When the Iraqi Embassy moved into 1801 P St. NW in 1963, the diplomats found the sentiment "The name of this chamber is Peace" inscribed over the fireplace in a second-floor office.
Last week, one of the few employees still left in the Iraqi chancery went to look for the inscription. All the upstairs office doors were locked but one, and its fireplace had no writing above it. The embassy now is heavily guarded by the Secret Service Uniformed Division. Passersby stay a discreet distance from its yawning mouth of an entryway. The Washington Club next door has the air of a building pretending not to know its neighbor.
Ironic though it may be in the midst of Desert Storm in the Persian Gulf, the thought of a chamber named "Peace" was once quite appropriate to the mansion. For more than half a century, the building was the Washington residence of Mabel Boardman.
Boardman was an incorporator of the American Red Cross in 1900, secretary of its Central Committee for more than 20 years and for 44 years the linchpin that held the Red Cross together. She organized its Volunteer Special Services and tried to limit its members to those of high social standing. Boardman once said that "women of wealth and position have frequently told me they've never been so happy in their lives as when doing Red Cross work."
She had an imperial style, and what's more she even looked like the Queen of England. The story goes that when the Duke of Windsor first saw her he exclaimed, "Good Lord -- there's Mother."
Boardman was a formidable social leader, entertaining in great style. Guests marveled at the mansion's elaborate elegance: a 1,250-square-foot reception room decorated by Tiffany, large musicians balcony, sweeping staircase with filigree banister, fireplaces ornamented with marble and mosaics, and a great dining hall topped by a gold-leafed vaulted ceiling.
The three-story house has 30 rooms in about 9,000 square feet. The exterior is made of small "desert" yellow or henna-colored bricks imported from Italy.
Boardman was a valiant defender of the Dupont Circle neighborhood as a place of great houses. In 1932, in the midst of the Great Depression, she heard that the house of the Herbert Wadsworths, nearby at 1801 Massachusetts Ave., was in danger of being sold to be made into a church. Boardman took Steps. With 22 female friends, she organized the Sulgrave Club (named after the English hereditary seat of George Washington's family) and bought the house.
Boardman's father, Cleveland lawyer William J. Boardman, bought the P Street land in 1892. He commissioned the house from Hornblower and Marshall, premier architects of the day, according to the voluminous files of the Commission of Fine Arts. The architectural firm specialized in residences -- one of its best, the Tuckerman House at 1600 I St. NW, was torn down in 1967 for the Motion Picture Association of America. (The architects also designed the National Museum, now the Museum of Natural History.)
The Boardman house's architectural design was inspired by H.H. Richardson's Romanesque style of the late 19th century and the British arts and crafts movement. The arched entryway is like that of the only Richardson-designed building left in town, the Warder-Totten at 2633 16th St. The oft-told joke has it that Richardson designed his trademark generous doorways so that his own 300-pound-plus figure would not become stuck.
At her death in 1946, Mabel Boardman left the house -- then valued at $139,720 -- to the Washington Cathedral. For the next year or two various news stories told of prospective buyers. In 1948 the Pittsburgh Courier charged that the Episcopalians had halted the sale of the house to the National Council of Negro Women, then headed by educator Mary McLeod Bethune.
In March 1950 the mansion was sold to the Hungarian Reformed Federation of America. The fraternal insurance organization used the large reception room for church services. The Hungarians paid only $90,000 for it, down from an asking price of $250,000.
In 1962, the government of Iraq bought the house for $394,000 to replace its chancery on Wyoming Avenue. By all reports, the Iraqis have made few changes in it.
Today, the almost empty house echoes with its memories.