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Mexican Cultural Institute’s 16th St. Mansion Near Meridian Hill Park Now Designated as a DC Historic Landmark

By Anthony L. Harvey

Accompanying images can be viewed in the current issue PDF

In an enthusiastic and unanimous vote on December 20, 2012, the DC Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) designated as an historic landmark the Republic of Mexico’s former embassy building, the magnificent, early 20th century Franklin MacVeagh mansion at 2829 16th Street, NW, and directed that it be entered into the DC inventory of historic sites.

Since 1989 when the Republic of Mexico converted and expanded several buildings on Pennsylvania Avenue into which it relocated its embassy, the Mexican Cultural Institute has occupied this 16th Street mansion, which, shortly after the Mexican government had acquired it in 1921 for its embassy, the porte cochère was added on the front along with a single story chancellery addition to the south and a large, two-story garage in the rear fronting on 15th Street.

The original mansion was built in 1909-‘10 to be one of the grandest homes in Washington. Costing an estimated $250,000, it was designed by architect Nathan Wyeth, who subsequently became the District’s Municipal  Architect; it was constructed by well-known Washington builder George A. Fuller. In 1910 the completed structure was presented to Franklin MacVeagh, President William Howard Taft’s Secretary of the Treasury, as a surprise Christmas present by his wife Emily Eames MacVeagh, a banker’s daughter from Chicago, where the MacVeaghs had lived in an enormous Lake Shore Drive mansion designed by H.H. Richardson.

In 1909 Emily had secretly acquired the 16th Street lots for the Washington building site, purchasing lots 9 and 24 from James Wilson of California, lots 7 and 8 from the heirs of James G. Blaine, lot 25 from Henry Lewis of Chicago, lot 26 from Robert Scammell, and parts of lots 10 and 13 from Mary Foote Henderson, the indefatigable promoter of Meridian Hill Park and 16th Street as the Avenue of the Presidents, and the widow of unionist statesman and Missouri Senator John B. Henderson, co-author of the 13th Amendment permanently prohibiting slavery in the United States and co-sponsor of its companion Congressional Joint Resolution.

Emily MacVeagh’s assembling of such a large site provided space for the design and construction of a residence the size and layout of an elegant small hotel, with grand public rooms on the second floor of the designed four story mansion, a large library and bedroom suites for the family on the third and fourth floors, and servants quarters and service areas at the back of the first floor entrance. Handsome windows and a south elevation loggia were designed to overlook large grounds on the south side  of the mansion.

Volume One of the Federal Fine Arts Commission’s Sixteenth Street Architecture, by Sue A. Kohler and Jeffrey R. Carson, documents the design and construction of this extraordinary mansion and that of the additions to the site, together with the adaptations and embellishments to the interior of the mansion by the Mexican ministry of foreign affairs.

As analyzed by Kohler and Carson, the building’s design presents a layered effect, with the first floor resembling the late 15th century Palazzo della Cancellaria in Rome and the Tuscan porte cochère — the carriage porch — reflecting the 16th century style of the pillared entrance hall. And notwithstanding the Palladian motif of the front of the building, its second and third floors have prominent English antecedents. Proportionately, the fourth floor presents an anomaly; instead of visually projecting an attic, its windows are larger than the smaller windows below, and instead of a cornice “bold enough for the full height of the building” the structure is topped off with a hipped roof, “a not uncommon practice in Renaissance Italy.” The authors conclude that the mansion achieves a vague but unified Italianate style with “a uniformity of materials and the choice of relative severe moldings and ornaments.” In addition, the quality of materials used throughout the mansion and that of the subsequent compatibly designed  additions, together with the craftsmanship employed in the construction of the entire site, are exemplary.

The handsome and understated façade of this wonderful building now housing the Mexican Cultural Institute does not prepare one for the magnificence of its interior, both that part retained from the original MacVeagh mansion and that added by the Mexican government. The highlights of the building include the spectacular second floor music room that is modeled, said Emily MacVeagh, on that of the music room in the Louis XIII Château Fontainebleau and its handsome, turn-of-the century pipe organ which has been restored to full functionality; the beautifully decorated adjacent drawing room; the enormous, baronial-style residential dining room, said to be the largest in Washington; and the third floor, English-style library with its large mahogany bookcases and trim and the visual power of its walls hung with Gobelin-style tapestries, now named in honor of the great 19th century Mexican diplomat Matias Romero.

Highlights added by the Mexican government begin with the magnificent mural stretching from the first to third floor staircase walls, which wind around a large atrium. This huge mural depicts Mexican cultural and political history in the vivid and instructional style launched by the great 20th century educational reformer José Vasconcelos; it was painted during the 1930s by Roberto Cueva del Rio, the leading student and disciple of Diego Rivera. Recently conserved, its colorful brightness and lively, realistic narratives literally sparkle, as do the Talavera tiles in the recently restored conservatory adjacent to the nearby dining room. These Spanish tiles, produced in Puebla, Mexico, depict the coats of arms of the 31 Mexican states and that of the Republic of Mexico and, in landscape painting style, the two great Mexican volcanoes — Popocatepetal and Ixtacihuatl. The original mansion had unfinished interior brick walls in the conservatory.

The mansion’s first floor servant quarters and fourth floor bedroom suites have been converted into handsome gallery spaces, the José Clemente Orozco Gallery on the first and that named for Frida Kahlo on the fourth. Sculpturally framed Mayan scenes and figures painted on the walls of the second floor dining room in the 1920s by Rafael Yela Günther remain behind paint and plaster. And the two story rear garage and chauffeur living quarters have been converted into residential quarters for visiting scholars and artists.

No description of the building and its interior spaces and their pleasingly and uniquely extravagant embellishments should end without reference to the extraordinary range and number of cultural events conducted and presented at the Mexican Cultural Institute over the past 22 years. These include numerous museum-quality art exhibitions in the Orozco and Kahlo galleries; musical evenings exploiting the acoustical excellence of the music room; lectures, films, theatrical, and musical performances in the library, music room, and the baronial sized dining room — all of these highly professional events being conducted in an open and welcoming engagement with the general public. Annual celebrations and commemoration of the Mexican “Day of the Dead,” complete with altars and ceremonial-style grave sites displaying mock offerings of food and drink for the dead in the Talavera tile-lined conservatory, or courtyard, are a special favorite of the large Mexican and Central American communities of nearby Adams Morgan, Mt. Pleasant, and Columbia Heights.