Diplomatic Pouch / November 2, 2010
By Larry Luxner
Swaziland, one of Africa’s smallest countries, has won recognition by Washington’s prestigious L’Enfant Trust for committing funds to save its historic embassy building from decay.
Ambassador Abednigo Mandla Ntshangase and officials of Monarc Construction Inc., which did the actual renovation work, accepted certificates of appreciation in a brief ceremony Oct. 20 organized by the trust’s president, Carole Goldman.
The five-story embassy building at 1712 New Hampshire Ave., just off Dupont Circle, is an elegant structure constructed in 1892 and designed by the renowned Washington architect T.F. Schneider, who also designed the nearby Cairo Hotel on Q Street.
“We were told that this was one of the most architecturally significant houses in the District,” said Ntashangase, noting that it was inaugurated at the Embassy of Swaziland in June 2003 even though the Swazi government had purchased the mansion several years earlier. “We are supposed to maintain it because it is our property, and the time for renovating had come, hence we proceeded with this work.”
The $600,000 project, begun in April, should be finished within the next month or two. It includes restoration of the building’s mansard and tower roofs with historic clay tile, as well as renovation of its white marble façade and historic wood windows.
Three construction firms bid for the job, which was ultimately won by Monarc. President John Bellingham said his company is also renovating the Swazi ambassador’s residence in Washington for $600,000. These are relatively small projects compared to some of Monarc’s other renovations, for example, the Argentine ambassador’s residence — a $2.8 million job — and rehabilitation of Washington’s Russian Orthodox Cathedral. But for tiny Swaziland, it represented a major outlay of cash.
“Here is a country that recognized its obligations to maintain their building,” Bellingham told Diplomatic Pouch. “They sought the advice of the L’Enfant Trust, because they wanted to restore the façade, but the roof hadn’t been correctly replaced. So the Kingdom of Swaziland decided to replace it to match how it originally looked.”
L’Enfant Trust has worked since 1978 to preserve and protect Washington’s historic buildings. It currently holds easements protecting more than 1,100 historic properties throughout the District, and it has held an easement on 1712 New Hampshire Ave. since 1986, prior to Swaziland’s purchase of the mansion.
“We monitor our buildings every year, and we were really concerned about this one because of its exquisite stone, architectural detail and original curved glass windows. These are very valuable, and once they’re gone, they’re very tough to replace,” Goldman told Pouch.
The certificates she presented to Ntshangase and Bellingham recognize the “superb and extensive” renovation of the 118-year-old structure.
“We appreciate the challenges a working embassy faces in undertaking such a project and the financial commitment required to make it happen,” she said. “The beneficiaries of this decision are not only the kingdom’s diplomats and their staffs who work at the embassy, but also the American people who, for generations to come, will be able to enjoy and be enriched by Swaziland’s ‘gift to the street.’”
Swaziland is a poor nation of 1.5 million inhabitants that is almost completely surrounded by South Africa. Its Washington mission consists of seven diplomats and three local hires. Ambassador Ntshangase said budget constraints have prevented him from enlarging his staff— but that the embassy renovation had to be done regardless.
“We may be a small country, but we are small giants,” he said with obvious pride. “This award goes a long way towards boosting our status in the United States. To be recognized like this tells people you are present and really doing something.”
Adds Goldman: “From the trust’s perspective, our job is to preserve the streetscape of Washington with our buildings, and this is just an example of an owner that did it right.”