Streets of Washington Presents The Return of the Cuban Embassy on 16th Street

Streets of Washington, written by John DeFerrari, covers some of DC’s most interesting buildings and history. John is the author of Historic Restaurants of Washington, D.C.: Capital Eats, published by the History Press, Inc. and also the author of Lost Washington DC.

Today Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez of Cuba once again raises the Cuban flag over the country’s venerable embassy building at 2630 16th Street NW, in the Meridian Hill neighborhood that was once home to many of the city’s finest embassies. Close by are the former Italian, Mexican, and Spanish embassies as well as the current embassies of Poland and Lithuania. For decades the building has quietly served as the Cuban Interests Section of the Swiss Embassy, but before that it had a long social career, hosting many of the city’s classiest balls and receptions.

Photo by the author.

The Republic of Cuba had a diplomatic outpost in Washington even before the country existed as an independent nation. In the 1890s, as Cubans mounted their war for independence from Spain, Gonzalo de Quesada (1868-1915) established a legation at the fashionable Raleigh Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue. A graduate of Columbia University, Quesada had met revolutionary hero José Martí in New York at a rally of Cuban exiles; he quickly became an important figure in the struggle for independence. The movement had the sympathy of many Americans, and on President William McKinley’s inauguration day in March 1897, its flag flew proudly atop the Raleigh. “All sympathizers with the struggling patriots could not suppress a yell of patriotism as they observed the flag of the little would-be republic floating as proudly to the breeze as that of the big, powerful country the strong protection of which is sought,” wrote The Evening Star.

Gonzalo de Quesada, from a 1902 newspaper advertisement

That protection arrived the following year when the U.S. intervened in the Cuban struggle, Theodore Roosevelt and his Rough Riders stormed up San Juan Hill, and Spain quickly capitulated. It was not until 1902, however, that Cuba officially gained its independence, and it would take many years for the country to build a permanent home in Washington. Gonzalo de Quesada became Cuba’s first minister to Washington, continuing the prominent role he had played in cementing good relations between the two countries. In 1907, Quesada bought a distinguished brownstone mansion at 1750 Massachusetts Avenue NW as a temporary site for the legation (Cuba and the U.S. had not yet established full embassies), while grander quarters were envisioned for the future.

The house at 1529 18th Street NW, which served as the Cuban Legation from 1914 to 1918. (Source: Library of Congress).

Quesada gave up his Washington post in 1912, and two years later the legation moved to another brownstone mansion, at 1529 18th Street NW, which later would become the home of Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes (1862-1948) and still stands today. But the new minister, Dr. Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, considered this also to be a temporary outpost. By 1915 he was hard at work securing the Meridian Hill site and designing the lavish new legation to be built there.

The site’s former owner was Mary Foote Henderson, whom we’ve previously profiled. In keeping with her vision of Meridian Hill as a grand enclave of diplomatic residences, she had commissioned noted architect George Oakley Totten (1866-1939) to design an elegant five-story Elizabethan-style mansion to be built there. But Totten’s design was never built. The Cubans were not interested in it, nor did they want anything reflecting their recently cast-off Spanish heritage. “Classicism belongs to the whole world, while the Spanish style is of only one nation,” Minister Carlos Cespides told The Washington Post to explain why he preferred a more Continental look.

The Cuban Embassy in 1923, the year Prohibition agents accused Cuban diplomatic staff of distributing alcohol from the embassy (Author’s collection).

In 1916 detailed plans for the new legation were finally announced. It was to be “a handsome three-story structure in the style of Louis XV, flanked by beautiful gardens,” according to a notice that appeared in The Washington Post. The first floor would contain the chancery, offices, a kitchen, and serving rooms, while the second floor would be for entertaining, with reception rooms, a dining room, and a spacious ballroom with a balcony in the rear and a flight of ornamental stone steps leading down to the gardens. Another monumental flight of white marble stairs would rise through the interior space to a domed skylight over the third floor, where living quarters for the minister would be located. Interior details were to include “Caen stone, plaster and grill work” graced with “frescoes and many other mural designs carefully executed.” Faced in Indiana limestone on its exterior, the building would be “one of the handsomest occupied by diplomats in Washington,” the Post asserted.

The light-filled central atrium on the third floor of the building (Source: Library of Congress).

Construction began late in 1916 and continued into 1918. The building was designed by the short-lived architectural firm of Macneil & Macneil, composed of Robert Lister Macneil (1889-1970) and his older brother, Paul Humphreys Macneil (1883-1964). Robert Macneil, the more prominent of the two, is generally credited with the design of the Cuban legation. Though born on a farm in Michigan, he was the son of Roderick Ambrose Macneil, the 44th Macneil of Barra, Scotland, a title Robert inherited in 1915. Educated as an architect at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, Robert Macneil became a prominent socialite in Washington as well as a noted designer of high-society residences. He would later move to New York City and finally to Scotland, where his architectural training came in handy as he oversaw a meticulous restoration of the Macneil clan’s ancient Kisimul Castle. Macneil was the perfect choice to design the new Cuban legation; his high-society connections and sophisticated architectural training meant he knew all the important features of a grand residence intended for lavish entertainment.

A sitting room (Source: Library of Congress).

Once completed, the distinguished building soon became the site of numerous important social and diplomatic events. In April 1927, Cuban President Gerardo Machado (1871-1939) visited Washington, arriving at Union Station in a driving rain. The high profile event, covered extensively in the press, included a formal dinner for Machado at the “temporary White House” on Dupont Circle, where President Coolidge and his wife were staying while the White House underwent renovations, as well as a reception for Presidents Coolidge and Machado at the Cuban Embassy (it had been elevated from a legation in 1923). The elaborate and carefully orchestrated diplomatic dance was intended to show how close the United States and Cuba were at the time—and possibly set the stage for new U.S. loans to the Caribbean nation.

President Coolidge with President Machado and Cuban officials at the Cuban Embassy in 1927 (Source: Library of Congress).

From the 1920s through the 1940s, the Cuban Embassy was one of Washington’s brightest social spots, especially during the term of Ambassador Pedro Fraga in the late 1930s. “It ranked with the best embassies in town in terms of glamour and prestige,” Hope Ridings Miller, The Washington Post’s society editor, explained many years later. “The Cubans frequently held moonlit garden parties in the back, with rumba music and the finest food imaginable. The elite constantly went to parties there because it was quite a social center.” Gloria Vanderbilt was among the notables said to have danced the cha-cha in the ballroom to the accompaniment of the 21-piece Cuban orchestra.

Meanwhile, Cuban politics grew increasingly strained. President Machado overstayed his reign and was forced out in 1933. In his place rose strongman Fulgencio Batista (1901-1973), a former Army sergeant who promoted himself to the rank of Colonel and took over the government with the tacit approval of U.S officials. On Armistice Day in 1938—the 20th anniversary of the end of World War I—Batista visited Washington at the invitation of a high U.S. Army official. It was reportedly the first time he had ever left Cuba, and he was received warmly. The U.S. was happy to embrace what it considered a reliable and supportive ally. “Developments in Europe and Asia during the last few months have tended to emphasize the community of interest that exists among the nations of this hemisphere,” the Post’s editors wrote. Close relations between the U.S. and Cuba were thus vital as the two nations “face the common necessity of securing themselves against possible attack from outside.”

Col. Batista shakes hands with Ambassador Pedro Fraga at the Cuban Embassy while Mrs. Batista looks on, November 1938 (Source: Library of Congress).

Cuba remained a staunch U.S. ally through World War II and the years afterward, but by the early 1950s, Batista’s oppressive dictatorship began to spawn resentment and then active resistance by Fidel Castro and his band of Communist revolutionaries, but there was certainly no sign of looming trouble at the embassy in Washington. When Ambassador Nicholas Arroyo and his wife arrived in Washington in 1958, Washington Post social writer Marie McNair cheered their arrival, noting a sense of new life at embassy. Both Arroyo and his wife were architects—they had designed the Havana Hilton— and, according to McNair, they redecorated the embassy beautifully. But then the old ways came to an abrupt end. On January 2, 1959, after the New Year’s revolution, Castro’s supporters mounted a “friendly invasion” of the embassy and were on hand to greet Arroyo as he returned from spending the holiday in New York. Arroyo promptly resigned, and there was much celebration among the foes of the repressive Batista regime.

Cuba swiftly changed from a friendly U.S. ally to one of its worst enemies. The garden parties were all forgotten as the new regime’s functionaries took over at the embassy. When diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba were severed in January 1961, the embassy was abruptly closed. In an odd incident in 1963, three veterans of the Bay of Pigs fiasco tossed a Molotov cocktail at the former embassy one night but succeeded only in burning some of the shrubbery outside. Cuba left the building in the care of Czechoslovak diplomats, several of whom lived on the third floor and reportedly used the rooftop flagpole to hang out their laundry. In 1977, the Cubans finally returned to the building when it was reopened as the Cuban Interests Section of the Swiss Embassy.

Only two years later, in May 1979, someone tossed a homemade bomb over the fence at the rear of the embassy late one night. The resulting explosion broke a number of windows but did no serious damage, and no one was hurt. An anti-Castro group called Omega-7 claimed responsibility. The event reminded some of the 1963 incident, but, despite the ebb and flow of tension between Cuba and the U.S. over subsequent decades, the former embassy building has rarely seen much drama during its long years of hibernation. Perhaps it will soon begin to move back toward to its historic importance in Washington’s diplomatic and social life.

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