Positive Aging Thought Leader: Maria Olsen
As the world opens up again, people are traveling. Plans taking you to Washington, D.C.?
You might consider the enriching, less crowded offerings in our nation’s capital. Like a walking tour of historic Embassy Row. The stories behind the mansions’ facades, concentrated on and around Massachusetts Avenue, NW will delight you.
Washington, D.C. houses embassies from approximately 175 nations. Many allow visitors and even give tours. Another option is a walking architectural tour that includes historical background about these mansions-turned-embassies. And other interesting tidbits about diplomatic DC.
History Behind Brick And Mortar:
Many of the mansions that house embassies today once were the private homes of wealthy Washingtonians. During the Great Depression, only international buyers could afford the properties when sold by their American owners. An area near Dupont Circle became known as Embassy Row. Because it developed into the largest concentration of embassies in Washington.
“Her company has a cadre of women in midlife who lead tours “to explore the history behind the brick and mortar.””
In addition, I had the pleasure of joining a tour conducted by Christine Phillips, 48, of DC Design Tours. Christine worked in the architecture field before becoming an at-home mom. She grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina. But came to D.C. frequently over the course of her life, and now lives in the area. Moreover, becoming a tour guide to share her appreciation of the rich architecture in the Washington area was a dream of hers. This she was able to realize after her children became teenagers. Her tours include guiding visitors at Arlington National Cemetery.
DC Design Tours was started by Carolyn Muraskin in 2015. She is an architect by training, but prefers to “talk about buildings more than drawing them.” Her company has a cadre of women in midlife who lead tours “to explore the history behind the brick and mortar.”
On a beautiful spring day in May of 2022, I joined Christine’s tour. Some of her most intriguing narrative is included below.
The beautiful Beaux-Arts style Turkish Ambassador’s residence “leaves nowhere for your eyes to rest because of the ornamentation,” she explained. Once known as the Everett House, for its original owner, businessman, Edward Everett, the exquisite mansion was rented to the Turkish government.
In 1936, Turkey purchased the house as the Turkish ambassador’s residence. The house’s conservatory contained a lit stage upon which a grand Steinway piano sat. The Turkish ambassador’s son was a fan of jazz. And often traveled across town to hear Duke Ellington, Lena Horne, and Louis Armstrong perform at the Howard Theater.
“The Embassy of Latvia employs an architectural eclecticism in its style.”
He used his diplomatic immunity to invite musicians to the Everett House to perform, at a time when interracial fraternizing was uncommon. In 1942, at the Turkish ambassador’s residence, he held the first integrated jazz concerts in the U.S.. The Turkish ambassador’s son, Ahmet Ertegun, went on to found Atlantic Records, one of the most successful American record labels.
The Embassy of Latvia employs an architectural eclecticism in its style. One of its colorful residents, artist Alice Pike Barney, a friend of Oscar Wilde in Paris, is credited with saying, “Scandals are the best way to get rid of nuisances.” She had a scandalous nude statute installed in the house’s yard. The prim neighbors insisted a curtain must be draped over at all times. An enterprising butler reportedly would lift the curtain for a nickel.
A few blocks away, the Embassy of Cameroon graces a prominent corner. Its lovely French Chateau style exterior was damaged by the elements and it fell into disrepair. A famous Cameroonian soccer star, Samuel Eto’o Fils, recently poured millions into the Embassy’s renovation fund and the embassy building is being restored to its grandeur.
The Woodrow Wilson House, the former residence of one of our nation’s presidents, sits on a lovely tree-lined street in the Kalorama neighborhood near Dupont Circle. During Prohibition, President Wilson issued an Executive Order that the contents of the wine cellar at the White House be transferred to 2340 S Street, NW, his private home.
“Its Flemish Bond brick pattern and Palladian/Venetian windows make for a striking combination.”
Flemish Bond Brick Pattern:
The house currently is owned by Amazon CEO billionaire and Washington Post publisher, Jeff Bezos. It was designed by the famous architect John Russell Pope. When Bezos bought the house for $23 million, it was the most expensive home sold in D.C. in 2016. He also bought the house across the street, “so no one could look into his house,” Christine says. She also heard that Bezos paid for the $17,000 in parking tickets his workers amassed while renovating the property.
Its Flemish Bond brick pattern and Palladian/Venetian windows make for a striking combination. Before Bezos purchased the home, the Woodrow Wilson House contained a textile museum that was donated to George Washington University. This consisted of two connected mansions. It is the largest residence in Washington.
Nearby Mitchell Park was sold to the D.C. government years ago by a wealthy Kalorama resident. Above all, her only request was that her beloved poodle’s gravesite be allowed to remain there in perpetuity.
Arts And Crafts Style Home:
Also in the area are the homes of Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt and their son, James. Mr. and Mrs. Roosevelt lived next door to their son’s colorful Arts and Crafts style home on R Street, NW, when President Woodrow Wilson appointed FDR Assistant Secretary of the Navy. However, it was well known that the former president was having an affair with his secretary, Lucy Mercer, who also lived on the street.
The tour ended at the first museum of modern art in the United States, The Phillips Collection.This is widely considered to be the jewel of the neighborhood. Built in Georgian Revival style by philanthropist and art collector, Duncan Phillips in 1921, the grand mansion is constructed of local Seneca sandstone.
Modern Art Museum:
In conclusion, in memory of two beloved family members, Mr. Phillips opened two rooms of their home as a modern art museum. Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party” is the museum’s most famous piece. The museum, which has been expanded to accommodate additional galleries, an auditorium, a library, a conservation studio, a café, and a courtyard, just celebrated its 100th anniversary.
If you already have seen the major monuments D.C. has to offer, a walking tour of the well-preserved Gilded Age estates housing diplomatic missions can provide an illuminating and pleasant respite from the usual tourist crowds in our nation’s capital.
About the Author:
Maria Leonard Olsen is an attorney, author, radio show and podcast host in the Washington, D.C., area. For more information about her work, see www.MariaLeonardOlsen.com and follow her on social media at @fiftyafter50. Her latest book, 50 After 50: Reframing the Next Chapter of Your Life, which has served as a vehicle for helping thousands of women reinvigorate their lives, is offered for sale on this website.