Going Global

Architectural Emissaries Dot the Globe.

U.S.
The U.S. ambassador's residence in Tirana, Albania

Credit: U.S. State Department

Click here for a slideshow of U.S. embassies across the globe

The archipelago of American diplomatic properties worldwide numbers 3,500 at 265 embassy and consular posts. About 150 of the structures have some architectural or historic merit, of which 20 thus far have been identified as significant enough to be included in the Secretary of State's Register of Culturally Significant Property. Three ambassadors' residences—Villa Petschek in Prague, the Hotel de Rothschild in Paris, and Villa Taverna in Rome—were added to the register this year.

Properties are nominated to the register by the State Department personnel responsible for overseas buildings—based on criteria that include architectural distinction and historical importance—and designated by the Secretary of State. Since they are in foreign locations, these structures don't qualify for the National Register of Historic Places.

Not just a virtual hall of fame, the secretary's register is the basis for an extensive restoration and maintenance program for buildings and their contents—the latter including masterworks of art, furniture, and decoration appraised worldwide at $55 million. Adapting, restoring, and maintaining even the most lavish of these properties costs a fraction of the cost of building our new highly fortified embassies.

The National Trust and HGTV have honored the State Department as a "Restore America Hero." The award, which recognizes the agency for promoting and preserving its historic properties through the secretary's register, was presented in June at the Trust/HGTV annual Restore America Gala in Washington, D.C.

The six properties I visited in Prague, Rome, and Paris are on the register, but are hardly typical in style, age, and provenance. Among other notable register sites:

  • The Tangier Old Legation in Morocco—an 1821 gift to America from Sultan Moulay Souliman—was the first property acquired by the United States as a diplomatic building. It is today an American cultural center.
  • In 1884, the first resident U.S. (and Western) envoy to Korea purchased a classic piece of residential architecture with his own funds. It is now the Old American Legation Guesthouse in Seoul.
  • Winfield House, our ambassador's red-brick Georgian residence on the edge of Regent's Park in London, was built by heiress Barbara Hutton in 1936. After World War II, she sold it to the U.S. government for one dollar. The mansion was restored in the early 1970s, and major additional work was completed in 1999.
  • The 91-year-old Palacio Bosch, residence of the ambassador in Buenos Aires, was built for Argentine diplomat Ernesto Bosch. From 1994-99, the State Department undertook a $4 million renovation of the building.
  • Edward Durell Stone's 1959 chancery in New Delhi and Walter Gropius' 1961 embassy in Athens are distinguished modernist entries on the list. Showing signs of wear and tear, they are being restored.
  • The ambassadors' residences in Hanoi and Oslo and the chanceries in Manila and Tirana, Albania, provide geographic and design diversity to the register perhaps more than architectural finesse.    

Read an excerpt of this story, published in our September/October 2008 issue

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