With its serene Beaux Arts symmetry, the Belgian Embassy residence on Foxhall Road conjures the elegance and refinement of a Parisian mansion—set amid 10 acres of rolling landscape.
This is intentional. Commissioned in 1930 by Anna Dodge Dillman, the widow of auto tycoon Horace Dodge, it is the precise replica of a 1704 palace still standing in Paris today. Dillman tapped French decorators to fill the home with Louis XIV and Louis XV Revival furnishings and decorative objects, then gifted it all to her newly married daughter—who departed when her husband died soon after the marriage.
Even more interesting than these personal details are those of the house itself. For many years, the impeccably designed mansion was said to have been built by Horace Trumbauer, a popular Gilded Age architect. Yet it was actually designed by Julian Abele, an accomplished architect on his staff whose work remained uncredited throughout his life because he was African American. In fact, the contributions of Abele—who also designed much of Duke University (though he never saw the campus in person due to Jim Crow laws) and other illustrious American landmarks—have only been acknowledged since his death.
With such a colorful history, it’s not surprising that the current Belgian ambassador, Dirk Wouters, and his wife, Katrin Van Bragt, both refer to “the soul” of the residence when describing the magical experience of living there. “It’s such a blessing for Belgium to have this house,” Van Bragt says simply. “It’s a warm place for all of Washington to come to.”
The Dodge family sold the mansion to the Belgian government in 1946. Today, its interiors are remarkably preserved, from the sumptuous architectural ornamentation on its walls to many of its original, ornate furnishings. A restoration begun in 2006 by DC-based Quinn Evans Architects updated the building’s infrastructure, replacing antiquated electrical wiring and installing new heating, cooling and humidifying systems. The job also entailed repainting, double-glazing windows, cleaning sculptural elements and more.
The ambassador and his wife arrived in Washington in September 2016 and will complete their stint in the fall of 2020. As they see it, the stately house has provided the perfect backdrop for diplomacy. “A country the size of Belgium needs assets to mark its identity on the power scene,” observes Wouters. “The first is a prestigious embassy. If you also have a beautiful residence at your disposal, then you have everything you need as a diplomat. It is a perfect asset to promote the capital of Europe in Washington, DC.”
The residence hosts 4,000 to 5,000 visitors a year for events ranging from working breakfasts and lunches to dinners for 27 in the elegant, Louis XV Rococo-style dining room and buffets for up to 75 in the Grand Salon. A reception each November 15th attracts 350 guests for King’s Day, a celebration honoring King Leopold I, Belgium’s first monarch following its independence from the Netherlands in 1830.
Along with the storied setting, adds Wouters, “We use gastronomy as a tool for diplomacy. Belgian cuisine is recognized; it stands for refinement. We like to make every guest feel at home, to give them a retreat from work life and a touch of Europe in the U.S. The cuisine allows us to host people in a way they will remember.”
Hired last fall, chef Timon Michiels serves up the classic fare of his native Belgium, influenced by local produce and lightened by nouvelle elements. Among Michiels’ recent offerings: a savory waffle paired with salmon (not locally fished around Belgium) and ice cream flavored with Belgian beer.
Diverse events held at the residence not only introduce Belgian culture to the U.S. but also forge connections. Presentations by experts of note—from Nobel Prize winners to authors, politicians and economists—are popular; these “Belgian salon” evenings include up to 80 guests and are followed by dinner for a select group. Concerts with the Washington Bach Consort, Washington National Opera and Embassy Series are held in the Grand Salon.
Among the ambassador’s favorite moments have been those honoring American veterans who fought in World War II. “People 90 to 100 years old come to the residence from all over the United States for a yearly reception,” he explains. “Last December, I brought several of them to Europe to commemorate the last battle of the war in Belgium. It was emotional and powerful.”
This final year of Wouters’ tenure in DC has already seen the relaunch of a direct flight from Dulles to Brussels on Brussels Airlines. And in late March, the residence will welcome Her Royal Highness Queen Mathilde of Belgium for a two-day visit, during which she will accept a leadership award, speak on poverty and sustainable development and dine with guests at the residence.
For Van Bragt, the draw of the Embassy residence and its rich architectural legacy is powerful, whether or not visitors are experiencing it for the first time. “Some people know more about the house than I do,” she explains. “Maybe they were here 40, 50 years ago. It’s part of their memories and creates a bond.”
Ambassador Wouters agrees, “The house connects you to the people who visit. This feeling of connection adds to the great experience and honor of living and serving here.”