Articles - August 2017

Treasures of Peru in a Washington Setting

Roland Flamini visits the Peruvian Embassy Residence

One perquisite an ambassador can expect is suitable housing, and DC’s network of ambassadorial residences is among the finest, thanks largely to a handful of early 20th century business tycoons who built grand houses for themselves, then went broke and couldn’t afford to live in them. Among the best of these mansions currently enjoying a new lease on life as embassy residences is Battery Terrill, a gated 25-acre property of wooded land adjoining Rock Creek Park in Northwest Washington, D.C. This spacious Colonial Revival house is the home of Peruvian Ambassador Carlos Pareja, and his wife, Consuelo. Their immediate neighbors are deer and other wildlife residing among the trees; and birdsong replaces the hum of city traffic.

Like most of the embassy residences, Battery Terrill has a backstory: it’s named after a Union Army defensive position from the Civil War located on the site. Battery Terrill was one of the 162 forts, redoubts, and trenches encircling the District of Columbia.

The house, built in 1928, was originally owned by Charles H. Tomkins, a leading Washington, D.C. builder responsible for the West and East Wings of the White House, the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, and numerous other landmark structures in and around the nation’s capital. The architect was Horace Peaslee, who designed several federal buildings, as well as Meridian Hill Park.

With its polished and burnt stone from the historic Peirce Mill of Rock Creek—which dates back to 1820—the three-floor, 16-room house is a good example of the renaissance of American Colonial architecture. Inside, however, the ground floor reception rooms have been transformed into a showcase of ancient and modern Peruvian culture.

The Peruvian government bought the house as the embassy residence in 1944 and shipped the furniture and art from Lima to furnish it. The five, ground floor rooms flow easily from one to the other to accommodate a sizeable number of guests. Inevitably, successive ambassadors have made adjustments to the décor and contents to suit their taste. For example, the Parejas added a chandelier in the dining room and two others in the reception area where there were none because, as Ambassador Pareja explains, “The house was rather dark.” They also replaced modern couches in the main salon with a French antique drawing room set found in the storeroom. They felt it complemented the room’s impressive display of one of art’s unique marvels: paintings of the Cuzco School.

Cuzco paintings are the creations of anonymous Indian artists working in the ancient Inca capital of Cuzco in vice-regal Peru during the 17th and 18th centuries. As the paintings were mostly destined for churches, and frequently supervised by priests, the subjects were usually religious depicting biblical episodes, portrait of saints, or scenes from the life of Christ.

Cuzco art was often inspired by Spanish and Flemish black and white engravings brought from Europe. What makes them unique is the use of brilliant color and a strongly decorative aesthetic, notably the elaborate interpretation of Western dress.

The residence’s Cuzcos (on long-term loan from the National Institute of Culture collection in Lima) include an impressive Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple with a Flemish-inspired landscape, two separate artist’s renditions of the martyr Saint Catherine of Alexandria, elaborately dressed, and in one painting, carrying a sword, and an image of a youthful Saint Laurence (who was 33 when he was martyred), apotheosized, adorned with an angelic halo and a fine priestly robe.

Another Cuzco painting depicts a favorite theme: King Charles II, the last Hapsburg king of Spain leading his troops in the defense of the Sacred Host against Moorish-looking attackers.

Then, in the adjoining dining room, it’s fast-forward in time to three large, dramatic pieces by leading contemporary Peruvian artists installed by the Parejas from their own collection and features works from abstract painter Ramiro Llona, Luis Garcia Zapatero, and Peruvian-American David Herskovitz.

The oak paneled library contains few books. Instead, its shelves are used to display the embassy’s numerous pre-Colombian ceramics from the Moche, Chimu and Nazca cultures. Among the coveted collectors' items are a Chincha ceramic bottle with geometric designs from the 12th century AD, a ceramic vessel from 500 AD featuring a stylized recumbent feline (a popular design in ceramics), a Nazca trophy head vessel from around 700 AD, and a Wari ceramic vessel with a painted face (circa 500-1000 AD).

There is also a textile room including fragments of a Chimu tunic (circa 1100 AD) with a geometric pattern of figures bearing a remarkable resemblance to the graphics in an early video game and part of a burial mantle with mask-like faces and a geometric pattern that could well represent a modern electronic circuit. Objects of antique hammered silver are strategically placed around the rooms, and there are three walls of framed 19th century watercolors exhibiting the costumes, occupations and amusements of a diverse population. The man traveling in the Andes dressed for the cold altitudes and the Yurimaguas tribe’s female warriors are worthy of special attention.

The glassed in conservatory is the Parejas’ favorite area for quiet weekend lunches, and beyond this sanctuary are extensive grounds where the floral beds would give more color if the deer would stop feasting on them.

But the key to a successful residence is the degree to which it mirrors the culture, society and hospitality of the country that it represents, and this house does that in spades.

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