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16th Street’s Former Spanish Ambassador’s Residence Being Considered for Use as a Center to Showcase Spanish Culture, Arts

Accompanying images can be viewed in the current issue PDF

By Anthony L. Harvey

In a move heralding a first step in the revitalization of the long-closed, 90-year-old mansion formerly housing the residence of the Spanish Ambassador to the United States located at 2801 16th Street, NW, the Embassy of Spain joined with the other 27 members of the European Union (EU) in hosting an open house, as part of the annual :Shortcut to Europe” open house event held on Saturday, May 12th. In preparation for the event, the Embassy had painted and plastered the walls, ceiling, woodwork and paneling in the formal first floor rooms a monochromatic white and refurbished the mansion’s simple but handsome parquet flooring.

The house, designed by George Oakley Totten, Jr. in styles ranging from, apparently, grand adobe to badly scaled Beaux Arts, according to the architectural historian who was one of two authors who described the house in the first volume of the U.S. Fine Arts Commission’s standard work on 16th Street architecture. The house is one of Mary Henderson’s famous speculative constructions, one which she offered to the United States as a Vice Presidential residence and when refused offered for sale to the Mexican and Spanish governments. The Mexican Embassy purchased the next-door MacVeagh mansion, leaving the Spanish to purchase the 2801 16th residence.

The interior design of this mansion is equally problematic to that of the exterior. How the rooms were intended to relate to each other is not apparent, and with the notable exception of the large, high ceiling ballroom and the tiled enclosed patio, the rooms are not distinguished in proportions or embellishments. These rooms will, however, work extremely well as white boxes for showing art, while the ballroom will make a great space for dance performances and the tiled patio will be ideal for serving food and drink.

According to the Fine Arts Commission’s authors, “it seems Mrs. Henderson gave Totten permission (or funds) to ‘do one room up right.’ If the exterior of the ballroom gave the impression it was soon to cast off, the interior leaves no doubt that the architect inadvertently applied the plans for a steamship Edwardian saloon. The most immediately impressive element, aside from size and applied ostentation, is the great flank of elaborate ‘solarium’ windows which admit mostly northern light.”

High praise is given by the authors, however, to the interior patio, which the Spanish Embassy remodeled shortly after purchasing the structure in the 1920s, embellishing it with hand-painted tiles from Seville and Valencia for the room’s wainscoting and floor paving and adding wrought iron grilles from Toledo. At some point the indoor patio’s glass ceiling was replaced with an opaque roof.

Located on a large and spacious site, the house is joined in the rear by a later structure designed by prominent Washington architect Jules Henri de Sibour that once housed Spain’s chancellery, and includes a garage, an expanded caterer’s kitchen, and an attached loading dock. This secondary structure faces, and is accessible from, 15th Street.

Among the more interesting — and notable — of the interior decorators for the residence were the Austrian Archduke Franz Josef and his wife, Princess Marta, who had established an interior decorating shop in New York and were hired by Ambassador Jose Maria Areilza in 1955 to remodel the formal first floor rooms. Later, in 1965, the Marquesa de Merry del Val, the Spanish Ambassador at the time, hired designer Duarte d’Avilla Pinto Coelho of Madrid, whereupon the interiors were  painted as described in the Fine Arts Commission’s 1978 volume, with Mr. D’Avilla adding “flocked silk” to the drawing room and ballroom and “apparently being responsible for painting over a fresco decorating the ballroom dome.”

Events leading to the abandonment by the Spanish Embassy of its prominent 16th Street site have a somewhat tortured history, beset by delays in governmental decision-making and budgeting. After the announcement by Ambassador Julian Santamaria in October, 1989, of the Embassy’s purchase of two-and-a-half acres of land next to the Belgian Embassy on Foxhall Road for a new Ambassador’s residence to be designed by the Pritzker award wining Spanish architect Rafael Moneo, at that time head of Harvard’s Architecture and Design Department, initial plans were begun for converting the 16th Street complex to an Instituto Cervantes for Washington, DC. Promoting Spanish culture, especially that of the visual and literary arts and the Spanish language, the Instituto would join an array of Cervantes centers in the United States which had already been established in New York City, Boston, Seattle, Albuquerque, and Chicago.

Other plans took precedence and priority, however, culminating in the construction of the Embassy’s new chancellery on Washington Circle in 1994 and completion of the Ambassador’s new residence on Foxhall Road in 2003, directly across from the Phillip Johnson designed Kreeger Museum of art.

With the dramatic improvements occurring throughout the neighborhoods immediately adjacent to the 16th Street mansion site, however, hope springs yet again that the Spanish Embassy’s May 12th open house event will subsequently lead to steps culminating in the establishment of an Instituto Cervantes for Washington in the old Spanish Embassy and residence just north of Meridian Hill Park.