Home & Design

Private Tour - Embassy Row Retreat

At home with U. S. Ambassador to Barbados Mary Ourisman and Mandell Ourisman

Private Tour - Embassy Row Retreat

Guests are ushered into the entry foyer with limestone
floors and a sweeping staircase.

These days, Mary Ourisman does not spend much time in her gracious home in Northwest Washington, as she is currently the U.S. Ambassador to Barbados. Though her full title is Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to Barbados and Representative of the United States in St. Kitts, St. Lucia, Antigua, Dominica, Grenada and St. Vincent and the Grenadines, to Washingtonians she is better known as a philanthropist and the wife of Mandell Ourisman. A native Texan, Mary Ourisman arrived in Washington via California and worked in Republican politics before meeting her husband, then a widower. Married 15 years ago, the couple initially resided in Chevy Chase.The Ourisman family’s roots run deep in DC; in 1921, Mandell Ourisman’s father opened his first car dealership in the nation’s capital. Now, as chairman of Ourisman Automotive Enterprises, Mandell Ourisman presides over a fleet of dealerships; his grandsons are fourth-generation family members working at the privately held company.Built as a private home almost a hundred years ago, their current residence had been owned by the Red Cross and then by the Fellowship Foundation, a non-denominational organization that sponsors the National Prayer Breakfast—an annual forum on peace attended by political, social and business leaders from around the world. The organization used the residence, called Fellowship House, as a center for spiritual renewal and a place to host visiting dignitaries and public servants.

After the Ourismans bought the house in 1994, they were faced with the task of returning it to a family home for themselves and their blended family of six sons and 16 grandchildren. The first floor with its grand entry, sweeping staircase and Mandell Ourisman’s study (“the only place I let him smoke cigars,” said his wife), and the second floor with the living room, dining room, kitchen and small library are still configured as they were in the Fellowship House era. However, the top two floors, which had been chopped up into bedrooms for guests, needed a more conventional plan with a master suite and guest rooms. The Ourismans turned to Bethesda-based architect John S. Samperton to transform these areas.

In the living room, Mary Ourisman and interior designer Mark
Hampton matched small tufts of wool to get the color of the
custom rug just right. A painting by 18th-century artist Francis
Sartorius hangs above the sofa upholstered in silk.

To decorate the entire home, they hired legendary interior designer Mark Hampton, whose clients included Mike Wallace, J. Carter Brown and Estee Lauder. The Ourisman residence was the last Washington house that Hampton worked on before his death in 1998. Mary Ourisman recalled her collaboration with Hampton as pure joy. “Mark would come down here or I would go to New York. [If we were in New York], he’d say ‘You know that wall—those windows are not symmetrical.’ He could remember a particular window in a particular room. Mind-boggling.”

Throughout the house are reminders that, while this may not be the Ourismans’ current residence, it is their home even though they live most of the year in Barbados. Mandell Ourisman has collected art and antiques for decades and he and Mary like to follow the New York auctions and scour the Paris flea markets. In the downstairs library is a lovely collection of Chippendale chairs from Mary Ourisman’s family home in Texas on which her mother and aunt did all the needlepoint on the seat cushions. In the second floor library is a portrait of Mandell Ourisman as a boy. It was painted during the Depression; the artist needed a car, but could not afford one so he painted portraits of Mandell and his brother as payment.

The second-floor living room is a near ballroom-sized space with floor-to-ceiling windows on three sides. Hampton wisely created several seating areas in the room so that it feels intimate despite its dimensions. He designed all the draperies and selected the upholstery; the rug was custom made. The dining room is less restrained than the living room; a French chandelier and ormolu sconces provide lighting. The mahogany table is George III, as are the side tables. It’s a perfect setting for an elegant party.

The Ourismans relax in the small study between the living
and dining rooms.

The most recent affair the Ambassador hosted was a dinner during the annual Chiefs of Mission Conference last December. All 31 U.S. Ambassadors serving in the Western Hemisphere attended, along with a dozen State Department officials. Since guests came without spouses, Ambassador Ourisman was one of only several women in the group. “Although we sort of made the rule that my husband only smokes cigars downstairs in the library, that night was an exception for cigars,” she recalled. “It was a smoked-filled room, which is where I guess most politicians used to settle things.” She plans to host the group again during the next Chiefs of Mission Conference this fall.

Given the history of the house as a haven for the Red Cross and the Fellowship Foundation, Ambassador Ourisman feels it’s only fitting that she continue its legacy in her diplomatic endeavors. “It’s sort of a continuation in its own way of this house serving as a place for people to come, not only for family events or social events, but also for events that have some effect on the way the world turns and on how we view the world.”

Washington, DC-based Alice Leccese Powers is the editor of the In Mind series for Vintage Random House, including the best-selling Italy in Mind. Lydia Cutter is a photographer in McLean, Virginia.

Every year the Ourismans go to London on their anniversary
and buy something for their house. The silver candelabra
and centerpiece in the dining room were purchased at the
London silver vaults. The still life is by 17th-century French
artist Jean-Baptiste Monnoyer.

In the living room, a 19th-century Chinoiserie desk achors
one wall.

Photographs on the grand piano depict the Ourismans with
political luminaries such as Ronald Reagan, Condoleezza
Rice and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Architect Rodney Robinson created outdoor “rooms” that
are defined by stone walls, ornate ironwork, plantings
and hardscape. When the Ourismans are in residence
during the summertime, the patio, with its cushioned
wrought-iron furniture, is tented for outdoor entertaining.

Duffy, one of the couple’s two Westies, strikes a pose
on the flagstone patio.

Ambassador Ourisman relaxes in her husband’s first-floor
study. She is also an artist; her own paintings flank the mantel.

In the smaller second-floor library, the portrait depicts
Mandell Ourisman as a child, painted by a Depression-era artist.

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