• A Home on The Nation's Avenue

    Embassy of Canada

    The Canadian Embassy's Rotunda of the Provinces was inspired by the nearby Federal Trade Commission. Photo by Molly McCluskey.

    Despite what you may have heard, the U.S. government did not, in fact, give the Canadian government the property at 501 Pennsylvania Avenue as thanks for their help in the Canadian Caper.

     

    After all, the joint rescue operation between the CIA and the Canadian government to rescue American diplomats after the U.S. embassy in Iran was seized happened in 1979, and, according to a Canadian spokesperson, Canada had already purchased the property the year before, when their Embassy Row location grew too small for their needs.

     

    "We wish we could say that that story is true," a spokesperson told me recently on a private tour of the embassy, "but no, we paid cold hard cash for it. $6.5 million, to be exact."

     

    It's how to imagine how 501 Pennsylvania could be more different than 1746 Massachusetts, Canada's first foreign mission and the former home of one of the victims of the Titanic disaster, now serving as the Embassy of Uzbekistan. That building, a repurposed mansion along Embassy Row, contrasts sharply with the built-for-purpose embassy along the Presidential inaugural parade route, the only country to hold such a place of distinction and one owing to its close relationship with the U.S. (The U.S.' other neighbor, Mexico, also has its embassy on Pennsylvania Avenue, albeit in Foggy Bottom.)

    Planters along the building's exterior extend the sense of parkland from neighboring John Marshall Park. Photo by Molly McCluskey.

    A green roof hosts bees, a butterfly sanctuary and a thriving container garden. Photo by Molly McCluskey.

    The Canadian government partnered with a Montreal-based social beekeeping company to hosts hives on the embassy's roof. Photo by Molly McCluskey.

    When Canada purchased the property, Pennsylvania Avenue was hardly the nation's thoroughfare it is today. For nearly two centuries, the street had ebbed and flowed with varying levels of prestige. Beginning with the federal government's relocation from Philadelphia, this area of Washington served primarily as a general market, where everything from goods to people, were traded or sold. During the Civil War, the south side of Pennsylvania Avenue was known as "“Murder Bay,” filled with gambling establishments and houses of ill repute. The term "hooker" originated in this era, after the many prostitutes serving General Hooker's Army of the Potomac who congregated in the area.

     

    Despite the luster of being America's parade route, (Thomas Jefferson was the first to have his along the route) and lined with prestigious museums and government buildings, the area continued to struggle. In 1962, President Kennedy created an Advisory Council on Pennsylvania Avenue because, "The Avenue, as the Nation's ceremonial way, should have a special character," and "The Avenue should do honor to its lofty destinations." In 1965, the Pennsylvania Avenue National Historical Site was formed, and is now part of the National Mall and Memorial Parks division of the National Park Service. In 1974, the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation, established by an act of Congress, put new focus on reviving Pennsylvania Avenue.

     

    Even with these historical protections, according to an embassy spokesperson, when the Canadians purchased the land in 1978, it housed a disused Ford showroom.

    A large mural honors the Ottawa Tulip Festival, said to be the largest in the world. Photo by Molly McCluskey.

    The Canadians may have paid for the property, but the U.S. told them how to build it, ensuring that the prominent property blend in with its surroundings. This was no small feat, given that those buildings include the National Gallery's East Wing, designed by I. M. Pei; the Federal Trade Commission, whose rotunda is mimicked in the chancery; a federal courthouse, two D.C. government buildings, and the National Archives, designed by John Russell Pope, who had designed several other buildings now serving as embassies.

     

    "Everything was set out for us," famed Canadian architect Arthur Erickson, who designed the embassy, later wrote. "The authorities gave us the envelope of space, the coverage and the cornice line. They mandated the use of the language of Neoclassicism with its order of base, colonnade, pediment and attic."

     

    The restraints put on the design by the U.S. government may have chafed other architects, but Erickson and his team claimed to have enjoyed the challenge. "Someone suggested to me that in Washington we would have to go before twenty-five committees twenty-five times," he wrote. "In the end, we developed a genuine admiration for the necessary fences that guard the capital. The more restraints, the easier it is to design: the best of all possible worlds is when restrictions can be turned around to become sources of inspiration."

     

    Unlike many other embassies in Washington, hidden from view by large fences and intimidating padlocks, the Canadians designed their space to be welcoming to the community which hosts it. Its Rotunda of the Provinces, and its echo chamber, is accessible to the public, as is the imposing artwork by Indigenous artist Bill Reid, a bronze-cast sculpture of a canoe featuring thirteen mythological Haida figures that appears to float through the courtyard, despite its weight having damaged its underlying water feature years ago.

    Haida artist Bill Reid's bronze-cast sculpture features thirteen mythological figures. Photo by Molly McCluskey.

    Rear view of Bill Reid sculpture. Photo by Molly McCluskey.

    While it would be easy for a building of its size and placement to feel stuffy, part of the historic landscape in Washington, the Canadian embassy instead teems with life. The interior court was designed to be an extension of neighboring John Marshall Park, and planters along the building's exterior brings that sense of parkland inward as they send greenery cascading down the facade. The building's green roof hosts not only thriving vegetable and herb gardens (the produce of which is used in-house and sold to staffers at a significant market discount) but, since 2020, several hives tended to by a Montreal-based social beekeeping company. In 2017, in collaboration with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Canadian embassy built monarch butterfly gardens on the embassy's rooftop and at the Ambassador’s residence, which were named “Certified Wildlife Habitat" by the National Wildlife Federation.

     

    Significant environmentally-responsible upgrades to Erickson's original design have earned the Canadians the LEED Platinum designation for leadership in environmental design, the highest level of the certification, and only one of two embassies in the United States to have earned it. (The Finnish embassy is the other.) These include 100% renewable energy, installation of new lighting technologies, water conservation initiatives, extensive recycling and composting programs, bicycles for staff, and a new fleet of electric vehicles.

     

    The exterior may have been designed with a Washington perspective in mind, but the interiors are purely Canadian. Jerseys of famous Canadians align a corridor in a mini Sports Hall of Fame. A large-scale panel of murals depicting tulips gives a nod to the Ottawa Tulip Festival, said to be the world's largest. Conference rooms are decorated with stunning artwork depicting Canada's natural landscape, and an art gallery, open to the public, showcases famous and lesser-known Canadian artists (including the recording artist Bryan Adams' intimate portraits of celebrities.)

     

    In the past several years, multiple embassies have moved, sold property, or right-sized their operations. The Canadians, however, seem fairly well settled into their space on the Nation's Ceremonial Way. Their ability to continue to modernize the property in line with country's commitment to sustainability, ensures that the building will continue to maintain its usefulness. And, unlike the 1746 Massachusetts Avenue property, it's nearly impossible to imagine anyone else making a home at 501 Pennsylvania.

    The view from 501 Pennsylvania Avenue. Photo by Molly McCluskey.