From Film House to Ghost House: 8 Former Embassies around the World

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SPOT – Taipei Film House

The latest issue of Travel and Leisure includes a “Definitive Guide to Taipei.” I guess I’m a little out of touch with the magazine’s regular readership, because I lived in Taipei for 10 years and I’ve only been to one of the hot spots that they listed. I’m not talking about the general areas. I’ve been to Daan, I just haven’t sipped tea at Cha Cha Thé. And I’ve spent time at Beitou, but I’ve never experienced the hot-spring spas at Villa 32.

One place I have been, though, was mentioned as a favorite by one of their “insiders.” Designer Chrystal Wang tells readers,

Catch a movie at Spot, a colonial-style mansion turned theater that shows indie and art-house films. The charming café next door is the perfect place for afternoon tea.

While Wang’s description is accurate, it’s somewhat incomplete. The building us much more than just “a colonial-style mansion.” It’s the former US embassy.

Built in the 1920s by the occupying Japanese, the building housed ambassadors until being closed in 1979, when the US severed diplomatic ties with Taiwan. Then, after being abandoned for nearly 20 years, the renovated structure reopened in 2002. Now the ambassador’s garage has become an 88-seat movie theater; the coat room is a gift shop; and the reception room is the C25 Coffee Shop.

The embassy in Taiwan is not the only one that has been given a new identity. Many structures around the globe have shed their diplomatic functions and have taken on new roles.

Here are seven:

The US embassy in Tehran

The site of the hostage crisis that began in 1979. The building is now an anti-US-themed museum.

The French Embassy in Tokyo

Scheduled for demolition in 2010, the former French embassy to Japan opened its doors to nearly 100 French and Japanese artists for a giant art exhibit, entitled “No Man’s Land.” Arstcape Japan reports that the installations included one room with every surface covered in clay, “manga-inspired paintings that juxtapose Japanese ultranationalist and grotesque horrorshow motifs,” and “surreal photos of hermit crabs.”

The Iraqi Embassy in Berlin

Abandoned since 1990 when East Germany became no more, the “Ghost Embassy” is open for anyone to wander through. The United Arab Emirates’ newspaper The National, reports that the rooms of the crumbling building are littered with broken glass and abandoned files. Owned by Germany but leased perpetually to Iraq, the property seems to belong to no one. Desolate and available, the embassy became the setting for a music video made by Irish composer Eutechnik (Brian Smith).

The Somali Embassy in Rome

In 2011, the dilapidated building was home to over 100 Somali refugees waiting to receive asylum status. The compound has been abandoned since the Somali government collapsed in the 1990s. “Rats are our neighbors,” Mohammed, one of the refugees, tells Radio Netherlands Worldwide. “No, our friend,” says Ibrahim.

The Italian Embassy in Washington, D.C.

The Neo-Renaissance building is going to get an 8-story addition and will hold over 100 upscale condos. The Washington Post quotes the zoning commission as calling the finished product “a modernist ‘hyphen’ connecting the old with the new.” It will include six residences set aside at “affordable” rates for people who earn 80% or less of D.C.’s median income.

The Canadian High Commission in London

In 1961 the Canadian diplomatic mission moved into the former US embassy on Grosvenor Square, in London, naming it MacDonald House. The Canadians have since left, and last year, the Indian Lodha Group bought the seven-storey building for over half a billion dollars. Of the location, Abhishek Lodha, the group’s managing director, tells The Guardian, “1 Grosvenor Square is the best address in the world and we will create a world-class development which befits the status of this address.” The newspaper calls the planned residential project “another super-luxe enclave for the world’s super-rich.”

The Chinese embassy in Washington, D.C.

If you’re in the market for a move-in ready space that’s cat friendly, here are some of the salient points from an ad for the Historic Chinese Embassy Luxury Condos on 19th Street in D.C.

Price Range: $515,000 – $995,000
Sq Ft Range: 1,030 – 2,314 sq ft
Year Built: 1902
Style: Repurposed
Private Outdoor Space: Yes
Doorman/Concierge: No
Pets: Cats Only

(“T+L’s Definitive Guide to Taipei,” Travel and Leisure,” September 2014; “SPOT-Taipei Film House,” Taiwan Ministry of Culture; Alan Gleason, “No Man’s Land: Artists Amok in an Abandoned Embassy,” artscape Japan; David Crossland, “Iraq’s ‘Ghost Embassy’ in East Berlin,” The National, May 10, 2010; Angelo van Schaik, “120 Somalis Stuck in Former Embassy in Rome,” Radio Netherlands Worldwide, January 5, 2011; Christine MacDonald, “Developers to Convert Former Italian Embassy into Upscale Condos,” The Washington Post, February 5, 2014; Jennifer Rankin, “Indian Developer Pays 306m for Canadian High Commission Building,” The Guardian, November 29, 2013)

[photo: “The Spot aka the Taiwan Film House,” by ctsnow, used under a Creative Commons license]

Not All Ambassadors Start with Degrees in International Studies

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The US Embassy in Prague, Czech Republic

Hearing about the death of Shirley Temple Black got me to wondering if any current US ambassadors have such a compelling background. Alas, it’s hard to match Temple Black, who became a film superstar at the age of six and went on to star in over 40 movies before becoming ambassador to Ghana and Czechoslovakia. But I did find several ambassadors whose lives before diplomatic service strike me as interesting.

I guess “interesting” sounds pretty bland. But saying something such as “fascinating,” “captivating,” or “spellbinding” would be a little over the top. If I were going for clicks (like some news sites that will remain nameless), I’d have titled this post “Twelve Ambassadors Whose Backgrounds Will Stun You.” While that’s pretty far from the truth, I really do think that their stories are still, well, interesting.

First, a word about my selections: I started with The American Foreign Service Association’s “List of Ambassadorial Appointments,” where I clicked on the names of people with links to US Department of State bios.

Most of those listed below are political appointees rather than career diplomats. The former seems to offer the larger amount of noteworthy backgrounds. Of course, getting an advanced degree in international relations, attending the National War College, or becoming a career member of  the Foreign Service is pretty impressive. For ambassadors, though, it’s just not uncommon enough to earn a mention here.

By the way, my definition of interesting is purely subjective. No offense to those who didn’t make the cut.

So here’s what it takes, in a roundabout way, to become an ambassador . . . that and the good favor of a sitting president:

Thomas Hart Armbruster
US ambassador to the Marshall Islands
Prior to joining the Foreign Service, Armbruster was a reporter for KGMB-TV, a CBS affiliate in Hawaii.

Matthew Barzun
US ambassador to the United Kingdom
Barzun was the fourth employee at CNET and later became executive vice president and chief strategy officer of the tech website. While there, he launched Download.com and led in the development of Shopper.com.

John Berry
US ambassador to Australia
Berry previously served as director of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation as well as director of the National Zoo.

James Costos
US ambassador to Spain and Andorra
Before becoming an ambassador, Costos was vice president of global licensing and retail for HBO. Prior to that he served as a vice president for the Italian company Tod’s, seller of shoes and luxury leather goods, and for Hermès of Paris.

Caroline Kennedy
US ambassador to Japan
The daughter of President John F. Kennedy, Ambassador Kennedy is the author and editor of several books, an education advocate, and a supporter of the arts. As president and director of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation, she helped create the Profile in Courage Award.

Alexandar Mark Laskaris
US ambassador to Guinea
Earlier in his career, Laskaris taught English and mathematics at St. Boniface High School in Galeshewe, Northern Cape Province, South Africa.

Jeffrey Levine
US ambassador to Estonia
Levine was previously a newspaper reporter for seven years and was a founding staff member of USA Today.

Bruce Oreck
US ambassador to Finland
For several years running, Oreck was the winner of the Colorado State men’s masters body building championship. He has also put together one of the leading fine-mineral collections in the US, and he and his wife donate mineral specimens to museums across the country.

David D. Pearce
US ambassador to Greece
Before joining the Foreign Service, Pearce was a journalist, working for the Associated Press in Ohio; the Rome Daily American in Italy; United Press International in Brussels, Lisbon, and Beirut; and the Washington Post. He also worked as a writer-editor in the book service of the National Geographic Society.

Samantha Power
US permanent representative to the United Nations
Born in Ireland, Power came to America when she was nine years old. She has been a journalist, contributing regularly to The Atlantic MonthlyThe New RepublicThe New York Review of Books, and The New Yorker Magazine, and she won the Pulitzer Prize for her book  “A Problem from Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide.

Theodore Sedgwick
US ambassador to Slovakia
Sedgwick founded Pasha Publications and Io Energy and was president of Red Hills Lumber Co., which produces pine flooring. He has also served on the boards of a wide range of organizations, including Inside Higher Ed; the Folger Shakespeare Library; the Shakespeare Theater Co.; the Gennadius Library in Athens, Greece; the Civil War Preservation Trust; and the Ducks Unlimited affiliate Wetlands America Trust.

Alexa L. Wesner
US ambassador to Austria
Wesner was born to a German mother and Latvian father who had immigrated to the United States. In high school she was an all-American in track and cross country, and in 2003 she qualified as a member of the US national team for the World Triathlon Championships.

[photo: “American Embassy in Prague,” by Matt Dell, used under a Creative Commons license]

It Won’t Be the Same without You: Join The Expat Survey 2013

2444717300_abb533fa6d_mThe logo for The Expat Survey 2013 is a hummingbird, “because just like human beings each one has its own migratory flight pattern.”

If you’re an expatriate, the Expat Survey wants to hear about your migrations, as well as your “remarkable diversity of habitats.”

The survey is made up of three parts, each rolled out separately, with the final section going live tomorrow (update: the third section went live November 27). All portions of the survey will remain available online until December 31.

The three sections are

  • Migration & Lifestyle
    “[H]ave you found it easy to integrate, what do you like or dislike about your adopted home, has life changed considerably and how do you stay in touch with family, friends and the outside world?”
  • Retail & Finance
    “Whether you are working or not, what are your important considerations when it comes to personal or household expenditure, banking and investments; and what information resources do you now tend to turn to when making these decisions and future fiscal planning?”
  • Travel & Health
    “Has your move to a warmer or colder climate changed your perspective of the world and the places and people you choose to visit; and what modes of transport do you use to get there? Do you enjoy a better diet and benefit from improved health and if you have had cause to call upon your local medical services were they sufficient?”

Besides having their voices heard, expats who fill out all three portions of the survey will be entered into a drawing for £1,000.

An independent London organization, i-World Research Limited, is conducting The Expat Survey, and it’s being promoted by 10 “collaborative partners.” One of those partners, Max Media International, calls the survey “the largest and most extensive independent global research programme ever conducted on those residing outside of their country of origin.”

To take part, go to The Expat Survey 2013.

(“Expatriate Specialism Agency Joins Expat Survey 2013,” Max Media International, July 10, 2013)

[photo: “Rufous Hummingbird—All fired up to impress the ladies!,” by Rick Leche, used under a Creative Commons license]