But history happened — the advent of the income tax, the Great Depression and World War II among them. Some large homes were turned into boardinghouses, some were torn down; the fortunate ones became clubs, museums and embassies. The Chinese legation, for instance, went from a single-family residence, to a rooming house (23 units on three floors) to the current condo building developed in 1987 (13 units on five floors, with the attics and below-grade spaces finished).
Political events, such as the emergence of independent African nations in the 1960s or the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1990-91, can lead to a flurry of new embassy activity, which most often translates to countries’ seeking appropriate buildings to buy for residences and offices.
In the minus column, though,foreign governments — because of regime change or financial crises at home — sometimes move to new offices and residences without selling the old properties, allowing the latter to languish, possibly for years.
Reclaiming one of these former glories can be bittersweet: New homeowners often get the “good bones” of a mansion— high ceilings, thick walls, architectural detail. But interior embellishments may have been swept away to fit in one more desk or filing cabinet, and old wood floors worn down by bureaucratic foot traffic. In a condominium development, Apartment A might have the generous original bathroom, Apartment B might get the elegant balcony, and Apartment C might wind up with nothing but new drywall. The truly lucky residents of such buildings — those who own condos in the former Qing dynasty legation, for example — will not only get to live in an attractive historic building, but will also inherit tales to tell.
* * *
The 1,137-square-foot space where Envoy Extraordinary Wu once slept and relaxed is now the bright, airy two-bedroom home of Ritter and Mooney. An enormous fiddle-leaf fig tree soaks up the sun from a large south-facing window in the living room; beside it, a handsome daybed accommodates two for reading. The apartment has a fireplace the couple use frequently and a deep balcony off the living room where they have been known to sleep out. Ritter and Mooney have divided the original large bedroom to create a small guest room.
Across the hall from Ritter and Mooney on the building’s second floor, a neighbor lives in the mirror image of their condo, once the bedroom and sitting room of Wu’s wife, Ho Miu-ling, whose name is sometimes rendered as He Miaoling.
Ritter, a designer of residential interiors and museum shops, has lived in the building for 20 years (she married Mooney, who works in e-marketing at Marriott International, 17 years ago). The furnishings are eclectic: contemporary upholstered pieces flanked by a hefty antique German chest and a Shaker-style armoire. An antique Chinese wedding basket (“I just loved the shape,” Ritter says) sits atop the armoire; an old English music stand has been converted into a drinks table.
The couple know details about their building’s former life because Wu’s daughter, age 4 when her family moved in, came back to visit as a very old woman and delighted the condo owners by telling them what their rooms used to be and how she and her sister were allowed to hang over the banister on the third floor when “Minister and Mme Wu,” as they were called in the society columns, entertained guests in the lobby below.