Moments before U.S. and allied aircraft began bombing military targets in Iraq and Kuwait last Wednesday, four high-level State Department officials stood in a hearing room of the District Building pleading a simple zoning case on behalf of the Republic of Turkey, a key ally against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
The timing could not have been more auspicious for Turkey, which has long wanted to tear down its chancery along Massachusetts Avenue's historic Embassy Row and replace it with a much larger one.
The interests of the U.S. government are among the key criteria used to decide cases before the Foreign Missions Board of Zoning Adjustment, a special panel of federal and District officials that decides all zoning cases involving foreign installations in the city.
And while never revealing the urgency of situation, State Department officials were making a compelling case for the foreign policy implications of this very local decision.
Over strong objections from neighbors and preservationists, the board voted unanimously that night to approve the new chancery plan. None of the residents in the room knew until after the vote that war in the Persian Gulf had just begun.
"Our case was one of the first casualties of the war," said Breck Arrington, chairman of Sheridan-Kalorama Advisory Neighborhood Commission, which fought the plan for more than three years.
He, other neighbors, preservation groups and city officials were united against destruction of the chancery, a modest, 62-year-old classical revival mansion at 2523 Massachusetts Ave. NW, because they say it is protected by two overlapping historic districts, one along Massachusetts Avenue NW and one in Sheridan/Kalorama.
State Department officials who testified Wednesday included one undersecretary of state, two deputy assistant secretaries of state and Ambassador David C. Fields, director of the 0ffice of Foreign Missions.
"They didn't have Jim Baker there, but they had everybody else," Arrington said, referring to Secretary of State James A. Baker III.
State Department officials declined to comment.
But at a hearing before the D.C. Preservation Review Board in December, Ronald Mlotek, a lawyer for the State Department, said, "I would just note for the record that in the present day and time with Turkey, with the applicant in this case being a front-line country with Iraq, the foreign policy considerations in this case are acutely highlighted."
Whayne S. Quin, an attorney for the Republic of Turkey, emphasized in a pre-hearing statement that the need of the United States to maintain strong ties with Turkey during the current crisis outweighed historic preservation issues.
"Turkey has cut off the twin pipeline through which Iraq exported nearly half its crude oil. It has taken these actions, in support of the United States efforts and United Nations resolutions . . . despite the prospect of continuing military threat from Iraq."
Three years ago, Turkish officials had offered an entirely different plan, which also had the support of the State Department. But the board rejected it, saying it didn't fit the historic neighborhood.
So the Turkish government hired a new archictect, Shalom Baranes, who redesigned the building, hiding 30 percent of it underground and splitting the above-ground portion into two pavilions. But like the initial plan, the new proposal requires razing the present chancery.
All sides agree that the new design is better. But Richard Nettler, an attorney for the Sheridan/Kalorama Historical Association, said the timing of the decision, on the eve of war, gave Turkey more leverage.
At last Wednesday's hearing, the State Department testimony was stonger and more emotional than three years ago, Nettler said.
Patricia Wilson, director of the D.C. Preservation League, said many in the preservation community are "outraged and dismayed" by the board decision, especially because the D.C. Preservation Review Board had recommended that the chancery be saved.
"The preservation process has been circumvented," she said.
"It's fortunate for Turkey and unfortunate for us that they were able to put this issue in the confines of the gulf crisis."