e don’t allow people upstairs,” Daniel Yi-Lung Huang, the press officer at the Taiwan Economic and Cultural Representative Office in the United States (TECRO) says as he removes a velvet rope from the bottom of the staircase. “But for you, we have permission.”
It’s a rainy afternoon and Daniel and I are the only people in Twin Oaks, the grand estate in Washington, DC that sits atop the winding drive that leads up a hill. I’ve signed a guest book and we chatted in the parlor, an imposing room complete with a baby grand piano and a sweeping view of the National Cathedral. The classic home, built in 1888 by Gardiner Greene Hubbard, the founder of National Geographic Society, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986 for being one of the earliest surviving examples of Georgian Revival architecture in the U.S. Set on 18.24 acres, the property is larger than the White House grounds, which is on 18 acres, not including Presidents Park. It, like the Swiss property, is also part of the swath of land formerly known as Dumbarton.
Since 1937, Twin Oaks has also served as the de facto embassy of Republic of China, i.e., Taiwan.
The government of Taiwan bought Twin Oaks from the Hubbard family in 1947, after a decade of renting the property, and for many years, Twin Oaks served as the official embassy and residence of Taiwan. To this day, the first floor of the property looks as you’d expect from a home that serves as a ceremonial and cultural home to a diplomatic contingent, and the cultural events that are held here, including an annual celebration of Taiwan's National Day.
However, Taiwan and the U.S. severed official diplomatic ties in 1979 as part of U.S.’s One China policy. Twin Oaks is no longer officially recognized as an embassy, and any hints that it might function as one is fraught with diplomatic minefields for the U.S.-China relations. In one recent example, when the Taiwanese flag was raised at Twin Oaks on New Year’s Day in 2015, the first time the flag had been raised at the property in decades, it raised alarms that the U.S. had altered its policy toward Taiwan. The State Department immediately issued a statement that it had no prior knowledge of the flag raising, and assured China that the status quo hadn’t changed.
After the One China policy, Twin Oaks was sold to a nonprofit organization friendly to the Taiwanese cause, only to be sold back to the Taiwanese government after the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 allowed for the re-establishment of economic and cultural relations, and, importantly, the ownership of Twin Oaks.
The policy brought two other significant changes. First, Taiwan’s chief diplomats, which had previously held the rank of ambassador, are now “representatives” (although many people in Washington still use Ambassador as an honorific title when addressing the representative). Second, the representative is forbidden from living at Twin Oaks.
Which explains the second floor.
Climbing the stairs from the first to second floor is like stepping into a time machine. A pair of cross-stitched wall hangings celebrate the American centennial (not the bi-centennial, mind you, but the centennial), vintage first editions of classic books line shelves, and wicker and wrought iron furniture evoke an atmosphere of a Southern plantation at the turn of the last century. Impeccably clean and lovingly preserved, the second floor is both homey and old fashioned, a shrine to another era.
To wander through the second and third floors is to come upon a surprising artifact of American innovation: early prototypes of Alexander Graham Bell’s phone. The Scottish-born Bell invented the first working telephone in 1876, and, under Hubbard’s tutelage, established the Bell Telephone Company 1877, which would later become AT&T. Perhaps not coincidentally, Bell also married Hubbard’s daughter Mabel in 1877. Bell was one of the founding members of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, which would become the Institute for Electrical and Electronic Engineers, which would later become simply IEEE (pronounced I-triple-E), where, full disclosure, I have worked as a staff member, volunteer and consultant for over a decade.
In the house that Hubbard built, his son-in-law’s early prototypes, kept under a glass museum case in a historical home in a pseudo-embassy for a government that is no longer formally recognized by the United States, seems a fitting symbol of a promise of an earlier era, not unlike a radio tower that was never built, or a time when spies could pass classified information through ground-floor windows. Like the house itself, hidden behind the gates, you might not know it’s there, if you didn’t know to look for it, or if someone, letting down a velvet rope to allow you to pass, didn’t show you the way.