• War Comes to Washington

    Embassy of Ukraine

    The Embassy of Ukraine on M St. in Georgetown has received signs of support from the neighborhood since February. Photo by Molly McCluskey.

    "One of the worst-looking, most dejected building in George-town at the present day is 3350 M Street, a structure certainly deserving better treatment than it has received." -Historic Houses of Georgetown and Washington City

    Ukraine supporters protest outside the Russian Embassy. Photo by Molly McCluskey.

    Sovereign soil makes for powerful stages. Just as people gathered at the Lebanon embassy after the Beirut explosion, and protested in front of the South Africa embassy against apartheid in the 1980s, the Russian and Ukrainian embassies have been the sites of a myriad of protests since February.

     

    In addition to the usual signs and slogans, the protests have taken passionate and creative measures. Neighbors of the Ukrainian embassy have laid flowers and wreaths. Neighbors of the Russian embassy have hung large Ukrainian flag banners, painted their fences in blue and yellow, and plastered the empty yard directly across from the embassy with pro-Ukrainian signs. Yo-Yo Ma played a solitary concert. "Murder" was written in red spray paint on the sidewalk.

     

    From the earliest days of bilateral relations, the Russian diplomatic properties in the United States have had no shortage of controversy, including a surprisingly true tale of the CIA attempting to recruit feline spies in the 1960s. More recently, in September 2017, the State Department ordered the shuttering of the San Francisco Consulate General as well as annexes in Washington and New York. The day before the deadline for the Russian government to vacate the San Francisco property, smoke was seen billowing from the chimneys. The shuttered building in Washington, the Lothrop Mansion at the corner of Connecticut and Columbia, had previously served as the Russian Trade Center, and is a building already twice the size of many embassies in Washington, including it neighboring embassy, Malta. It's been empty for nearly five years, the flagpole and security cameras the telltale signs that it had once been a diplomatic property; the historic rosebushes now neglected.

     

    The building that now serves as the Russian ambassador's residence, a beautiful Beaux-Arts building on lower 16th St, had previously been the embassy, and it, too, has served as the site of protests in recent months.

     

    In contrast to the sprawling built-for-purpose Russian compound on Wisconsin Avenue, a mere 1.5 miles away and easily walkable through some of the more serene parts of Washington, the Ukraine Embassy occupies one of the oldest, and arguably more significant buildings in Washington, a monument to independence, and the founding of a new nation's capital.

     

    That is, of course, before it was a disco.

    This landscape, entitled George Town and Federal City, or City of Washington, depicted the George Town neighborhood ten years after the historic dinner at the Forrest Marbury House. Print courtesy of the Library of Congress.

    Sitting on the corner of 34th and M, next to the Francis Scott Key Park, on two of the original 80 lots created in 1753 as part of a new town to honor King George, (i.e. George Town) in Georgetown, the Embassy of Ukraine was constructed sometime between 1788-1790 by the first Secretary of the Navy, Benjamin Stoddert, who built it as a "Gentleman's House."

     

    No photographs of the Federal-style building exist from that time, but it's assumed that it was a bit smaller than Prospect House, which was nearby and built at approximately the same time.

     

    Uriah Forrest, a Revolutionary War hero and uncle to Francis Scott Key, began living in the house in 1791 while serving as the third mayor of George Town. During this period, the Continental Congress, meeting in Philadelphia, decided that the new nation's capital should be along the Potomac River.

     

    Stoddert and Forrest, who had both served with George Washington during the Revolutionary War, were tasked by Washington with "securing an agreement from the nineteen original landowners so that the government could acquire their land for a capital city." During a historic dinner at the home with the landholders, Stoddert, Forrest, and Washington, an "agreement in principle" was reached to create the federal city. Washington's diary for that date reads "dined at Colo. Forrest's today with the Commissioner and others."

     

    The National Register of Historic Places says of the building, "It is the District's only extant building whose documented history is intertwined with the founding of the national capital."

     

    Shortly after that famous dinner, Forrest sold the house to William Marbury, who, in addition to lending his name to the house, is more famous for Marbury v. Madison, the 1803 landmark case which established the right of the Supreme Court to declare an act of Congress unconstitutional. Marbury and his family remained in the house until at least the start of the Civil War. After they left, the house began a downward trajectory, and fell into disrepair.

     

    In the book "Historic Houses of Georgetown and Washington City" by Eberlein and Hubbard, the description of the Forrest Marbury House begins, "One of the worst-looking, most dejected building in George-town at the present day is 3350 M Street, a structure certainly deserving better treatment than it has received."

     

    An early photo of the Forrest Marbury House, now the Embassy of Ukraine.

    Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

    The structure underwent significant reconfigurations in the decades that followed. According to the application of the National Register, "The first-floor facade has been completely destroyed to accommodate a series of restaurants and bars."

     

    Those restaurants and bars included a series of nightclubs, including Apple Pie, Groovy's, Desperado's, Casablanca, Smokey's and others. (Not necessarily in that order.) It has been described as "The city's first discotheque." In 1967, an end-of-season dance for teenage sons and daughters of the Washington's diplomatic corps was held by THIS (The Hospitality and Information Service) at Groovy's Discotheque, which previously had held a multiday Humphrey Bogart Festival.

     

    "On a street of glitzy singles bars and tiny ethnic restaurants, Desperado's was the last funky honky-tonk, a place to barrelhouse all night long," The Washington Post wrote when Desperado's closed in 1982. "For many years and under many other names - Apple Pie, Casablanca, Smokey's Groovy's, Julie's - it was a poor cousin to the Cellar Door which got the national acts, while Desperado's settled for the locals and regionals."

     

    "'It sustained itself as a joint because of the nature of the building', owner Rich Vendig said, 'No tenant here ever had the kind of lease with an incentive to do any genuine work on the building.'"

     

    In 1991, after several attempts at redevelopment failed, the building was sold at foreclosure.

    On December 25, 1991, the United States recognized Ukraine independence and simultaneously established diplomatic relations, following its break from the Soviet Union.

     

    "New, independent nations have emerged out of the wreckage of the Soviet empire," President George Bush said in a televised Christmas address. "Today, based on commitments and assurances given to us by some of these states, concerning nuclear safety, democracy and free markets....the United States recognizes the independence of Ukraine, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Kyrgyzstan, all states that have made specific commitments to us. We will move quickly to establish diplomatic relations with these states and build new ties to them."

     

    One year later, on December 31, 1992, the Ukrainian government purchased the Forrest Marbury house for its embassy. On June 27, 1997, they inaugurated the George Washington Memorial Room.

     

    In September 2021, during Ukrainian President Zelenskyy's visit to Washington, the country added another diplomatic property to its roster. The Ukraine House, previously the Embassy of Yugoslavia, and later the Embassy of Serbia, was also once the first embassy of a newly independent country.

    A plaque at the Embassy of Ukraine shares the history of the Forrest-Marbury House. Photo by Molly McCluskey.