The Invisible Dance

Colombia Ambassador's Residence

· culture,diplomacy,architecture,history,Washington

"Tranquila, tranquila..."  John, the keeper of the Colombian Ambassador's residence.

The exterior of the Colombian Ambassador's residence in Dupont Circle. Photo by Molly McCluskey.

On a clear, crisp night, I find myself standing on the roof of the Colombian Ambassador's residence, overlooking Dupont Circle. 

My plans for the evening didn't include such a climb; multiple flights of stairs, through an unfinished attic that boasted a scent of hundred-year-old wood, and past an elevator that servants of an earlier era had to crank by hand, up a narrow ladder that recalled my earlier days of flying trapeze, until finally, I stood on a roof that was not meant for such excursions. There's no rooftop patio here, no guardrail to protect me, I'm not wearing a harness or a helmet. The only things keeping me from falling are the seven chimneys on the pitched roof, and the building's caretaker, John, murmuring, Tranquila, tranquila, to my nervousness, like one might reassure a skittish colt. 

Just over an hour earlier, I had ascended the Dupont Circle metro escalator to be confronted by the eclectic, looming Thomas T. Gaff mansion, which the Colombian government purchased in 1944 after renting for several years. Just over one hundred years ago, architect Jules Henri de Sibour, whose other properties include what are now the French and Luxembourg residences, and the Uzbekistan, formerly Canadian, embassy, might have done the same. 

Built in 1906 to resemble the Château de Balleroy in Normandy from the outside, de Sibour blended a hodgepodge of styles to create a building that was whimsically described as "varied" in its inclusion in the roster for the Dupont Circle National Historic District. The residence replaced three other family homes that had previously sat on the lot. 

Víctor Mosquera Chaux, who served as Colombian Ambassador to the United States from 1987-1990, wrote in a history of the building, "It is said that Mr. Gaff distrusted American workmanship and imported the red brick from England; Italian workmen were employed for the interior carving and plasterwork. In deference to his native land, perhaps, Mr. Gaff chose American chestnut to cover the enormous entrance hall." 

Or, as John put it as we toured the property, "This is truly an international house. The architect was French, the wood is American, the trim was made by Italians." In the book, "Embassy Residences of Washington, D.C.," the authors state with the slightest hyperbole, "Each of the three stories in the house is a totally different world, each room a subcontinent." 

Tucked away rooms boast micro museums of Colombian treasures. Photo by Molly McCluskey.

In addition to the items added by the embassy, most of Mr. Gaff's library and furnishings were included in the sale, and remain in the home. Additionally, each ambassador donates an item of significance to the home during his or her tenure. Regardless of the home's occupant, the mansion is filled weekly with roses flown in from Bogotá, their scents pervading the salons and hallways and floating up the stairs. The result is an interior as seamlessly eclectic as its exterior. 

There's always one room or feature that captures my attention when I'm touring a diplomatic property; in Washington's Wonder House, it's Alice Pike Barney's stage; in the Tunisian embassy, their louvers; in the Czech Republic, their fence; in the Monegasque residence, their sitting room; and so on. In the Colombian residence, however, I found it impossible to choose just one, and perhaps that's as de Sibour intended. 

At first glance, I thought the grand ballroom, erroneously labeled "hidden" by some, (it's simply closed off by pocket doors from a sitting room) would be the obvious contender. A stage, accessed by folding ladder, designed for a quinceañera, and for curious journalists who like to climb things and poke around, offers an unparalleled view of the plasterwork of the ceilings and walls. Several of its mirrored doors open to reveal brick walls; a throwback to when a former ambassador sold a portion of the ballroom and the residence's garden to the Embassy Row Hilton, now the Ven at Embassy Row. Like the New Zealand embassy, the grand space, temporarily empty during the pandemic, rings out with the echoes of generations of former partygoers; perhaps as far back as when Mrs. Gaff hosted a variety of performances for the British American War Relief Fund in 1917 and 1918. 

It's not uncommon during these tours to be shown the public areas only; after all, ambassadors' residences are just that, so after viewing the beautiful first floor, and feeling fairly satisfied after dancing in the ballroom and climbing up on the balcony, I gathered my things and prepared to thank my hosts. After all, Chaux wrote, "The piece de resistance of the house is the Edwardian style, great white ballroom. The large elliptical skylight, the vaulted ceiling, rich plaster detailing, herringbone floor and musicians' gallery, all lend a grandeur rarely found in private residences, even then, much less today." 

I stood in the parlor with my coat in hand when John asked, "Do you want to see the rest of the house?" 

Why, yes. Yes, I do. 

The second floor gave me more contenders for my favorite feature; a stunning library with first editions including "Life on the Mississippi", signed by Mark Twain, and an 1884 volume of Alfred Lord Tennyson's poems. The first lady of the embassy, Maria Victoria García, is an artist of distinction and in her studio was a work in progress on the nature of loneliness during COVID that brought tears to my eyes. The third floor, formerly a servants' wing. The attic, a wide expansive space with the earthy scent of ancient lumber. 

Finally, when I spotted a narrow, wooden ladder leading straight up, I asked, "Where does that go?" and John asked if I wanted to see. 

The view from the rooftop of the Colombian ambassador's residence, which does not typically host guests. Photo by Molly McCluskey.

Who would refuse? 

As we walked through the mansion that evening, I was repeatedly struck by John's obvious love of the home. The word caretaker in its modern incarnation doesn't seem large enough a word, although it's not the word's fault we've been doing it injustice. John truly takes care with this home, he handles every item in it with the tenderness one might hold an infant and shows it off the way a proud parent might; he points out which items are original to the home, explains the need to replace the original windows because of glare, shows the wooden crates he built by hand to organize and protect the Gaff family china that still is used to serve guests, knows about the leak that led to the discovery that the plastered-over ceiling in the dining room was in fact elaborately ornamental, and swings open the door to Gaff's ancient wall safe to show the original nativity that is still kept inside. (Note: this is not that safe, which is at another embassy and which we are still attempting to open. Stay tuned.) 

In short, John can share, in detail, any aspect of what it means to restore, maintain, and inhabit a home as a living, breathing thing. 

So when he tells me that I'll be safe climbing out onto a pitched roof, in darkness, while he stands a few feet away, I believe him. I can't imagine anyone knows this roof, and what it could do, better. 

In my years in D.C., I've had the opportunity to take in a number of views; the Canada Embassy's roof so expansive the view has its own hashtag; the view of the National Mall from the top of the Capitol Dome, the somewhat questionable view of the Washington Monument from the Swiss Ambassador's residence, and more. Standing on the roof that night, overlooking the Dupont Metro canopy, and gazing out to the circle, watching the crowds of buses and cars and pedestrians, I wonder what the view will be for the next intrepid journalist, climbing through an attic onto a narrow ladder on a clear, crisp evening, just over one hundred years from now. 

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