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Foreign Governments Seek Square Footage, Symbolism In Embassies

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The Canadian Embassy on Pennsylvania Avenue was designed by renowned Canadian architect Arthur Erickson. It opened in 1989.
Jacob Fenston
The Canadian Embassy on Pennsylvania Avenue was designed by renowned Canadian architect Arthur Erickson. It opened in 1989.

There are more than 180 foreign embassies packed into Washington, D.C.'s 68 square miles, and these buildings are more than just brick and mortar — they're part of public diplomacy, representing a nation to the American public.

Architecture historian Jane Loeffler says a well-designed embassy building can be more effective than any public relations campaign. "Architecture is what you see," he says. "It's your billboard. It's 'Who am I?'"

The buildings can also be potent symbols of national pride. In Logan Circle, at the corner of 13th Street, sits a grand brick Victorian, hidden behind magnolia trees. The house was once an embassy, lost more than 100 years ago to imperial plunder, and passed through a string of private owners. Loretta Jenkins and her husband bought it in 1977.

"The house is such a beautiful piece of architecture," says Jenkins. "We didn't wish to see this house broken up like all the grand houses around here."

One Sunday afternoon, as she and her husband headed out, they happened to notice a man standing across the street, watching the house. "He was still standing there a couple hours later when we came back from the event we had gone to."

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 said he was the grandson of Korea's first ambassador there.

"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," says Jenkins.

Over the years, they got offers from several Korean businessmen to buy the house. But they worried the historic building wouldn't be preserved. Finally, just last month the Jenkins and the Korean government hammered out a deal.

Andrea Choi, with the Korean Embassy's cultural center, says Korea first bought the building in 1891 for $25,000. "Which back then, was a huge sum of money," says Choi.

But Korea lost the building when imperial Japan occupied the country in 1905. So, for many Koreans, this building isn't just an old house.

"It really does show our ancestors' efforts to ensure that Korea was free from imperial powers," she says.

Culture expressed in the architecture of embassies

Today's embassies also have a lot to say. Take, for example, the Finnish embassy, an ultra-modern copper and glass box across the street from the Naval Observatory on Massachusetts Avenue.

Anneli Halonen, the embassy's cultural counselor, says every design element in the building reflects Finnish culture.

"Goethe actually said, architecture is like frozen music," says Halonen. "Music expresses the soul of the nation, and so does architecture."

There's even a sauna, a necessity in any Finnish building, including the Parliament House in Helsinki.

"We call this sauna diplomacy, because in sauna we are all equal. We are naked, or wrapped in towels."

It's not just the sauna, or an embassy's architecture that says something about the country that owns the building. It's also the property's upkeep, or lack thereof, even the location says something.

Across the street from the National Mall, Eric Lewis leads a helmeted gaggle of tourists on Segway. Right here, in the midst of all these symbols of America, stands a six-story building covered with Canadian flags.

"Now, this is the only embassy on Pennsylvania Avenue, between the White House and Capitol building," explains Lewis.

Shannon-Marie Soni with the Canadian Embassy says this location reflects the closeness of the two countries: "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."

Purchasing embassies

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

"A lot of people built fabulous houses in Washington," says Loeffler. "Millionaire tycoons, who wanted to get closer to the center of power."

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

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

Now, many of these houses are returning to private hands. Realtor Bobbie Brewster is selling a former embassy in Kalorama.

"The embassy of Portugal, this is a beautiful Georgian building with all the best motifs of the Georgian style. It's a classic."

Brewster has sold six embassies before, and most have been bought by private individuals. For those looking to buy their own embassy, and have a couple of millions to spare, the price on the former Portuguese Embassy was just reduced by $200,000, to $2.5 million.

[Music: "The Brazilian Hipster" by Fort Knox Five from The Brazilian Hipster]

Photos: Embassies

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