
In fact, about one-third of the more than 175 embassies, residences, chanceries, and diplomatic missions are within a comfortable stroll of Sheridan Circle and its statue of Union Gen. Philip Sheridan, forming a route known as Embassy Row. For architecture lovers, history buffs, and foreign-affairs devotees, the walk is a fascinating way to learn about the life and times of the city.
"Our capital is the only place in the United States that a country can have an embassy," says Mary Anne Hoffman, who has led Washington Walks tours of Embassy Row for five years. "Visiting Embassy Row provides a great look into how other countries have decided to present themselves to the U.S. capital city."
While a few are humble townhouses on quiet side streets off Embassy Row, many embassies are stately, opulent compounds, casting the image of clout, wealth, and stability in the world's most powerful city.
The Embassy of Italy, for example, was housed in a puny, frilly building on 16th Street until the mid-1990s, when a chic, modern chancery was built on a large parcel at 3000 Whitehaven St. N.W. The Embassy of Japan, at 2520 Massachusetts Ave. N.W., looks like a modern citadel.
On a recent breezy Saturday morning, Hoffman set out with 20 tourists and locals on a two-hour tour, recounting stories of free-flowing cash, architectural overindulgence, and Gilded Age girls gone wild.
Like the Turkish ambassador's home (previously the country's embassy), many of today's embassies were party palaces for the rich and famous of the Gilded Age. Around the turn of the 20th century, the nouveau riche gobbled up land for 5 cents a square foot, hired big-name architects, and funded massive Victorian, Georgian Revival, Federal, and Beaux-Arts mansions.
Often they hosted weekly, invitation-only soirees for the famous and powerful. Landing a calling card from a gold-rush prospector's wife with time and money on her hands was like winning the social lottery.
The palace that now houses the Embassy of Indonesia (2020 Massachusetts Ave. NW) once hosted such parties. Built by Thomas F. Walsh, a poor Irish immigrant who struck gold in Colorado, the massive Beaux-Arts mansion has an undulating exterior inspired by ocean waves. Inside are soaring stained-glass skylights, gold-colored damask walls, a baroque-style wood organ, a Honduran mahogany staircase, and a ballroom that Hoffman calls a "dead ringer" for the Titanic's.
In 1903, the house was the site of a cotillion in honor of Theodore Roosevelt's hell-raising daughter Alice (who later lived across the street and threw bashes of her own). Another night, Hoffman says, 325 guests downed 480 bottles of champagne, 288 fifths of Scotch, 48 quarts of cocktails, and 40 gallons of beer - newsworthy even for the New York Times.
"The liquor and political gossip both flowed freely," Hoffman says.
The embassies and the land they're built on are officially part of that country. If there were a fire at an embassy, the D.C. Fire Department would need permission to enter the grounds, Hoffman says.
Before Sept. 11, 2001, many embassies were open to the public; today, they welcome visitors only during special events, such as the Embassy Series of concerts and the annual Passport DC event in May. Some embassies, including Indonesia, Finland, Namibia, France, and Sweden, schedule tours by appointment when you specify your interest, such as artwork, architecture, or learning about that country.
Some of the most charming buildings on Embassy Row belong to former Soviet states. Hoffman especially admires the Chancery of the Estonian Embassy (2131 Massachusetts Ave. NW), which resembles the buildings of its capital, Tallinn; the Spanish colonial-style Embassy of Latvia (2306 Massachusetts Ave. NW); and the Embassy of Uzbekistan (1746 Massachusetts Ave. NW), its Louis XV-style facade contrasting with interior decor of Central Asian woodcarving, silk weaving, glass staining, and painting.
Some embassies have added a touch of home with a statue of a famous countryman. Winston Churchill stands outside the British ambassador's residence at 3100 Massachusetts Ave. NW with one foot in the United States and one foot on British soil. A few doors down, a gaunt, bespectacled Mohandas K. Gandhi overlooks the Embassy of India.
Other countries have designed buildings reflecting their architectural style.
Sitting on Observatory Circle at 3301 Massachusetts Ave. NW and overlooking the U.S. Naval Observatory, where Vice President Biden lives, the Finnish Embassy epitomizes eco-friendly modernity. The first LEED-certified embassy in Washington, it was designed six years ago by two Finnish architects to blend gently into its Rock Creek Park surroundings.
The embassy's main public space is open and airy, with amber-colored wood floors leading to a glass-enclosed deck, the floor-to-ceiling windows facing thick woods. The embassy frequently hosts art exhibitions that are open to the public.
The British ambassador's residence, meanwhile, looks like an English country manor, with a manicured garden that visitors can glimpse only once a year, during the Passport DC event.
From either vantage point - a sidewalk stroll or an inside pass - Washington's foreign embassies connect a city once giddy with unbridled riches to today's gateway to the world.
D.C.'s International Flavor
There are more than 175 embassies, residences, chanceries, and diplomatic missions in Washington. As a rule, embassies are located in capitals, while other diplomatic facilities - consulates, trade missions - are found outside of Washington. Some countries have a sizable number of diplomatic offices in the United States; Mexico has more than 40 consulates throughout the country.
Each country's embassy usually consists of several facilities, sometimes scattered around the city. An embassy residence is the ambassador's official home, while the chancery houses the diplomats' offices. Other facilities might include an office for military attaches, or for consular operations.
Most embassies don't have regular hours when they are open to the public. However, many do have events such as art exhibitions, concerts, lectures or tours, and frequently these events are free.
Embassy Row is considered the span of Massachusetts Avenue Northwest from the Embassy of Tunisia (1515) to the Embassy of Iraq (3421) and is easily walkable. Other embassies can be found on International Drive near the Van Ness Metro station, in the Kalorama neighborhood north of Georgetown, and elsewhere throughout the city.
Cultural Tourism DC
Maintains a comprehensive listing of D.C. events on an interactive online calendar. For free or low-price events at embassies and international cultural organizations, click on "Things to Do & See," then "International DC." Cultural Tourism DC also promotes the Passport DC event each May, when dozens of embassies open their doors to the public.
European Union Delegation to the U.S.
Represents the 27 nations that make up the EU. Its website lists events at the European embassies.
The Embassy Series
Extends public access to more than 50 embassies by hosting concerts. Ticket prices range from $40 to $100 per person and usually include receptions or buffets with that country's food and drink.
Woodrow Wilson House
2340 S St. NW
26th Kalorama House and Embassy Tour, noon to
4 p.m., Sept. 25. Just north of Dupont Circle, overlooking Rock Creek Park, the Kalorama neighborhood is home to many embassies and ambassadors' residences. Tour includes private homes. Tickets cost $40 per person and must be bought in advance. Pretour Brunch and Lecture package, $75, limited to 125 people.
Certified tour guide Mary Anne Hoffman of Washington Walks (202-484-1565, www.washingtonwalks.com) offers guided walking tours of Embassy Row. Tours are $15; reservations not needed. Tours meet Saturdays at 10 a.m. at the Dupont Metro, south exit.
The Woodrow Wilson House offers a free audio tour of Embassy Row by podcast or by calling a number on your cell phone, narrated by journalist Cokie Roberts. Go to www.woodrowwilsonhouse.org and click on "Embassy Row Audio Tour Podcast" to download the podcast and print brochure with a map and dialing instructions for the cell- phone audio tour.
For a directory of all embassies and maps for designing a walking tour, go to www.embassy.org.
Places to stay
The Fairfax at Embassy Row
2100 Massachusetts Ave. NW
Summer rates: From $350.
Dates to 1924; was the home of diplomats and senators.
Hilton Embassy Row
2015 Massachusetts Ave. NW
Rates: From $259
Faces the Embassy of Indonesia.
Residence Inn by Marriott
2120 P St. NW
Rates: From $209
Offers a less pricey option.
Places to eat
In honor of your Embassy Row walking tour, opt for internationally flavored eateries on nearby P Street. Grab pastries and coffee to go at the Belgian cafe Le Pain Quotidien, 2001 P St. NW Next door, Pizzeria Paradiso has a hearty international beer selection and some of the best freshly made brick-oven pizzas in the city. Enjoy well-priced Greek fare at Zorba's Cafe, 1612 20th St. NW.
- Elissa Leibowitz Poma