RP to rescue historic chancery in US

Posted at 03/29/09 9:21 PM

WASHINGTON DC - Dwarfed by a campus building and another diplomatic outpost, the old Philippine Embassy along the District’s "Embassy Row" is a sad sight.

Damaged by fire last November, the four-storey building is decrepit, grass growing tall in cracks in the concrete, inhabited by rodents and other undesirables.

But the Philippine government is rescuing the historic structure – the seat of the Commonwealth when the country was invaded by the Japanese in World War II – by allocating $250,000 for repairs.

Consul General Domingo "Ding" Nolasco revealed that Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto Romulo recently approved the funds to fix the building and use the first floor for the Philippine Embassy’s consular service.

"We were already given funds by the home office for us to renovate the old chancery across the street so we can use that as an office extension," he said.

The old Embassy building lies on prime real estate along Massachusetts Ave. which hosts most of the foreign embassies in the US.

It is flanked by a campus building of John Hopkins University and the imposing Australian Embassy fronting Scott Circle.

The structure was purchased in the 1930s by Resident Commissioner Joaquin Elizalde (1938-1944). Resident commissioners were the Philippine representatives to the US Congress during the Commonwealth era.

The old chancery harks back to the infancy of the Philippine Republic, when the country was working for her independence.

But for the District, it is also a reminder of the past. The city’s affluent, struck hard by the Depression, was forced to sell their mansions and eventually formed the core of "Embassy Row".

Those bought up by foreign governments retained the design and architecture of that period.

Although President Manuel L. Quezon, forced to flee the Philippines in 1942, spent most of his time in his 3rd floor suite at the Shoreham Hotel near Georgetown, the chancery housed much of the administrative offices of the government-in-exile.

It was in effect the temporary capital of the Philippines for over two years.

But in 1991, President Fidel V. Ramos, a West Point graduate, ordered the construction of a new embassy building on a larger lot just across the street.

The new Philippine Embassy was finished in 1993. The new structure was hailed for its beaux-arts design that blended with other embassy buildings.

The old chancery gradually slid into a state of disrepair.

The DC government slapped a $36,000 tax on the old chancery last year, according to Nolasco.

In November, a fire ravaged the building’s interiors. Arson investigators concluded it was caused by old wires that were likely eaten through by rats.

Consular spill-over

The decision to rescue the old chancery came just in the nick of time. The country’s former pride, already an eyesore, was in danger of being declared a hazard.

Nolasco said the money will be spent to remove hazardous materials. They intend to dig out two submerged fuel tanks that used to feed a generator that powered the building.

Prohibited from changing the structure’s historic design, he said repairs will cover the roof, boarded up windows, electrical wiring and plumbing.

The ground floor will be refurbished to house an extension of the consular section. "We have noticed the increased number of consular applicants," he said.

"They come here on Mondays or Fridays. You’ll notice our kababayans from out of state like Alabama, Tennessee, South Carolina and even from Florida drive all the way here to apply for dual citizenship and Philippine passports," Nolasco explained.

"We really need the additional space," he stressed.

Because of the old chancery’s prized location, there were proposals for private investors to help fund the renovation.

The ideas seem to fizzle out because of possible tax complications.

"We are applying to restore the diplomatic privilege of the property," Nolasco disclosed.

He said they will soon bid out the project, a process that entails rigorous guidelines that has to be approved all the way back to Manila.