washingtonpost.com > Business > Local Business

Once Grand, Now Bedraggled

Windows are open and broken at Malawi's townhouse on Massachusetts Avenue, which the country abandoned after a fire in 2003.
Windows are open and broken at Malawi's townhouse on Massachusetts Avenue, which the country abandoned after a fire in 2003. (Photo: Michael Williamson/Post)
  Enlarge Photo     Buy Photo
By Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 8, 2008

The front door to one of Washington's finer addresses, a four-story townhouse valued at $3.9 million, is padlocked and covered with plywood. The brass-toned plate above the entrance reads: "Embassy of the Republic of Malawi."

Next door, a barren nine-bedroom residence is assessed at $6 million, even with the bare flagpole out front, the weeds growing in the driveway, the paint-peeled columns and boarded-up windows. The owner: the United Arab Emirates.

Across the street, along a portion of Massachusetts Avenue known as Embassy Row, the grass outside a century-old mansion recently reached hip high, Venetian blinds twist sloppily in a corner window and the front door is missing its doorknob.

The owner, the Pakistani government, moved out in 2004.

Over the past year, the District has fought to eliminate thousands of vacant buildings, sharply raising property taxes to force owners to sell, lease or occupy their real estate. But officials can exert no such pressure on more than a dozen derelict properties that have added a dose of blight to some of Washington's grandest neighborhoods.

Each of the buildings served as an embassy or diplomatic residence for countries including Liberia and Malaysia, the Philippines and the Republic of Togo. Legally considered foreign soil in almost all cases, the buildings are exempt from property taxes and the fine print of the city's building code.

In some cases, the properties are vacant because the countries have decamped to more palatial confines in the diplomatic enclave off Van Ness Street. In others, the disrepair is a sign of trouble back home as the countries struggle to finance renovations.

Then there's the empty brick house on Quincy Street NW, the one with the dead leaves piled at the front door, the ungainly forest consuming the back yard and the collapsed remnants of what was once a garage roof.

Neighborhood children refer to it as the "haunted house."

Property records show the owner as the Embassy of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

Yugoslavia was dissolved in 1991.

In 2006, the republic's diplomatic properties were divided among the six succeeding countries. Although the house was turned over to Bosnia, at least preliminarily, the deed was never transferred, said Svetozar Miletic, minister counselor at the Embassy of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company