Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Bottle Caps, Footmen, and A Touch of Jazz – The Story of a House

The entrance to the Smithsonian Castle
in Washington, D.C.
Culture shock, the good kind, hit hard when I moved from Texas to Washington, D.C. Everything is different here, from the trivial to the grand. Cab drivers chatting about politics and literature. The super quiet subways, where everyone is reading, reading, reading. The view across the Potomac River, especially at the Tidal Basin when the cherry blossoms are in full bloom, the breeze blowing around little pink and white blooms like magic confetti.

Then there’s the architecture. The awe-inspiring national monuments, built in Greek Revival style, excerpts of speeches by Jefferson, Lincoln, and Washington etched into the granite walls. The famous buildings that hold our three cherished branches of government, universal symbols of democracy and all things American. The museums – not just the exhibits, but also the enormous edifices that house them. The Old World urban layout, including the roundabouts with pretty fountains and gardens, designed by Pierre L’Enfant, the French architect who also planned Versailles. The Library of Congress, which stores a copy of every book published anywhere in the world. (Do they still do that, in this age of e-books and e-readers, I wonder?)

And, of course, the embassies, dozens of them along Massachusetts Avenue, NW, not far from where I lived in Dupont Circle. Peru, Denmark, Cape Verde, Bulgaria, Japan. It seemed to me back then, and often still does, that strolling by these buildings was akin to making a really quick visit abroad.

(Photo: M.V. Jantzen)
Tucked away on a quiet corner of Embassy Row stands a Beaux Arts mansion that has always intrigued me. Back then it was both the Embassy of Turkey as well as the Turkish ambassador’s residence, and no matter how often I passed it, its stunning exterior always gave me pause. In the early ’90s, I couldn’t take photos of it because very serious-looking men stood guard out front like vigilantes, holding big machine guns and menacingly approaching passersby, particularly those with cameras, who glanced their way for too long. I never knew exactly why they were there, but over the next decade, the country underwent a military coup, was slapped with more than 1,500 judgments by the European Union for human rights violations, enforced a NATO-led, no-fly zone at its border with Iraq, and closed its border with Azerbaijan to avoid a civil war there from spilling into its own borders. Who knows which of those issues led to the extra security.

Regardless, the armed guards are long gone, and the embassy itself is now housed in a separate chancery right on Mass Ave (as Washingtonians call it). But the ambassador still resides at the impressive old mansion, which is one of the city’s most important historic buildings and has its own colorful story to tell.

Believe it or not, this impressive mansion sits atop what was once a city dump. In 1909, Ohio millionaire and philanthropist, Edward H. Everett, purchased the property. Everett earned his fortune, among other things, for inventing the crimped Coca Cola bottle cap. He was a pioneer in glassmaking (think fruit jars and soda and beer bottles), owned oil companies in Texas and Ohio, and had been a large shareholder of Anheuser-Busch in St. Louis.

The view from the dining room
into the conservatory
(Photo: Library of Congress)
To build his dream house, Everett hired the famous Washington architect, George Oakley Totten, Jr., who by then had already designed quite a few Washington embassies and public buildings and had served as an advisor on the remodeling of the U.S. Capitol Building and as chief designer to the Office of the Supervising Architect for the Department of the Treasury. The birth of the Republic of Turkey was still decades away, but ironically, Totten had strong ties to the region. He'd designed the first U.S. chancery in Istanbul and the residence for Izzet Pasha, the grand vezir (counselor) and prime minister of the Ottoman Empire. Totten's work impressed his client so much, he was offered (but declined) the post of "private architect to the sultan."

Totten liked to experiment with different architectural styles around Embassy Row, and Everett’s house was no exception. The architect blended three architectural periods in his design for the mansion: 16th-century Italian, 18th-century Romanesque, and 19th-century Art Deco, borrowing additional decorative features from Ottoman styles. It took five years to build, and when it was complete in 1915, the Edward Everett House, as it is still known, had some of the most innovative features of the time, including a Webster air washer and a built-in humidifier. 
The palatial, three-storied home also featured – still features, in fact – an enormous foyer with a black-and-white marble floor, teakwood floors everywhere else, marble fireplaces, ornamental ceilings in every room, a swimming pool in the basement, a ballroom, a musicians’ gallery, an elevator, and a rooftop garden. According to the society pages from newspapers of the time, the Everetts threw many a lavish party in this home, including festive musical evenings featuring singers from New York’s Metropolitan Opera. At least one party included 3,000 guests, an orchestra that played till 3 a.m., a lavish dinner, and footmen who wore “mulberry livery, with white silk stockings and pumps with silver buckles everywhere.” (Gotta feel sorry for those poor footmen.) 
After Everett’s death, the government of Turkey leased the space in 1932 from Everett’s widow then bought the house – including all of its furnishings – outright in 1936. Total cost, $265,000, though even back then the house was valued at more than $400,000.
Munir Ertegun
(Photo: Library of Congress)

Turkey was a young country at the time, only a couple decades out from when the Ottoman Empire was defeated in World War I and Ataturk, who’d led the country’s national independence movement and founded the modern republic, still served as its first president.

A jazz enthusiast, Munir Ertegun, a career diplomat, became Turkey’s first ambassador and moved into the new Washington embassy and residence, where he lived and worked until his death in 1944. Ertegun’s sons, Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun, shared their father’s love of music and went on to found Atlantic Records and discover such legendary artists as Led Zeppelin, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Otis Redding, John Coltrane ... on and on, right up to Kid Rock. At one time, Ahmet served as chairman for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. How’s that for circling the globe?

Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun
Before their rise to music mogul status, Ahmet and Nesuhi urged their father to host jazz events at home in D.C., a tradition that the embassy continues into today. The Turkish embassy was one of the few places in the highly segregated D.C. of the 1930s and 1940s to host racially mixed musicians and audiences. According to the current ambassador, angry southern senators complained to the first Turkish ambassador about his custom of not only letting black musicians into his home but letting them come in through the front door. Ambassador Ertegun kindly responded to at least one of these white senators that he too was welcome to attend the concerts if he was interested, only he would have to enter through the back door. Among the notable guests who played in the Erteguns' home: Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, and Lena Horne. 
Lawrence Brown and Johnny Hodges
perform at the embassy in the 1930s
Last year, the embassy won a “best embassy” distinction in a Washington Post survey, following a series of jazz concerts it held with Jazz at Lincoln Center in honor of the former diplomat’s late sons and to commemorate Black History Month.

In an interesting side note, when Ambassador Munir Ertegun passed away in 1944, Washington had no mosque at which to hold his funeral. As a result, the beautiful Islamic Center of Washington was born, the movement to build it led primarily by the Washington diplomatic community. The center, to this day, is controlled by a board of governors made up ambassadors. Heard of anything like that before?

But back to the house. Now that there are no hired guns – human or otherwise – guarding the historic old mansion, I might finally be able to pay it a visit, camera in tow.


  1. I'm really enjoying the topic this week. I've seen this building from my days of living in Washington, but I didn't know it's history. Thanks for telling us. I'm fascinated by the jazz link. I wonder if Eleanor Roosevelt ever attended a concert there. She was a pioneer in honoring black musicians by supplying the Lincoln Memorial to Marian Anderson after the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to let her perform at Constitution Hall.

  2. I love the history of buildings and this one has an amazing one. Why didn't we learn this story in the civil rights segment of history class? I'd have loved going to one of those jazz concerts and I wouldn't have complained about using the back door.

  3. Thanks, Patricia! I love this topic as well.

    I'd always been intrigued by this D.C. landmark but never realized just how much fascinating history it had behind it, particularly from the civil rights aspect.

    I can't find any info on Eleanor attending those historic embassy concerts, but I wouldn't be surprised if she crossed paths with the Erteguns at some point. After all, they moved to D.C. during Roosevelt's administration, when Turkey's status as both a new country and powerful new post-World War I ally had to have had much White House attention.

    I also love the story of this family's new identity when it moved across the Atlantic. (Inspiration for the record label maybe?) The maternal grandfather of these men who revolutionized American music had been a Sufi sheikh. Did he live to see their fame? Do the Erteguns have relatives in Turkey who continue the jazz tradition back home?

    Recalling another building and civil rights movement (or two), Ahmet once said that his father's diplomacy in hosting racially integrated concerts stemmed from his own upbringing in a Turkish monastery, where everyone was welcome and even beggars entered through the front door. Not sure if the elder Ertegun really grew up in a monastery, but his sons later gave interviews in which they recounted their own experiences as minorities, not in the United States but earlier, when they felt the stigma of hailing from Europe's only Muslim country.

    Such impact their personal journey had on the history of D.C., civil rights, and American music.

  4. Great story of a beautiful building and its eventful history!

  5. Heidi, I would been right there with you, peaking in the back door.

    Phil, glad you liked it. I knew my favorite storyteller architect would enjoy a bit of history behind such a building. Thanks for stopping by.