• A Presidential Act of Defiance

    Algerian Ambassador's Residence

    The Elms in Spring Valley briefly served as the White House after President Kennedy's assassination. Photo by Molly McCluskey.

    Two hours after President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on November 22, 1963, Lyndon Johnson, standing beside a shellshocked and blood-stained Jackie Kennedy, was sworn in as President on Air Force One at Love Field. That evening, when the plane returned to Washington, Kennedy returned to the White House, and Johnson returned to The Elms.

     

    In 1963, there was no formal residence for the Vice President. Number One, Observatory Circle, wouldn't become the “temporary permanent residence” for the nation’s second-in-command until a public law declared it so in 1974. Instead, for the two years prior to his moving into The White House, Johnson and Lady Bird lived at The Elms at 4040 52nd Street, a 12-room, French chateau-style estate they had purchased from former ambassador to Luxembourg, socialite and infamous "hostess with the mostess" Perle Mesta.

     

    Until December 6, when the Kennedy family moved out of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the Elms would serve as a temporary White House.

     

    Six months later, it would be sold to the government of Algeria.

    The Elms, 1964. Photo by W. K. Leffler. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

    The United States and Algeria have ties stretching back to 1795, when Algeria recognized American independence. The U.S. maintained representation in Algiers with some interruptions from 1796 until 1962, during 132 years of French colonial rule and through the African nation's war for independence, which ended with the Evian Accords in March 1962. It was an independence John F. Kennedy famously supported as a senator and later, as president.

     

    "The late President Kennedy was a very staunch defender and promoter of the Algerian cause, and the Algerian revolution. He made a very famous speech as a Senator supporting Algerian independence," Ambassador Ahmed Boutache told me during a discussion at the residence over tea and cookies, "even taking the risk to see the relations between Washington and Paris degenerate to some extent because of this support."

     

    Formal diplomatic ties were established in 1962, with Kennedy welcoming Algerian Prime Minister Ahmed Ben Bella to the U.S., and the American Consulate General in Algiers was elevated to embassy status. Diplomatic ties were suspended from 1967-1974 following the Arab-Israeli War, and a Special Interests Section was established through the Swiss embassy in Algiers.

    Algerian Prime Minister Ahmed Ben Bella on a state visit in 1962. Abbie Rowe. White House Photographs. Photo courtesy of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

    When the Johnsons purchased the extravagant estate in Washington's leafy northwest enclave in 1961, the neighborhood, like many other neighborhoods in the District, was governed by a restrictive set of covenants that stipulated properties in the area couldn't be "sold to or occupied by any person or person of the Semitic race, blood or origin which racial description shall be deemed to include Armenians, Jews, Hebrews, Persians or Syrians." In an act of defiance, the Johnsons filed their own legal document upon purchasing the house, stating they wouldn't abide by such discriminations, calling them legally and morally unenforceable.

     

    After JFK's assassination, as Johnson was sorting his affairs, Lady Bird told the family lawyer to sell the house to anyone who could pay for it. After a pass-through transaction between the Johnsons and a Miami real estate developer, the home sold to the Algerian government for its ambassador's residence in May 1964.

     

    "Johnson, I think, did not want to appear in the transaction, because of his position it could have been maybe a conflict of interest," Boutache said. "Instead he designated someone else to do that, so his name doesn't appear in the records."

     

    Not only did the sale desegregate the neighborhood, but it may also have been a nod to Kennedy himself, who no doubt would have approved. Further, it met a more immediate need - many African diplomats had reported difficulty locating suitable housing in Washington due to racial covenants, often leading to similar pass-through real estate deals, similar to the property purchased by Benin, formerly Dahomey, on Cathedral Avenue close to the Swiss residence and embassy.

     

    Upon purchase of the land, the Algerian government filed their own document along with its deed.

     

    "Algeria says it will not abide by any of the 14 racial restrictive covenants it acquired with The Elms, the former Spring Valley home of President Johnson," The Washington Post reported simply.

    The ambassador's favorite room in the house is an intimate reading room on the first floor overlooking the garden. Photo by Molly McCluskey.

    In the years following, two housing-related items of note, foreshadowed by his time at The Elms, became part of Johnson's presidential agenda.

     

    His wealth had made purchasing a grand estate suitable for the Vice President of the United States feasible, but other Vice Presidents, including his own, didn't have the same resources. Hubert Humphrey's more modest means, (he was labeled a "thousandaire" by The Washington Post) meant that during his stint as senator, and as LBJ's VP, he and his wife lived in Chevy Chase in a home more suitable for a family, and less so for hosting foreign dignitaries. To borrow from the Chequers Estate Act of 1917, when the owners of the 1,000-acre estate donated it for the use of the UK Prime Ministers; "It is not possible to foresee or foretell from what classes or conditions of life the future wielders of power in this country will be drawn.”

     

    Consequently, in 1964, Johnson proposed Congress establish a formal residence for the Vice President, "large and elegant enough for the Nation's No. 2 man and his wife to take over some of the entertaining the Chief Executive and his First Lady have had to carry alone." Worth noting that that house is now occupied, for the first time, by a female Vice President and a Second Gentlemen, who do their own fair share of entertaining.

     

    The second, and more consequential for those outside of the Beltway, is the Fair Housing Act of 1968, also known as the Civil Rights Act, which aimed to prohibit discrimination in the sale or rental of housing nationwide. Johnson signed it into law on April 11, two weeks after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It has yet to be fully realized.

    Large murals, later framed, remain in the formal dining room from Perle Mesta's ownership of The Elms. Photo by Molly McCluskey.

    In the more than fifty years since the Johnsons lived at The Elms, a dozen Algerian ambassadors and their families have called it home.

     

    "Twelve or thirteen ambassadors have lived in this house, some of whom were our most prestigious diplomats." Boutache told me. "A number of them have passed away. Some are still alive and still active in the government or retired from official life and enjoying their retirement."

     

    It's at this moment in late summer that he provided me with what he termed a "scoop" - the news of his retirement, which he hadn't yet provided to the State Department or many of his staff. As promised, I told no one until this newsletter, which is timed to his departure from Washington on Friday.

    Ambassador and Mrs. Boutache at The Elms. Photo by Molly McCluskey.