Say what you want to about glasnost -- the gray shutters closing all the windows of the grand Soviet Embassy on 16th Street are still firmly closed. The only crack is one made by a television cable on the alley side.
Indeed, about the only way to find out about preparations yesterday for the Big Man's visit today through Sunday was to stand out in the alley on the north side of the elegant Beaux-Arts embassy and watch the trucks -- bringing stuff in, taking trash away, carrying in miles and miles of television cable.
The telephone lines to the embassy buzzed busy. Everyone you asked for at the front gate was "out of the building." The stream of employees (most with cigarettes in their hands or mouths) coming and going from the alley entrance shrugged when you asked "How are things going?" Tensions must be rising, because an ashtray stand outside the back door was full of cork-tipped butts. A group of women -- possibly flower arrangers or housekeepers, chaperoned by a determined-looking guard -- was hustled off in a car with diplomatic tags.
The one Soviet press person, caught unawares last week when beseeched for any tidbit about Gorbachev's stay, said, "I do not know nor can I find out if Mr. Gorbachev likes broccoli."
But astute alley watchers yesterday caught sight of a station wagon unloading grapefruit, Idaho potatoes and Sunkist lemons. Evidently, the Georgians of the Soviet Union have acquired a taste for food from America's Georgia -- a big watermelon was unloaded and a carton stamped "bar-b-cue sauce" was later thrown in the trash.
Also tossed in the truck marked "Waste Management" were cartons labeled Seagram's 7 whiskey, plaster, Scotch tape (several), tomatoes, tea bags, drinking glasses from Turkey, paper plates and a salad processing machine. Also light bulbs (fluorescent mostly, presumably spent) and bits of cheap paneling.
Glimpses of the embassy's piano nobile at the numerous parties given in the past few years show that the Soviets have taken good care of the 1909 building, plaqued as a Historic Register landmark. Yuri Dubinin, who just left for Moscow after four years as Soviet ambassador, had the embassy repainted and repaired on a regular schedule, with a bit extra before the last summit and again for this one. In 1975, all of its gold leaf -- miles of molding in the principal rooms -- was regilded (for the fourth time) by gilders Victor Popkov and Vladimr Razumova, who came from Moscow and stayed many months.
Guests invited to the embassy to meet Mikhail and Raisa Gorbachev will pass through the grand iron gates into the first-floor reception area. They shouldn't be underwhelmed at the rather unpretentious area -- the glory is upstairs. A great staircase with an elaborate iron railing of gilded floral wreaths sweeps by a huge portrait of Lenin, and then to a central upstairs reception hall where the ambassador customarily greets guests. Presidents, secretaries of state, Armand Hammer and Bob Hope are usually sequestered in an intimate parlor across the reception hall and between the two big banquet- and ballrooms.
The two great salons are west and east.
The one on the west is lighter, walled in gold and mirrors, a mock pavilion with tall columns, woodwork carved with floral motifs, chandeliers dripping with crystals and repeating themselves over and over again in the mirrors. Most likely this is the room where round tables will be set up for this Friday's dinner.
The menu for the Soviets' dinner for President Bush has not been announced, but if the guests are fortunate, they'll be served the same quality of caviar, red and black, that the Dubinins offered on blinis at the 72nd anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution. The Soviet cooks -- and Gorbachev is said to have brought another -- also turn out meat pies, chicken kebabs and tasty pastries, none of which seem to be prepared for those fearing cholesterol.
The east room is heavily paneled in dark wood. A troop of Ionic pilasters marches down the room. A tough Tatar and a pair of ferocious lions glare down at guests from above the marble mantlepiece.
The private quarters are strictly off limits. A set of original floor plans in the informative Fine Arts Commission's "Sixteenth Street Architecture" book is the most revealing. A generous bedroom with a large window bay, doubtless closed by the usual shutters, would well accommodate the visiting Gorbachevs. But the security-minded Soviets are not saying which apartment will be theirs. At the last summit, Dubinin commented, "He'll have his choice of rooms." They may not be as grand as the entertaining salons with their gold-leaf rococo furniture and pastoral paintings. Dubinin once confided that, like many householders, "most of our money has gone into the public rooms."
The oft-told tale of the house's history, discussed by Hope Ridings Miller in the book, "Embassy Row," and in the Fine Arts book, would make a musical to rival "Silk Stockings."
Hattie Sanger Pullman, widow of George M. Pullman, the parlor car millionaire, built the house in 1909 for her congressman son-in-law and her daughter. She hired Nathan Wyeth, a Washington architect, to design the building. Wyeth, educated at the Ecole des Beaux Arts of Paris, borrowed from all the best architectural styles -- Italian, French, English etc. -- and topped it all off with a great Second Empire-style mansard roof.
The house cost $361,477.64 -- including $750 front doors, $10,000 worth of lighting fixtures and an unpriced central vacuum cleaning system.
Pullman's son-in-law, perhaps overawed by the mansion's grandeur, never moved in and didn't run again for Congress, and Pullman sold it to Natalie Harris Hammond, who sold it in November 1913 to the imperial Russian government, the first to occupy it.
Now, the house holds both the chancery (offices) and the ambassador's residence. When the new U.S. Embassy is completed in Moscow (the first attempt is being razed because it was one big ear attached to the Soviet intelligence agencies), the Soviets will move to the office buildings they have completed at Mount Alto in Northwest Washington.
Now that even in the Soviet Union the Romanovs are spoken of kindly, the 16th Street embassy no longer seems as much of an anachronism as it once did. And the Soviets -- who have grander palaces in Moscow -- have declared that they intend to keep the 16th Street mansion no matter how many structures they are eventually allowed on Mount Alto.