The Former Residence of the Ambassadors of Spain at 2801 16th St NW now serves as the Embassy of Spain's cultural hub. Photo by Molly McCluskey.
The building that serves as the home of the Spanish embassy's cultural office is one of many current and former embassies along 16th Street, willed into being by Mary Henderson in the Gilded Age who envisioned creating a diplomatic enclave in Washington on the hill. Within a short walking distance are also the former Italian embassy (now apartments), the Cuban Embassy, the former French embassy (now the Council for Professional Recognition), the Polish Embassy, the Ecuadorean Embassy, Meridian International Center, and of course, Spain's immediate neighbor, the Mexican Cultural Institute, which has a nearly identical history of being an embassy and residence, and now a cultural center.
Like many of the magnificent mansions along this stretch of 16th St, it's a stately, imposing building, surrounded by a fence. If you had never attended one of the embassy's film screenings, concerts, or exhibitions, you might not know that its purpose is not to serve as a resource for Spaniards in Washington, but to act as a conduit for Spanish culture to non-Spanish audiences.
You might not know that you'd be welcomed inside.
"The problem with embassies is that they're too solemn for the general public. They think, 'Oh, there's nothing happening for me there,' " Spain's cultural counselor Miguel Albero tells me over coffee at the Former Residence of the Ambassadors of Spain, as it's formally known. "We do a diplomatic job but at the same time we do a job for the community here."
Migel Albero, head of Spain's Cultural Office, stands next to his favorite item in the Spanish Office Showroom. Photo by Molly McCluskey.
How to serve the community as pandemic lockdowns repeatedly closed and opened their buildings was a challenge the entire diplomatic community faced. While some turned to digital diplomacy tools such as streaming and enhanced social media campaigns, Albero decided that if visitors couldn't come into the building to see the exhibits, he and his team would turn the building, and its grounds, into exhibits themselves.
Over the past two years, there have been almost too many to count. A photography exhibit depicting Spaniards on their balconies during lockdowns, displayed on the building's fence, converted the 16th Street sidewalk into an art gallery. (Nearby, the Polish embassy did something similar.) Those who stopped could easily see billboards with artists' interpretations of the building's facade erected on the lawn, and window illustrations commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Magellan-Elcano expedition that first circumnavigated the globe. During Pride month, a 10-foot-wide crocheted mural depicting Spanish writer Federico García Lorca adorned the entryway. For several months last summer, the garden was transformed into a living recreation of the crops discovered during the Magellan expedition, featuring planters designed in the shape of each country where they had been located.
"It's interesting because there are a lot of people who pass by and would not come into the building to see the photography inside for many reasons. Maybe they don't know if it will be free, if the building is open. But you put it on the fence, and they're interested," Albero says. "That's something that we can do because we have this great building and it's something related to the pandemic."
Even when the building, and the city, fully reopen, however, Albero is planning to keep as many outdoor exhibitions as he's able, ensuring the building doesn't just house culture, but is part of its canvas, as well.
Actors recite works of Spanish playwrights during the pandemic, in a garden staged for the Magellan exhibition, beneath windows covered with illustrations. Photo by Molly McCluskey.
Designed by George Oakley Totten Jr., Ms. Henderson's preferred architect for her grand vision, the building that is now the Former Residence of the Ambassadors of Spain was meant to be the home of the American Vice President. She offered it as a gift, but Congress declined, saying the upkeep was too extravagant for a Vice President's salary. When Spain purchased the building in 1926, they were already using another Henderson building nearby as their embassy. (That building, 2620, now is also an apartment complex.) After purchasing the building, the Spanish government built a chancery, for which they hired Jules Henri de Sibour, who had designed the Colombian Ambassador's residence and the former Canadian, now Uzbek, embassy.
The building underwent extensive interior and exterior remodeling in the decades to follow, at times falling into neglect and disrepair.
"Citing drug dealing and assaults in the Meridian Hill Embassy Row area, Spanish Ambassador Julian Santamaria said at a reception last week that the embassy has just bought 2 1/2 acres of prime land for a new ambassadorial residence on Foxhall Road," The Washington Post wrote in 1989. "The Spanish Embassy residence and chancery at 2801 16th St has been an ornament to the area since the '20s."
Santamaria stated that when he arrived in Washington, he had spoken with then-Mayor Marion Barry about crime in the Meridian Hill neighborhood. "It is still a dangerous place to be," he said at the reception quoted by the Post. "I am concerned about my family and the embassy employees."
A historic view of 2801 16th St NW, part of Mary Henderson vision for a Meridian Hill Embassy Row. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.
The embassy moved to 2375 Pennsylvania Avenue, a building about which one member of a neighborhood preservation committee wrote in an op-ed in 1991, "Our neighborhood has been blighted with numerous examples of "facadism" masquerading as historic preservation, one of the worst being 2375 Pennsylvania Avenue, a building we refer to as Darth Vader, because it appears to be a dark menacing force landed in our neighborhood from another planet."
The Foxhall residence was inaugurated in 2004. In 2005, the embassy planned a large renovation, with the expectation that the building would become, among other things, the American headquarters of the Cervantes Institute. Those plans, put on hold when the 2008 financial crisis hit, have been recently revived. (Albero previously served as the head of the Cervantes Institute in Rome.)
"So we had to decide what to do, if we still wanted to move here, because the cultural office was in Pennsylvania (at the embassy)," Albero says. "The property was abandoned for about ten years. But a foreign country cannot own property in D.C. with diplomatic privileges if you don't use it."
Because the property wasn't serving any critical functions, the government debated selling it, much like the Swedish embassy recently decided to sell their ambassador's residence. Ultimately, the Spanish embassy decided to convert the former residence into a cultural center. The Mexican embassy, facing a similar challenge with their 16th Street mansion, did the same at approximately the same time. By 2013, the renovated building was regularly hosting cultural events on its lower level.
However, the modest budget that made the downstairs a showpiece didn't extend to the staff areas, and the second floor remained a design challenge.
Until the Spanish Office Showroom was born.
The Spanish Office Showroom (S.O.S.) creatively solved a budgetary dilemma and offers another way to showcase Spanish artists. Photo by Molly McCluskey.
"We had a small amount of money just so that the downstairs is usable. But what do we do with the office?" Albero recalls asking the embassy. "We can use the spaces as part of our job. Part of my job is to promote Spanish culture, so why not do it with the office?"
Contrasting the old and the new, the classic home now with a modern office, Spanish designers donated furniture, light fixtures, coat racks, artwork, and more to the project. In turn, Albero and his team set up museum-style plaques with the names of the artist, the item, the manufacturer and how to purchase it. The resulting aesthetic is part museum, part Ikea, and incredibly clever all around.
"The minute you're here I'm already doing my job," he says. "The name of the office, the name of the designer and the name of the company that produces it are all right there."
The cultural center only accepted items that were created by Spanish designers and available for purchase in the U.S. It's an effective plan; while conducting the interview over coffee, I coveted a light fixture, and a small porcelain figure that I liked so much I made it the profile photo of our EmbassyCalendar Twitter account.
Albero says this showroom plan is something that can easily be copied by embassies, residences, and cultural centers worldwide. In fact, he himself borrowed the idea from the Swiss embassy in Dakar when he served as Deputy Chief of Mission of the Spanish Embassy in Senegal.
"In 1993 in Dakar, I went to the Swiss Embassy and what they have done there is make all the residence a display of Swiss design," he says. "So I said, why don't we do that here? I actually proposed it for all our embassies worldwide."
Rotating artwork inspired by the building's façade grace the front lawn. Photo by Molly McCluskey.
Now that D.C. is slowly reopening, the Former Residence of the Ambassadors of Spain is as well. The newest initiative of the cultural office is a book, "Illustrating Spain in the US," which assembles the work of several Spanish cartoonists, a book discussion at Lost City, and an in-person exhibit at the former residence itself, with the cartoon blown up to nearly life-size, and spanning nearly the entire downstairs level. (Diplomatica received a complimentary copy of the book.)
Returning to in-person events will reallocate some resources back to pre-pandemic priorities, including travel and accommodations to bring scholars, artists, performers and more to the US. But Albero says he won't do away with the outdoor exhibits anytime soon.
"We'll do the outdoor exhibits less frequently but they will continue. Once we start doing more things in the building, everyone will be able to see it all together."
The Spain cultural office posts their event listings on their website, social media pages and on Eventbrite. Outdoor exhibits can be viewed from the sidewalk, or, during office hours, just ring the bell.
"We'll be here," Albero says.
Now reopened to the public, visitors to the Former Residence of the Ambassadors of Spain will have both indoor and outdoor exhibitions to enjoy. Photos by Molly McCluskey.