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Historic Toutorsky Mansion Zoning Change Sought for Diplomatic Use

By Anthony L. Harvey

Images accompanying this news story can be viewed in the current issue PDF

A blustery winter evening, complete with gusts of falling wet snow, found members of the Dupont Circle Conservancy at its January monthly meeting in a chilly church parlor gathered to hear applicants for historic structure renovations and alterations proposed for the purpose of adapting historic buildings for contemporary use.

The meeting room warmed up considerably when the Conservancy heard a proposal for the conversion to diplomatic use by the Republic of Congo of the mansion at 16th Street and Riggs Place that had been built in 1891 for Supreme Court Justice Henry Billings Brown and occupied following World War II for over 40 years by Russian émigré pianist Basil Peter Toutorsky and his Mexican opera singer wife.

Discussion ranged widely among the 13 members and two neighborhood guests present. Preceding the discussion period, Patrick Brown, the attorney representing the contingent purchaser Republic of Congo, had been peppered with sharply phrased questions from all sides before being excused.

In this later discussion, members were almost unanimously hostile to the applicant’s proposal, questioning the ability of the Republic of Congo to pay for a restoration of the large and fascinatingly eccentric Flemish-Revival mansion with a flamboyant history of occupants — including its use during the mid-1920s by the Persian Legation — and Congo’s request for a zoning change to allow an embassy/chancellery at this location.

Strong objection was expressed with regard to the proposal for a circular, or crescent-shaped, front yard driveway requiring new curb cuts on 16th and Riggs and security gates at both ends; to the proposed replacement of the dilapidated iron fencing with similar but new and apparently higher replacement fencing; to the demolition of all or part of an alley wall at the rear of the site to provide for secure parking for the chancellery’s staff of 10. Other expressed concerns included that of the loss of green space and an imposing, mature oak tree and the relocation of several other mature trees should the proposed driveway be approved; the necessity for moving the bus stop now directly in front of the property; and the loss of historical integrity of the wooden garage doors and that of an asserted historical garden in the mansion’s back yard.

At the conclusion of this spirited discussion, a complex motion of disapproval — centered on the front yard driveway and its requirement for two new curb cuts, the new and higher front and side yard fencing, and the alley wall demolition’s impact on the historic fabric facing the public alley behind the property — was adopted by a vote of 11-2.

The applicant and its attorney have already met with representatives of the District’s Office of Planning, Historic Preservation Office, and Department of Transportation — which has jurisdiction over public space, sidewalks, and curbs; a formal presentation of the project was made on January 12th to the Dupont Circle Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC). A scheduled appearance before the District’s Foreign Missions Board of Zoning Adjustment (FMBZA) is scheduled for February 8th.

The ANC’s action was very similar to that of the resolution adopted by the Conservancy, voting unanimously, with one commissioner absent, to oppose the Republic of Congo’s proposal to use the mansion as its embassy/chancellery, primarily because of the proposed curb cuts required for the driveway in the front of the building and for the demolition of any part of the rear alley wall — this according to both ANC Commissioner Mike Silverstein and the attorney representing Republic of Congo, Patrick Brown, both of whom this reporter spoke with following the ANC’s deliberations and formal action.

Silverstein wryly summed up the ANC’s action: “ANC 2B has never had a foreign policy; Hilary Clinton and the State Department have a foreign policy and if the State Department wants this to happen, it will! DC is the U.S. capital city, fully of embassies, which become sovereign territory of their respective countries. The best the ANC can do is to weigh in and hope to steer these things to a more favorable outcome for all.”

In an email shared with The InTowner preceding both the Conservancy and ANC meetings, ANC 2B Commissioner Bob Meehan wrote: I’m very partial to the Toutorsky mansion. The brick and wrought-iron fence, the grounds and the trees are an integral part of the impression that this mansion makes on 16th Street. As a corner building, it plays a particularly important role in establishing the ambience of the Riggs Place block. There are many embassies without curb cuts on 16th. The last time we focused on a 16th Street embassy it was the Kazakhstan embassy request for a statue in the green space in front, not a circular driveway. Moreover, I believe that the purpose of such a circular driveway would be more to have a parking lot for 4-5 cars than to have an off-street loading area given that there are rush hour lanes in front of the [building]. One just has to look at the mess at the embassy at the corner of R and 19th Streets to see what would happen at 16th and Riggs Place. DDOT opposed any curb cut for the St. Thomas project even though 18th Street is only one lane going north. And its policy implied that it would not be forthcoming for curb cuts in historic districts.”