This photo exhibition, titled Henderson’s Row, is my hands-on practical project for The Institute of World Politics (IWP) class, The Art of Diplomacy. The class is about the Western tradition of diplomacy, and our Professor, Ambassador G. Phillip Hughes, gave the option of writing a term paper or doing a “hands-on” project. I opted for the project because even though I love writing papers, this was a unique opportunity to do what Professor Hughes calls, “personal diplomacy.” The project must have an ambitious goal that requires the help of others. My goal is to have my photos displayed in person (or online per COVID regulations) in the buildings I have photographed.
This project was a great opportunity to continue my passion for film photography. Since high school, I have taken numerous film photography classes and have been eager to pick up a camera again. I love architecture photography and have not explored D.C.’s fantastic cityscape as much as I have wanted since moving here. This project has given me the chance to dive deeply into this city’s unique history, elevate myself as an artist, and bolster my ambition of becoming a published artist.
The subject I chose to focus on was Mary Foote Henderson’s failed attempt to create an Embassy Row 2.0 on Meridian Hill. I was interested in this because Meridian Hill lies only 11 blocks north of IWP and has a very specific history as to why embassies are there. Mary Henderson was the wife of Senator John B. Henderson, and they lived in what is now called Henderson Castle on 16th Street. They moved to the area in the late 1880s after John retired from Congress. They bought up many plots of land in the area with hopes to turn 16th Street into the city’s most popular neighborhood for politics. Mary Henderson hired architect George Oakley Totten Jr. to build her dream embassy corridor during the early 1900s, and many of these buildings still stand today. She first attempted to convince Congress to move the White House or the Vice President’s residence to the area but failed. Then she lobbied for embassies to move to the area, to create a better Embassy Row. This effort was only minorly successful. Of the ten embassies that were recruited to Meridian Hill, only four embassies remain today.
The two original embassies are the Embassy of Poland and the Embassy of Lithuania.
The Embassy of Poland was built in 1910 by Totten and bought by Poland in 1919. It is not the only D.C. building belonging to the Polish embassy: they also have an economic section, a consular section, and an ambassador’s residence elsewhere in the city. The building boasts French and English designs on its exterior. It is my favorite exterior because of its beautiful simplicity and the trees that frame it.
The embassy of Lithuania was built in 1909 also by Totten, and, in 1924, it was purchased by Lithuania. It was first opened as a legation – a diplomatic representative office ranked lower than an embassy and headed by a minister instead of an ambassador. This was normal for the time, but when Lithuania was absorbed into the Soviet Union in 1940, the Lithuanian government wanted to maintain independent diplomatic representation, so the legation remained opened. In 1991, it was promoted to an embassy after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Next door to the Lithuanian Embassy is the Cuban Embassy, which is also original to Meridian Hill. It was built in 1918 by MacNeil & MacNeil since the Cubans did not prefer Totten’s style. Due to the cut in ties between the U.S. and Cuba in the 1960s, the building was cared for by Czechoslovakia and then Switzerland for 50 years until diplomatic ties were reestablished between the countries in 2015. In 1979, the embassy was bombed by an anti-Castro group, but the Lithuanian Embassy suffered more damage than the Cuban Embassy.
The final current embassy on Meridian Hill is the Ecuadorian Embassy. It was built in 1922 by Totten and was the Embassy of the Netherlands until 1960 when it was reestablished as the Ecuadorian Embassy. While the other three embassies reside on the west side of Meridian Park, this building is on the east side. It suffered damage in the 2011 earthquake, and three of its chimneys fell.
Next to the Embassy of Ecuador is the former Embassy of Hungary. Now the Josephine Butler Parks Center, this building was completed by Totten in 1927. The Hungarian Embassy moved in 1951, and the building has seen several different owners since 1977. Despite these changes, the exterior still boasts its Renaissance revival design.
A block south of the Josephine Butler Parks Center is the former Egyptian Embassy – now Meridian Hall. Also built by Totten, this hall housed the Embassy of Egypt for a brief time after its completion in 1923. Unlike Totten’s other designs, this building is in the Tutor Revival style. It is now home to a few different organizations.
Totten’s signature can also be seen in the former French Embassy – now the Council for Professional Recognition. The 1907 building was briefly claimed by the Ghanaian government as the site of their embassy. However, Mary Henderson was friends with the French Ambassador at the time and convinced him to move his embassy to the building. With heavy French influence, the original exterior finish was painted white and gold. The French never intended for this building to be their permanent location and moved out in 1936.
North of Meridian Park is the former Spanish Embassy – now the Spain-USA Foundation. Built in 1922 by Totten, this building was initially intended to be the residence of the Vice President. The U.S. Congress rejected the building, though, and Spain bought it in 1927 and used it as its embassy until the late 1990s. The present-day cultural center boasts a Beaux-Arts style exterior.
Lastly, right next to the former Spanish Embassy is the former Mexican Embassy. Built by the famous architect Nathan C. Wyeth in 1911, this building was for Secretary of the Treasury, Franklin MacVeagh. He moved out only a few years after it was built and sold it to Mexico in 1921. The Tuscan porte-cochère entrance was added then. The embassy moved out in the 1980s, and the building is now the Mexican Cultural Center.
My project is still ongoing, as I hope to gift the prints of these photos to each place I photographed. This project has piqued my interest in the other hidden histories of D.C., and I am excited to explore the area further. I would like to thank Professor Hughes for allowing for my creativity in this project, my better half for assisting me on my photo walks, and IWP for publishing my photo exhibition. Thank you for reading!