Originally a private residence, this semidetached building, subtly designed in the 16th century manner of Italian classicism, faces the intersection of 17th Street and Massachusetts Avenue with an entrance façade set diagonally to the two streets. The interior details, especially the stairs, paneling and doors, also draw one's attention.
Chancery Location1700 Massachusetts Ave. NW,
Washington, DC 20036-1903
Original and Subsequent Owners
In 1859, the first owner of the building was Hallet Kilbourn. Construction on the building began in the spring of 1909 and was completed in June 1910. He sold the property to Timothy Gannon for the sum of twelve hundred and fifty (1,250) dollars.
Decades later, in 1946, the M.R. Corporation sold the building to His Majesty George VI, in right of the Commonwealth of Australia. In 1971, the reception room on the ground floor, and library and drawing room on the first floor, were partitioned for offices.
On January 31, 1973, the Government of Australia sold the property to the Republic of Peru.
The architect in charge of construction was Jules Henri de Sibour (1872-1938), the son of Vicomte Gabriel de Sibour and the former Mary Louisa Johnson of Belfast, Maine. He was born in France. “Through his father he was descended from King Louis XVI of France.” (The Evening Star, 11-4-38) As a young boy, de Sibour was brought to America, where he attended St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire and Yale University. In 1898, he married Margaret Marie Clagett, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. William H. Clagett, of Washington, D.C. They had three sons: Henri Louis, Jacques Blaise, and Jean Raymond.
In 1899, de Sibour went to Paris to study architecture at the École des Beaux Arts. One year later, he returned to the United States and began practice in New York City. He was taken into a partnership in 1902 or 1903 with Bruce Price, a noted New York architect. About seven years later, he moved to Washington, D.C.
Jules Henri de Sibour was one of the National Capital’s most successful and prolific architects during his 30 years of practice. His designs in Washington, D.C., include the Wilkins, Hibbs, F. H. Smith, and Investment office buildings; the Chevy Chase Club; the University Club; and the Riggs Theatre and Office Building. He also designed the French Embassy (2221 Kalorama Road, N.W.); the Moore Residence (Canadian Chancery, 1746 Massachusetts Avenue, N.W.); and the Stewart Residence (Embassy of Luxembourg, 2200 Massachusetts Avenue, N.W.).
One of the occupants of the building was Beriah Wilkins, born in Union County, Ohio, in 1846 and married in 1870 to Emily J. Robinson, also of Ohio. After serving in the Ohio State Senate, Wilkins was elected to the U.S. Congress in 1883 and subsequently re-elected for two more terms. In Congress, Wilkins was Chairman of the Committee on Banking and Currency. In 1894, he acquired an interest in The Washington Post and in 1899 became its majority shareholder. Wilkins worked as editor and publisher until his death in 1905.
Mrs. Emily J. Wilkins, widow of Beriah, bought the property for 1700 Massachusetts Avenue in 1908 and applied for a building permit in 1909. She died the year of its completion, leaving the residence and its furnishings to her son John F. Wilkins, Sr., born in 1872.
After his graduation from Princeton in 1894, Wilkins worked for The Washington Post as reporter, “sports editor, assistant city editor, manager of the now defunct Weekly Post, secretary of the Post Publishing Co., and, from 1903 to 1905, as co-publisher of the daily Post with his brother, Robert C. Wilkins.” (The Washington Post, 12-16-41) In October 1905, John R. McLean bought the controlling interest of the Post.
Socially prominent, Wilkins was the president of the Chevy Chase Club from 1914 to 1918 and member of the Board of Governors of the Metropolitan Club from 1914 to 1919. He died at his Massachusetts Avenue home in 1941, leaving his wife, Julia; son John F. Wilkins, Jr.; and daughter, Catherine Wilkins Newbold.
Julia C. Wilkins (1876-1957), the former Julia Crittenden Harris of Richmond, Virginia, married John F. Wilkins, Sr., in 1905 and became “one of the best known hostesses in Washington.”
Previous Structure on the Site
City directories and building permits indicate that a grocery store with the address 1700 Massachusetts Avenue, N.W. was located there between 1873 and 1899.
This semidetached residence, with a mid- l6th century Italianate exterior, has 17th century English interior details. The exterior is preserved, the interior partitioned for offices.
The four-story plus basement structure measures 59'-6" from sidewalk to cornice cap. The three bay, 39'-21" wide, entrance façade breaks forward diagonally to the three bay, 43'-0" east elevation (17th Street) and the three bay, 24'-6" north elevation (Massachusetts Avenue). The building depth from the entrance facade is approximately 56'-1".
Wall construction: The limestone-faced basement has a torus water table which supports a plain frieze and moulded cap. The horizontally rusticated ground floor is separated from the smoothly dressed first and second floors by a frieze, corona and cyma string course. A cyma string course acts as second floor window sill. The third floor, with alternating windows and incised panels, rests on an omega frieze and cyma string course. The south and west elevations are exposed brick.
Porches, stoops, bulkheads, etc.: The entrance stoop has three limestone risers flanked by block balustrades. The bay above the entrance has a turned-baluster balcony supported by consoles. An areaway gives access to the basement entrance at the rear (southwest) elevation.
Chimneys: An exterior brick chimney rises above the south wall; all others are concealed behind the roof balustrade base.
Doorways and doors: The glazed, double door with transom and side lights is recessed into a semicircular-arched, limestone architrave with a scroll keystone. Windows: All windows are double-hung and set within limestone, fascia and cyma architraves. Each first floor window architrave has consoles supporting a cornice. The central first floor bay, which opens onto the balcony above the entrance, has consoles and pedimented cornice. The second floor architraves each have a cornice. The south elevation bays have three-header brick courses forming segmental arches.
Cornice, eaves: The Corinthian entablature has a talon architrave, plain frieze, and dentil and modillion cornice, above which is the base for a panelled limestone balustrade with balusters centered over each bay (now removed).
Floor plans: The obtuse-angled plan is formed by the street elevations flanking the diagonal entrance façade which faces the street intersection. On axis with the ground floor vestibule is the central entrance hall and main stair. Immediately upon entering the entrance hall are flanking north and south lounges contained within the triangles formed by the reception room to the northwest and the serving rooms to the south. Each lounge has a lavatory and closet. A trapezoidal antehall gives access from the entrance hall to the northwest reception room. At the southwest is an elevator, and the service rooms and stair.
Over the ground floor entrance hall, and on axis with the main stair, is the first floor central foyer and drawing room. From the foyer, a trapezoidal antehall leads into the north library and a corridor leads to the southeast dining room and the southwest service area. Triangular areas are left between the three main spaces. The triangular areas are designed as an anteroom connecting the drawing room and library, and an antehall and room-with-safe connecting the drawing and dining rooms.
In the original building, principal bedrooms and baths were on the second floor, where a plain staircase over the drawing room continued to the third floor servants’ quarters.
Ceiling: 11'-0" high, plaster painted white; square panels within bound leaf ribs with crossing bosses.
Doorways and doors: The double door to the vestibule is plate glass with cast iron balusters and scrolls. The doors to the lounges, the service area and the elevator are panelled as the wainscot. The reception room antehall is set within a Tudor archway.
Heating: The north wall chimney has a black marble hearth. The plaster and wood mantle, in the Georgian manner, has flanking panels of leaves and fruit below consoles supporting a sunburst mask frieze, and an egg and dart shelf.
The reverse turn stair ascends west thirteen risers to the midlanding and east thirteen risers to the first floor. The closed stringer soffit is plaster painted white, having square panels within bound leaf ribs with crossing bosses. The stringer, treads, risers and balustrade are oak. The candelabra-panelled newel is buttressed by a scrolled console, and the balustrade is pierced by panels of carved dolphins, nuts, fruit and flowers. A tripartite window and a gilded wood, baroque chandelier light the stair well.
Doorways and doors: The double doors to the drawing room and library are of wainscot height. Each leaf has raised panels with a central acanthus leaf diamond panel. The wainscot cornice is continued over the doors.
Between fluted composite pilasters on panelled pedestals are four rows of paired, diamond-within-square, panels. The pilasters also flank the south chimney, and the windows and double door.
The north wall double door to the antehall (and drawing room) has raised panels (centered by an acanthus leaf diamond panel) and a cyma architrave. Flanking the double door are single doors with raised panels, one to the corridor and the other to the room-with-safe.
Cornice: The full entablature has a fascia and bead architrave, a strap work frieze interrupted by acanthus consoles over each pilaster, and a cyma cornice.
Ceiling: 13'-0" high, plaster painted white. The slightly coved ceiling has hexagonal and octagonal panels.
Heating: The south wall chimney hearth is stone and the firebox is herringbone brick. The grey limestone mantle (6'-0" wide by 7'-0" high) has guilloche-panelled pilasters with egg and dart capitals which support guilloche consoles that flank a plain frieze. The consoles support a bead, fascia and talon architrave, a ribbon frieze, centered by an escutcheon and broken forward over either console, and a talon, corona, bead, and cyma shelf.
Setting and orientation: The building faces northeast across the intersection of 17th Street and Massachusetts Avenue on a lot measuring 56'-8" on the north (Massachusetts Avenue), 68'-6" on the east (17th Street), 75'-5" on the south (public alley), 27'-4" on the southwest and 55'-3" on the northwest.
Landscaping: The oval section formed by the drive and the areas abutting the east and west building walls are planted with oak, silver beech, blue spruce, hemlock and Virginia creeper.
(From Massachusetts Avenue Architecture, The Commision of Fine Arts, 1973)