he bold home at 1746 Massachusetts has, by turns, been both a monument to the modern and a shrine to the antiquated, a home to a newly-emerging country, and to an ancient civilization. Its creator, himself a victim of modernity, would meet his end in perhaps the most ancient graveyard of them all, and his once contemporary home, over the span of its life, would be driven to the brink of obsolescence.
Upon viewing the plans for a home to be built at 1746 Massachusetts Avenue, a Washington Post reporter extolled in 1907, "It will be one of Washington's handsomest residences when completed. Particularly homelike in its interior arrangements." Indeed, the American Institute of Architects later, and since, has declared it one of the finest homes ever built, in a city where such a title comes with fierce competition. Take its architectural contemporaries, for instance, the Alice Pike Barney studio, with its stained glass, sculptures, and performance stage, now serving as the Embassy of Latvia, or Mansion 2020, the last private home of the Hope Diamond and equally opulent design features, now the Embassy of Indonesia.
But the five-story + basement Louis XV- style residence, designed by Jules Henri de Sibour, is a grand feat, with a Tudor library, a Georgian reception room, a Jacobean drawing room, 36 fireplaces, servants' quarters, a grand staircase hall, reception and cloak rooms, and intricate wood carvings throughout. Reviews of the property included excited descriptions of the house's most modern touches, including passenger and freight elevators, a dumbwaiter and a "vacuum cleaning plant." Despite its grand nature, the building was intended "of giving a homelike appearance, rather than a showy or palatial one," according to the Washington Post.
To visit today is to see the house in its classic form, largely untouched, in the more than a century since it was built. That, too, is a rather impressive feat, given that in the past one hundred years, the building has served as a private home, Canada's first foreign mission, the site of a hasty elopement, and a modern stop along the ancient Silk Road.
Although not necessarily in that order.
Thoroughly Modern Mabelle
In 1901, Mabelle Swift Moore, who came from family money, purchased the lot on Massachusetts Avenue that would, in 1909, ultimately become the house she would share with her husband, Clarence. Records show Mabelle purchasing the property and subsequent, surrounding lots, as the sole deed holder. Clarence, who was referred to in one local paper as a "West by God Virginian," and Mabelle Moore moved into the home in 1909, three years after they began the building process.
They, along with Clarence's children from his previous marriage, no doubt expected to spend a lifetime there. But like in other grand homes that had seen grand tragedies, fate would have other plans.
The couple only lived in 1746 for three years before Moore, a businessman who also served as Master of the Hounds at the Chevy Chase Club, sailed to Britain to purchase 100 foxhounds. His return voyage, aboard the RMS Titanic, sealed his fate as one of three Washingtonians to perish when the ship sank. Conflicting accounts initially provided hope that Moore had been rescued following the disaster, and only after the Carpathia reached New York with the Titanic survivors it had plucked from the frigid waters, was it confirmed that Moore had perished.
A survivor of the disaster later told the Washington Times that Moore met his death "like a man."
"Clarence Moore died beyond a doubt at the side of his friend and fellow-hero, Major Archibald Butt. They remained together while lowering woman and children into the lifeboats, and jumped at the eleventh hour when the boilers of the giant ship burst.
"Repeatedly, Moore refused to take a place in one of the boats, the survivors who saw him say. His friend, Butt, knew that he was an oarsman, in fact, he realized that Clarence Moore could do most anything any true sportsman could, so he requested Moore to man an oar in one of the last lifeboats to leave the ship.
"'No, major, I'll stay and take my chances with you; let the women go,' Moore said to his companion according to Robert William Daniels, one of the survivors, who is stopping at the New Willard. 'And he evidently stuck with Butt until death took them both,' said Mr. Daniels. 'The two men jumped at the eleventh hour and were lost.'"
A list of claims filed by the survivors of the Titanic, or the relatives of the victims, compiled by the National Archives, is a fascinating, detailed look at life aboard the ship, and in its final moments. Jewels, artwork and other personal effects now adorning the bottom of the ocean; injuries recorded by people jumping from the ship into lifeboats, and eyewitness accounts of the last moments of the disaster, are laid bare. Mabelle herself filed a claim for $510,000 for the loss of her husband. (Not lost? The foxhounds, which were not carried back on the ship, despite their depiction in the titular film.)
Three years after the Titanic, Mabelle shocked Washington society when she wed Mr. Axel Wickfield, a Danish citizen living in New York, at her home in a secret ceremony. The license was issued half an hour before the ceremony, too late to hit the wedding announcements section of the local newspapers, and few knew about it until the newlyweds were already on their way to New York. The rector who officiated had also recently officiated another secret society wedding, that of Senator Henry Lippitt and Lucy Herron Laughlin, sister of former First Lady, Helen Taft.
A mere three people witnessed the elopement; the Danish minister, Clarence's daughter Frances from his first marriage, and a family friend. Mabelle was married in her traveling suit, of a "smart, dark blue" with a matching hat, and left immediately following the ceremony. Friends speculated that the couple had gone to the west coast; instead, they showed up at the Ritz Carlton in New York.
The subsequent wedding announcement, which nearly tripped over itself referring to Mabelle first as Mrs. Moore, and then Mrs. Wickfield, also mentioned an unsubstantiated rumor of her previous engagement to an unnamed Serbian prince when she was "prominent in the American colony of Paris". (Other publications have referred to them as the "Wichfields" rather than "Wickfields, and a telephone listing at the address in 1916 referred to an Aksel Wichfield.") In 1916, Axel/Aksel would become an attaché at the Danish legation, thus beginning 1746's legacy of diplomacy.
The Wickfields would live in the house another decade, even hosting Frances' debutante reception there, before Mabelle, still the sole owner of 1746, sold the house, and changed its course forever.
True North, Strong and Free
A bill of sale from May 1927 shows Mrs. Mabelle Swift Wickfield selling 1746, and its surrounding lots, to His Majesty George V, "in Right of Canada," as the Canadians were still ruled by England, at the time. It would be Canada's first mission abroad, and a symbol of the country's emerging independence. Later that year, Canada's prime minister visited the legation, and whether the Washington Post reporter was being cheeky, or the prime minister really was a "jolly fellow" is hard to say.
"William L. Mackenzie-King, Canada's jolly prime minister, arrived in Washington yesterday afternoon and announced that his sole purpose in coming here was to see Canada's new legation and to meet old friends and new ones," the Washington Post reported. "He insisted his visit had no political significance."
The prime minister's arrival was delayed due to "disrupted train schedules" (a problem to which most Washingtonians can relate) and upon arriving at the legation, "he quickly changed from formal attire to a sack suit, and held an interview with newspaper men."
During the interview and after, Mackenzie-King declined to discuss politics, including a newly announced anti-immigration law that forbade Canadian citizens living in Windsor, Ontario, from working in Detroit, a distance of approximately a mile across the Detroit River, now served by a bridge.
In the years following, the Canadians' status in Washington would be raised from a legation to an embassy, and in February, 1965, in a ritual repeated the world over, it served as the site of the raising of the now-famed Maple Leaf flag.
When the Canadians moved into their stunning building on Pennsylvania Avenue in 1989 (itself a story, and one to be featured in an upcoming profile), they held onto the building at 1746, with an eye on turning it into a trade promotion center, owned by the Canadian government but operated by private funds at no public expense. "I think the sentiment for retaining Canada's first chancery, first mission abroad, is still there," a spokesperson at the new embassy, told The Toronto Star, "But in a time of austerity, you have to perhaps be a little more hard-nosed."
So, in 1992, the former Moore home joined a former Canadian consulate in Bordeaux, and a cultural center in Paris on the sale list. It was a difficult time to attempt to sell the luxurious mansion, as the Washington real estate market was in the worst slump in decade.
But five years later, the building still hadn't sold, which itself was a surprise, given the high demand for embassy space from newly- and re-emerging countries following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The building had only been lightly used since the listing, including as the site of the National Symphony Orchestra's annual, multi-monthlong Decorators' Show House, and its features, once so modern, were now falling into disrepair.
Despite this, even the building's realtor was reportedly baffled by the difficulty in selling the building. "This is very unusual for us commercial brokers," she said. "We don't do much sexy marketing."
But, sexy marketing or no, in 1996, the embassy finally sold.
Enter the Uzbeks
"A stately piece of property representing one of Canada's splashy first steps as a fully independent country is about to be sold," The Edmonton Journal wrote in 1996. "A former ambassador described it as like selling a piece of Canada." They reported the sale price of "close to $6 million US," which did not include many of the furnishings purchased by Canada from Mabelle. Those were transferred to the Canadian ambassador's residence, where they presumably are to this day.
The building, now the Embassy of Uzbekistan, looks nearly identical to early photographs of the Moore home, save for a few upgrades. The interiors, including the classic wood carvings, remain largely untouched, save for those needed repairs and upgrades, and to incorporate Uzbek design into the home.
"Ever mindful of the building's rich history, the compound has undergone interior restorations, designed to incorporate Uzbek decor," states a guide to the building given to Diplomatica by the embassy, "allowing visitors a unique glimpse of renowned and rich Uzbek traditions in woodcarving, silk and carpet weaving, stained glass, and painting among others, while retaining the finest elements of the mansion's distinguished European architectural heritage."
The library is now the Gallery of Ethnographic Art, and one of the first floor reception rooms, perhaps the one where Frances had her debutante tea, is now a showcase of Uzbek silk. The wall of the staircase hall is now adorned with the Uzbek flag, and stained glass depicting themes from ancient Uzbek cities. Original mirrored panels in the west parlor are now covered with Uzbek ganch, a mixture of gypsum and clay, carved into a lace-like design. Thirty-six fireplaces now have mantles made by Uzbek artists.
Today, 1746 is, like the country that now calls it home, a blend of the old and the new, of an ancient culture and its modernization. And, in the house that was once intended to be a home, rather than a showcase, the Uzbeks have made their embassy inherently accessible to its visitors. Musical instruments are laid out, not in museum cases, but ready for curious hands. Silk robes adorn mannequins, welcoming to the touch.
But look closely enough, and you'll still see the initials CM etched into the original wood carvings that still adorn the walls, a nod to the man who built the Uzbeks a home of legends.