Visiting the Embassies of Washington, D.C.

Download MP3   (Right-click or option-click the link.)

I'm Bob Doughty. And I'm Faith Lapidus with EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English.

Washington, D.C. is known for its many monuments, museums, and government buildings. It is also home to embassies from more than 170 countries.

Many of these diplomatic buildings around the city have interesting histories.  Some embassies are in large historical homes. Others were built more recently to represent the building design of their countries. Many embassies hold special cultural events. Join us as we travel the world by visiting the embassies of Washington.We start our tour in an area of Washington called Embassy Row. About 50 embassies are in this neighborhood.  Many are built along Massachusetts Avenue. Some embassies are in large houses built by wealthy Americans in the early 20th century.

TOUR GUIDE: "This is the Indonesian Embassy. And it was originally built by Mr. Walsh. Now Mr. Walsh came over from Ireland without a penny in his pocket and he went to Colorado and struck gold."

That was the voice of Sonia Justl who gives tours for the company Washington Walks. On this tour you can learn about the interesting history of many old buildings before they became embassies.

For example, the Embassy of Uzbekistan is in a richly decorated home built in 1906 by a wealthy banker, Clarence Moore. But Mr. Moore did not live to enjoy his house for very long. He died on board the ship Titanic, which sank in 1912. This building served as the Canadian Embassy before Uzbekistan bought it in 1996.

However, sometimes there are problems with diplomatic ownership of historical buildings. Not all countries take good care of their buildings. For example, the embassy of the former Yugoslavia in this neighborhood is empty.  Two of Pakistan's former diplomatic buildings have been empty for years. The buildings are slowly falling into disrepair.

Some countries, like Pakistan, build new modern embassies and leave behind their former buildings. Other countries have political or financial problems that take attention away from the condition of their embassies in Washington. People who live in this costly neighborhood are not happy that some of these buildings are falling apart. It is hard for city and federal officials to take action because embassies have extraterritorial status under international law.

Further up Massachusetts Avenue visitors can see larger and more recently built embassies. The designs are very different from each other. For example, the Turkish Embassy is a large three-level modern building covered in brown stone and brick. Detailed designs in iron cover the building's tall windows. The Brazilian Embassy looks like a large box made of black glass.Some embassies are works of art.  For example, the Italian Embassy is near Massachusetts Avenue. This very modern building is made up of striking angular lines. It is covered in pink stone imported from Italy. When you walk into the main hallway, you can look up to see a huge glass dome ceiling. The embassy's 18th century Italian art collection hangs in rooms that have very modern furniture and design.

Nearby, the Embassy of Finland looks like it is built out of blocks of glass.  Its design is modern, but it fits in nicely with the natural environment around it. A screen of plants covers part of the front of the building. Inside, visitors can look through large glass windows deep into the wooded areas of Rock Creek Park.

The Finnish Embassy holds many interesting exhibits. For example, four years ago the exhibit on the Finnish clothing and design company Marimekko was very popular.

While we are on the subject of Europe, let us go to another area of town to see a very new embassy. The Swedish Embassy is on the Potomac River in the neighborhood called Georgetown. It is in a building called the House of Sweden, which also contains an event center and corporate housing. The glass building is a good example of Swedish design. It is smooth, simple and very modern. Visitors can see exhibits on subjects such as cars, the environment and art and design.

Not far away, the Embassy of France is in a gated area off Reservoir Road. The embassy's cultural center, La Maison Française, organizes many cultural events. For example, in June the center invited 30 local bands to celebrate the summer at its yearly music festival. This fall, the center will offer French movies as well as many concerts including baroque, classical and jazz music.

If you are very lucky, you might be invited to a party at the home of the French ambassador. This extraordinary home in the Kalorama neighborhood looks like a gothic palace. Organizations like the Washington Opera sometimes hold events in this beautiful house.  The ambassadors of Turkey and Italy also live in large historical homes that are famous for their building design and beauty.Last month, China opened a new embassy in the area of Washington called the International Center. C.C. Pei and L.C. Pei of Pei Partnership Architects designed the building. They are the sons of the famous Chinese-American architect I.M. Pei who also worked on the project. Measuring more than 10,000 square meters, this is one of the biggest diplomatic buildings in Washington. The Chinese government brought in hundreds of Chinese workers to build the huge project, which took three years to complete. C.C. Pei said the areas of plants around the embassy were influenced by Chinese and Western traditions to create a natural and calming design.

Several other embassies are in this area along International Drive and International Court. These include the embassies of Ghana, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Israel and Egypt.

In another area of Washington, the Mexican Cultural Institute is housed on Sixteenth Street.  It is in a large home built in 1910 by Emily MacVeagh. She was the wife of the American secretary of the treasury at that time. Today, the institute offers many musical and artistic events as part of the cultural side of the Mexican Embassy. For example, every November, the institute invites visitors to see a large altar made for the Day of the Dead festival. Last week, the Spanish guitarist Abraham Carmona played his music there.In May, many embassies took part in an event called Passport D.C., organized by the non-profit group Cultural Tourism D.C.  Embassies around town organized cultural activities and opened their doors to the public.  For example, at the Pakistani Embassy visitors could watch movies from that country.  The Japanese embassy set up a traditional teahouse and showed its lovely stone gardens. The Iraqi embassy invited the public to enjoy traditional Iraqi food and music. Cultural Tourism D.C. plans to hold the event again next year.

Embassies often are affected by international political events. For example, in 1991 the Iraqi ambassador in Washington left his post at the start of the Persian Gulf War. Now, Iraq has a new ambassador and a new embassy. The United States does not have official diplomatic ties with Cuba. So Cuban representation in Washington operates through the Swiss Embassy.

Embassies are often places where the public can express their opinions about a country's actions or events. For example, in March, protestors demonstrated in front of the Chinese Embassy after Chinese police attacked Buddhist religious workers in Tibet.  When Britain's Princess Diana died 11 years ago, people left flowers at the British Embassy to honor her.The closest diplomatic building to the offices of VOA is the Embassy of Canada. We visited an exhibit there called "Fifty Years of American Photojournalism." It shows many photographs of important events in American history and culture. We also met with Carolyn Strauss, the cultural counselor of the embassy. She told us more about the exhibit.

CAROLYN STRAUSS: "We're delighted because we think these images resonate very much with Americans as well as Canadians because they're shared experiences through the last century of war, peace and conflict, and  world celebrities and leaders. "

Ms Strauss explained why cultural programs at embassies are so important.

CAROLYN STRAUSS: "Cultural events speak very much to a country's values and project a nation as perhaps almost nothing else does. You can have political discussions and you can have trade discussions but culture really demonstrates what a culture's values and iconic moments are all about."

Embassies in Washington and around the world have an important role to play in supporting culture and diplomatic ties among nations.This program was written and produced by Dana Demange. I'm Bob Doughty. And I'm Faith Lapidus. You can see pictures of several embassies in Washington on our Web site, voaspecialenglish.com. Join us again next week for EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English.