Then & Now: Dispatch from Washington

Dispatch from Washington

by Manuel L. Quezon III

TODAY Newspaper

Going along Massachusetts Avenue in downtown Washington D.C., the Filipino traveler will eventually end up on Scott Circle. Branching off this circle are two small streets. One is named Bataan, the other, Corregidor. On the Corregidor side, sandwiched between two large, modern office buildings, is a rather ugly, red Victorian row house. The seal of the Republic of the Philippines can be found over the entrance of this building. Since 1946, this has been the Embassy of our Republic.

But the association of this building with our country goes back further. Prior to independence, this building served as the office of the Philippine Resident Commissioner, who represented the interests of the Philippines in Washington. The Resident Commissioner was our official lobbyist and had the privilege of sitting in the U.S. Congress -minus the right to vote. The building became the office building for our government-in-exile during World War II; and as the Philippine flag was raised on July 4, 1946, a small group of officials solemnly raised the flag of our independent Republic in Washington.

Over the years the portraits of our past presidents have increased in number as time has marched on. Administrations came and went, but the office for the premier diplomatic assignment for our country remained the same. During the dictatorship, Filipinos in exile in Washington D.C. would whisper about the comings and goings at the Philippine Embassy. And there is a story that when Marcos was kicked out, the same group of -now liberated- expatriates gleefully occupied the Embassy in a Washington version of People Power.

Now across the street, on the Bataan side, a strikingingly elegant building can be seen. It stands resplendent on its own island, where Bataan merges with Massachusetts, and where Massachusetts intersects with Rhode Island Avenue. This building is nothing less than our new Embassy.

Here is the story behind this building, which has received architectural acclaim. Around about the time that Marcos went on his state visit to Ronald Reagan, Imelda Marcos arranged the purchase of the little island across from the Embassy. She also plopped two million dollars in the bank (apparently government funds; whether or not the amount represents loose change from one of her shopping sprees is a matter for speculation).

The years rolled by, and the money continued sitting in the bank, earning interest. Then, in 1991 or so, to it’s delight the Philippine government discovered that Imelda’s deposit had grown to amount to a staggering twenty-one million dollars.

It so happened that by this time, the old Victorian embassy building was in an advanced state of decrepitude; it’s derelict state a cause for national embarrassment and quite a bit of head-scratching since the government felt it couldn’t otherwise afford the cost of either building a new embassy or refurbishing the old one. All of a sudden it had the funds. A new embassy would be built.

I must say that it was built well. It is, as I’ve said, extremely pleasing to the eye. It is modern, with satisfying proportions and a creamy, sandstone color in keeping with official Washington (and our Ambassador’s residence besides). In choosing the design, our government resisted the temptation to erect some sort of half-baked, pseudoethnic-styled monstrosity (the sort of uglification that has taken place before, as visitors to our consulate in New York during the Marcos years might remember).

Our embassy people seem to be in the process of moving in. Occasionally cars drive up and disgorge t-shirt and Ray-ban-wearing Filipinos lugging mysterious-looking cardboard boxes. Our flag already waves from a flagpole in the garden of the building.

As for the old embassy itself, the seal of the Republic over the entrance is still there, although the building is devoid of any signs of life, while the state of decay of the structure is sadly apparent. The Washington rumor-mill whispers that the government isn’t quite sure what to do with it. There is talk that it will be turned into a center for our economic diplomacy; there is also talk that the government might decide to sell the building.

The building is on prime land and would fetch a handsome price. However it is a building with historical associations for our country, and it would be a pity for it to be let go. This was the headquarters for the propaganda and lobbying efforts of our leaders before and after independence. It is part of the story of the development of our nationhood. The government has already accomplished something we can all be proud of in putting up the new embassy; let it show a sign of history by converting the old embassy to something useful for the future. What was once the headquarters for our political campaign for independence can become the nerve center for our efforts to build a sound economy.

Even as I worry about the fate of the old embassy, other changes are taking place. The ambassadorial residence near Washington’s Embassy row, itself a small but elegant house, has been gutted because it was in a state of near-collapse. Our ambassador has had to move to a temporary residence while his official residence is being made fit for human habitation (more Washington gossip: it was absolutely filled with cockroaches). And you thought we only let our official buildings go to seed in the Philippines. We let them go to seed all over the world -as an Embassy official I later on met in Seoul attested. In terms of neglect, we’re obviously world-class. Good to see old habits are being changed.


Manuel L. Quezon III.

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