The Washington Diplomat / December 2003
By Larry Luxner
Gabriela Febres-Cordero de Moreno, the wife of Colombian Ambassador Luís Moreno, is Venezuelan. Lily Urdinola de Bianchi, the wife of Chilean Ambassador Andrés Bianchi, is Colombian. And Patricia Cepeda, who's also Colombian, is the wife of John O'Leary, a former U.S. ambassador to Chile.
Together, the three ladies — assisted by a team of advisors, graphic designers and architectural historians, and backed by one of Colombia's most prestigious publishing houses — have put together a book entitled "Embassy Residences of Washington, D.C."
The 336-page coffee-table edition, which went on sale Nov. 3, is lavishly illustrated with 396 color images by Colombia's Antonio Castañeda-Buraglia and Washington-based photographer Isabel Cutler. The publisher is Villegas Editores of Colombia, whose U.S. distributor is Rizzoli International Publications Inc. It's also available in a Spanish-language edition titled "Casas de Embajada en Washington, D.C."
The book brings to life the little-known and sometimes secret stories behind 41 of Washington's most sumptuous diplomatic residences — most of whose interiors have never been seen outside diplomatic circles.
Last month, as "Embassy Residences" was hitting local bookstores, The Washington Diplomat sat down to talk with Febres-Cordero, Urdinola and Cepeda. Our interview was conducted, appropriately enough, at the Colombian Embassy residence off Dupont Circle, whose lavish interior happens to grace the cover of the new book.
"It was my idea," said Febres-Cordero as she showed off her home for the past five years. "Benjamin Villegas, a well-known Colombian book publisher, came to Washington and while visiting our house, he mentioned how beautiful it was and asked if these residences were open to the public. I suggested that he publish a book showcasing the embassies of Washington."
At the time, she said, only a small booklet existed that showed the façades of 28 embassy residences, but not the interiors.
"After he agreed, I spoke to a couple of ambassadors, asking if they wanted to participate in the project. I went with Villegas to each ambassador's wife, introducing him and giving his books as gifts. We followed up with letters from the Embassy of Colombia. A few of them said they needed permission from their ministry of foreign affairs."
Diplomatic residences were chosen, she said, "depending on the access they gave us." In the end, all the big and important countries made it into the book, such as Canada, France, Germany, India, Japan, the United Kingdom and Russia. But the book also includes the beautiful residences of smaller nations like Bolivia, Iceland, Kuwait and Tunisia.
Greece wasn't included because that country replaced its ambassador to the United States in the middle of the project. "And in the case of Israel, once we accomplished the first phase, the ambassador left, and the new one did not know us," so the Israeli Embassy didn't make it into the final draft either.
"Three embassies said no right away," said Febres-Cordero, declining to name them. "The ones that said no did so for security reasons. Sept. 11 changed a lot of things."
Although the U.S. government wasn't involved in the book's planning, Febres-Cordero said "we needed an entrance to the rest of the embassies. I didn't think it was right for the book to open in alphabetical order."
She said the team originally wanted to include Blair House "because it's the official residence for guests of the president, but after 9/11 it was difficult to get. So we included instead the Meridian International Center, which is the institution that welcomes new ambassadors in town and offers activities that link the embassies together."
Other mansions profiled in the book include the official residences of the European Commission and the Holy See.
Urdinola, who accompanied photographer Castañeda-Buraglia to most of the photo shoots, said the team worked under all kinds of time and logistics constraints.
"Some embassies like Japan only gave us three hours. But the British ambassador gave us a full day," she explained. "Korea was very difficult. I thought it wouldn't happen, because they didn't get approval from the government until the first proofs came out. They couldn't understand why a Colombian photographer wanted to take pictures of the Korean Embassy. After the first proofs, I went to the ambassador's wives and gave them copies, so they could see that we were serious."
Most of the residences featured in the book were built in the late 19th or early 20th century by prominent American architects, for millionaires who wanted a home in the nation's capital. But during the Great Depression, even rich owners couldn't afford to maintain such elegant residences and were forced to sell. In effect, these historic Washington homes were rescued and preserved by foreign governments.
The book's well-researched introduction was written by architectural historian Jane C. Loeffler, a University of Maryland visiting professor who recently published "The Architecture of Diplomacy: Building America's Embassies."
According to Loeffler, one of the earliest millionaires to commission a mansion in Washington was Thomas Walsh, who had made his fortune in the gold mines of Nevada. His 50-room house on Massachusetts Avenue was built in 1902 for $830,000, which in today's dollars would be worth $17 million. It became the Indonesian Embassy in 1951.
Similary, Edward Everett, the entrepreneur who invented the crimped metal bottle cap, commissioned a huge house in 1914 that 29 years later was purchased by the Turkish government.
The foreword of "Embassy Residences" was contributed by Ambassador Moreno, and the preface by career diplomat Walter L. Cutler, a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Zaire who now directs the Meridian International Center.
Finally, the main text of the book was written by Urdinola, who besides being married to the Chilean ambassador is also a journalist whose articles have appeared in Caras magazine, Diario La Segunda of Santiago, Chile, and the newspaper El País of Cali, Colombia.
"Gabriela called me up to talk about the project, and I became fascinated with the histories of the houses," Urdinola recalled. "Benjamin Villegas came to see how the pictures were going, and asked me to write the histories. I said no, because I had too much to do as the wife of an ambassador, and I had had enough of deadlines."
But she was soon convinced, and quickly set about researching the individual histories of 41 embassy residences.
"People would give me information, but it was very poor information," she said. "I had to interview the wives of the ambassadors."
As Urdinola wrote the text in Spanish, Cepeda carefully translated it into English. Yet for Cepeda, it wasn't just another translation job; during the three years that her husband served as U.S. ambassador to Chile under the Clinton and Bush administration, she lived in the U.S. Embassy residence in Santiago designed by Paul Thiry, architect of the International Fair of Seattle.
While in Chile, she organized, under the auspices of the State Department's "Art in the Embassies" proram, the acclaimed exhibit "Maine Light" in the ambassador's residence, along with an extensive program of lectures and events.
"It took a year and a half, but Patricia translated as I wrote it," said Urdinola. "From the beginning, we knew there would be two separate books, one in English and one in Spanish."
Febres-Cordero said that throughout the entire process, the book received the solid backing of the Colombian Embassy.
"The embassy and our staff were involved in arranging transportation, phone calls, letters of introduction and other collaboration," she said. "For us, it was like a partnership, and we wanted to make sure this project would be successful."