You are cordially invited to the embassies Tours: On two annual treks, you can visit the American outposts of several foreign countries

Short Hop: Washington

August 16, 1998|By Larry Bleiberg | Larry Bleiberg,DALLAS MORNING NEWS

The nation's capital is supposed to be a beacon of democracy, but it's a pretty stuffy place when it comes to gate-crashers. Visitors can tour the White House, the Capitol and even the Pentagon, but foreign embassies are off-limits to plebes such as us.

That's why the city's rare embassy tours are so popular.

Two days a year, some of the city's most exclusive real estate opens up to anyone willing to fork over a charitable donation of $30 or less.

True, this is not the traditional embassy invitation so coveted in Washington. Neither cocktails nor state dinners are included. Instead, visitors have to share the experience with up to 3,000 other like-minded people. And you rarely see any sign of actual ambassadors, who usually disappear during the invasion.

But that's of little concern for lovers of history, diplomacy and luxurious old homes. The embassy tours are about the only way for the average visitor to tour these beautiful buildings. Before they gained official status, many embassy buildings were luxurious homes.

"You never get inside these places," says Anne Black, a board member of the Woodrow Wilson House, which sponsors one of the tours. She has been working on a personal embassy collection for years now. "My goal is to go on all the tours and check them off."

The tours are held each fall and spring. The Kalorama House and Embassy Tour, sponsored by the Woodrow Wilson House, will be held Sept. 13. It sells about 1,500 tickets and offers an intimate look at one neighborhood where dozens of embassies are clustered. Embassies featured on this year's tour include Romania, Costa Rica and Iceland, all of which are located on Embassy Row.

The Goodwill Industries Embassy Tour, in its 53rd year, usually is scheduled near Mother's Day. It uses shuttle buses to transport visitors among about a dozen embassies, and ticket sales are limited to 3,000.

The tours provide the ultimate Washington souvenir: a chance to name-drop. Those who took last September's tour can now truthfully tell friends: "That painting looks just like one I saw at the Portuguese ambassador's house."

Last year, the Kalorama tour had 10 stops, including private residences, embassies and professional clubs. Most visitors spent several hours wandering the leafy neighborhood, strolling from one building to another.

My first stop, the Embassy of Estonia, is one of the city's newest and still a work in progress. The 93-year-old triangular structure commands the apex of Florida and 22nd streets Northwest. The flatiron-style building once held the Peruvian embassy and a boys' school, and it has been recently renovated. Although the furnishings are few, there are plenty of Estonian maps and travel brochures for the taking.

But for many, the highlight is the ambassador of Thailand's residence. Built in 1906 by architect Ogden Codman, it was later owned by Dwight Davis. The former U.S. Cabinet secretary is best known for endowing the Davis Cup, the international tennis trophy. The home passed through several owners before it was bought four years ago and renovated by the government of Thailand.

Even with what seems like several hundred visitors, traffic moves smoothly through the house. Some admire the Asian furniture and paintings, but I'm most taken with the lap pool and the landscaped terrace that overlooks the street.

The exclusive air isn't limited to the embassies, which litter this corner of Washington. Kalorama - Greek for beautiful view - was originally an estate in a hilly section of Washington. In the late 19th century, the area was developed for housing. From the beginning, it has been a high-dollar neighborhood, home to a former president and the city's political, social and military leaders.

It's no surprise Woodrow Wilson moved here after leaving office in 1921. His home, a Georgian Revival from 1915, is well-preserved and elegant. Owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and open year-round, it's the only presidential museum in the nation's capital.

It's hard to believe Washington was once considered a hardship post. But diplomatic staff sent to the city often got supplemental pay for enduring the humid summer heat. For some African diplomats, hardships continued well into the 20th century, because officials were subject to Washington's policy of segregation.

Today in Kalorama, foreign flags flutter happily from stately buildings. Algeria, Barbados, Cyprus and Sri Lanka all appear at ease in this leafy neighborhood.

The tour doesn't detract from the genteel atmosphere: As many people wear loafers and blue blazers as wear shorts and T-shirts.

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