Tucked away on Cathedral Avenue, close to the Swiss Embassy and Residence, a modest, well-tended plot of land in one of Washington's most in-demand neighborhoods sits empty. Most people might never notice it, but the careful observer will note that it's a place seemingly undiscovered, perfect for a bench or a book, or a quiet picnic.
One parcel of land, completely vacant except for one discrete plaque, mounted on a small square of concrete, closer to the sidewalk than not.
Property of the Embassy of the Republic of Benin.
A marker identifies the plot of land as belonging to the Embassy of Benin. Photo by Molly McCluskey.
The land hadn’t always been vacant, of course. At 2737 Cathedral Avenue, there once stood a house.
In 1941, during World War II, that house was the home of one C.B. Chamberlain, the Deputy Air Raid Warden for the Cathedral Heights/Cleveland Park area. Later residents included Major General Harry Taylor, the former U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Chief of Engineers, and his wife Adele. He died in 1930, she in 1958, and they’re both buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Then, the house began its complicated journey to becoming an embassy.
In 1960, 17 African nations gained their independence from their European colonizers. Shortly after, several began seeking locations for their embassies in Washington. Benin, then known as Dahomey, was one of those nations.
Mauritania was also one of those newly independent countries, and in 1962, their government attempted to buy the property to establish a chancery. Local groups, including the Massachusetts Park Committee, and the Connecticut Avenue Citizens’ Association, strongly objected, claiming, according to an article in The Washington Post at the time, “...the area is already saturated with chanceries, a situation that causes congestion and lack of parking space.”
The Mauritanian government looked elsewhere. They moved temporarily into a split-level home in Chevy Chase, before ultimately settling into their current home on Leroy Place. The house at 2737 Cathedral Ave sat empty.
Ambassador Hector Posset, the ambassador of the Republic of Benin to the United States and Mexico, told me the story of how Dahomey came to have their embassy in Washington.
According to Posset, after Dahomey gained its independence, a prominent Benin citizen living in Washington suggested a deal.
“You can have my home as the country’s first embassy on one condition,” he told them. “I’m the ambassador.”
Lous Ignacio-Pinto, the first ambassador of Dahomey (now Benin) to the United States, meets with President John F. Kennedy in the White House. Photo courtesy of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.
That man was Louis Ignacio-Pinto, who had previously as the Dahomey representative to the French Senate, and after completing his tenure as ambassador of Dahomey to the United States in 1967, went on to serve as president of the Supreme Court of Dahomey, and later, in the International Court of Justice.
It’s a fun story, and Ignacio-Pinto may have very well made his home in D.C. available for the government’s use during those early days of bilateral relations, but it wasn’t the property in Cathedral Heights.
According to multiple conversations with Washington, D.C. government officials, Dahomey didn’t own the property until 1967. They purchased it from Innocent Paulin D’Almeida, who was serving as an attache to the Dahomey embassy, and his wife, Donna Jean. The couple had purchased the property from the previous owners two days before selling it to the Dahomey government. (The Embassy of Benin did not respond to follow-up questions about the timing of the sale.)
Fifteen years and a series of coups d’etat later, Dahomey became Benin, but peace continued to elude the small nation’s embassy in Washington. An attempt in 1979 to secure permission to erect a radio tower to increase the ease and speed of communications to its capital started a battle with the embassy’s neighbors that lasted nearly a decade. The frequent hearings before the zoning board ended in 1987, in the embassy’s favor, with an odd twist.
“This year, without obtaining permission from the D.C. government, the Ethiopian Embassy at 2134 Kalorama Rd. NW erected a radio antenna like the one planned by Benin,” reporter Michael York wrote in The Washington Post. “Although residents protested, city officials discovered they were essentially powerless to enforce the zoning laws through the courts against an embassy determined to ignore them.”
Despite the hard-won victory of the battle that need not have been fought, the government of Benin opted not to build the tower, as they had begun the search for a new embassy. In 2000, they moved to their current location at 2124 Kalorama Road. Protests followed them there, as well. In the late 1990s, according to Posset, the old house at 2737 Cathedral was torn down, and the plot, contentious as it has been over the past several decades, has sat empty.
Ambassador Posset and I spoke for nearly an hour in the embassy, a far-ranging conversation that included the current status of bilateral relations, the history of the African slave trade, and the difficulties in embassy staff finding housing when they arrive in Washington. It’s a difficulty he hopes the currently empty property might someday solve. He is, however, already expecting protests from the neighbors.
As for the empty plot being the perfect spot for a picnic? I asked the ambassador about that, and if I might enjoy the space one afternoon with a book.
Posset paused for a moment, as though I’ve posed a particularly tricky diplomatic dilemma. “You may, if it is just you," he said finally. "If it is more than you, I have to notify Secret Service.”
I appreciated his offer, and gave it consideration, but ultimately decided the peace I was seeking might not be found in this plot, after all. Instead, I thanked him, shook his hand, and went for a hike in Rock Creek Park.
Update: As of 2022, there is a fence around the property, and the signage has been removed.