Foreign Governments Seek Square Footage, Symbolism In Embassies (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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Foreign Governments Seek Square Footage, Symbolism In Embassies

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:03
We turn now from American embassies overseas to foreign embassies here in our fair city. You can find more than 180 embassies packed into Washington's 68 square miles. And these buildings are more than just brick and mortar. They're symbols of public diplomacy as they represent a foreign nation to the American public. Our brand new "Metro Connection" reporter Jacob Fenston takes us to several of the city's embassies, starting with one that was recently repurchased more than a 100 years after being lost as imperial plunder.

MR. JACOB FENSTON

00:00:36
When you think embassies, you probably don't think Logan Circle, and when you get to Logan Circle, you might not even notice the house on the corner of 13th Street hidden behind huge magnolia trees.

MS. LORETTA JENKINS

00:00:55
The house is such a beautiful piece of architecture. We didn't wish to see this house broken up like all the grand houses around here.

FENSTON

00:00:55
Loretta Jenkins and her husband bought this old brick Victorian back in 1977. A few years later, as they headed out one Sunday afternoon, they happened to notice...

JENKINS

00:01:05
There was a Korean man standing on the corner across the street. And he was still standing there when we came back a couple of hours later from the event that we had gone to.

FENSTON

00:01:15
Their home, it turns out, once housed Korea's first diplomatic mission to the United States back in the 1890s. And the man standing across the street? He said he was the grandson of Korea's first ambassador here.

JENKINS

00:01:26
My husband invited him in and I made tea and he walked around the house with such reverence that it struck a note with us.

FENSTON

00:01:37
Over the years they got several offers from Korean businessmen to buy the house but they worried the historic building wouldn't be preserved. Finally, in August, the Jenkins and the Korean government hammered out a deal.

MS. ANDREA CHOI

00:01:49
Yeah, so basically this building that we recently repurchased holds great historic significance.

FENSTON

00:01:54
Andrea Choi is with the Korean Embassy's cultural center. Korea first bought the building in 1891 for $25,000.

CHOI

00:02:01
Which back then was a huge sum of money.

FENSTON

00:02:03
But then they lost the building when imperial Japan occupied Korea in 1905. So for many Koreans, the building isn't just an old house.

CHOI

00:02:12
It really does show our ancestor's efforts to ensure that Korea was free from imperial powers.

FENSTON

00:02:19
Today's newer embassies also have a lot to say. Take for example, the Finnish embassy -- a copper and glass box, ultra-modern architecture.

MS. ANNELI HALONEN

00:02:26
Architecture is -- Goethe actually said, architecture is like frozen music.

FENSTON

00:02:32
Anneli Halonen is the embassy's cultural counselor.

HALONEN

00:02:35
Music expresses the soul of the nation, and so does architecture.

FENSTON

00:02:40
Every design element here reflects Finnish culture, says Halonen. There's even a sauna, a necessity in any Finnish building.

HALONEN

00:02:46
Yes, our Parliament also have -- and we call this sauna diplomacy because in sauna we are all equal. We are naked, or wrapped in towels.

FENSTON

00:02:57
It's not just the sauna or an embassy's architecture that says something. It's also the properties upkeep, or lack thereof, even the location.

MR. ERIC LEWIS

00:03:04
Now, this is the only embassy on Pennsylvania Avenue in D.C., between the White House and the Capitol building.

FENSTON

00:03:12
Eric Lewis is leading a helmeted gaggle of tourists on Segways around the National Mall. Right here, in the midst of all these symbols of America, stands a six-story building covered with Canadian flags. Shannon-Marie Soni with the Canadian Embassy says the location here reflects the closeness of our two countries.

MS. SHANNON-MARIE SONI

00:03:31
The Canada-U.S. bilateral relationship is so complex that we need to be speaking on a daily basis to the members of Congress. Our location, if I can use a hockey metaphor, at center ice, between our two goal posts, is really important to us.

FENSTON

00:03:42
Embassies in Washington weren't always these big architectural showcases. Architecture historian Jane Loeffler says the first embassies, like the old Korean one on Logan Circle, began life as private mansions built around the turn of the 20th century.

MS. JANE LOEFFLER

00:03:56
A lot of people built fabulous houses in Washington -- millionaire tycoons who wanted to get closer to the center of power.

FENSTON

00:04:06
But when the Great Depression hit, the tycoons couldn't afford to keep their second homes in Washington.

LOEFFLER

00:04:11
Miraculously, there were foreign governments looking to buy property in D.C. and establish themselves here at that very time. So they bought a lot of those houses and saved them from what would have been destruction.

FENSTON

00:04:30
Now many of these homes are returning to private hands. Realtor Bobbie Brewster is trying to sell this former embassy in Kalorama.

MS. BOBBIE BREWSTER

00:04:37
The embassy of Portugal. This is a beautiful Georgian building with all the best motifs of the Georgian style. It's a classic.

FENSTON

00:04:47
Brewster has sold six embassies before and this will be her seventh. Most were bought by private individuals. And now this one could be yours. In fact, the price was just reduced to $2.5 million. I'm Jacob Fenston.

SHEIR

00:05:03
To see photos of some of the embassies Jacob visited check out our website, metroconnection.org.

SHEIR

00:05:19
Time for a quick break. But when we get back, the woman once considered the least diplomatic leader of the D.C. public schools. We'll catch up with former DCPS Chancellor Michelle Rhee.

MS. MICHELLE RHEE

00:05:29
I think one of the mistakes that we made was we were doing the work. It was sort of obvious to us why closing schools or doing layoffs by quality instead of seniority was important. It seemed so obvious to us. And yet we didn't do a good job of connecting the dots for people.

SHEIR

00:05:44
That and more in a minute on "Metro Connection," here on WAMU 88.5.
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