The Embassy of Ivory Coast, long an unfinished eyesore on Massachusetts Avenue just north of Sheridan Circle in Northwest Washington, is finally nearing completion.
Twice before in the past five years, work on the construction project stalled because of political upheaval in the West African country. This time, Ivory Coast officials insist, the multimillion-dollar renovation and building project will be completed.
The property, owned by Ivory Coast since the 1960s, originally included two mismatched buildings separated by a parking lot. A 20,000-square-foot stone and glass structure that unites the existing buildings and will serve as the main entrance to the complex is in its final building phase. The work is being done by Whiting-Turner Contracting Co. of Baltimore and is scheduled to be completed this summer.
The two older buildings -- one a two-story gray limestone Italian Renaissance house built in 1930, the other a three-story red-brick Classical Revival house dating from 1941 -- have been gutted and are being redone for the first time, with all new systems and new configurations of space.
The new building is made of a manufactured gray stone chosen to echo the limestone of one adjacent building. A two-story underground parking garage with 47 spaces has been built below.
When construction is complete, Ivory Coast, a nation of 17 million people caught in the grip of civil war, will have an imposing new 60,000-square-foot complex on Embassy Row, a leafy stretch of grand and gracious buildings along Massachusetts Avenue NW.
"For the prestige of the Ivory Coast, we needed to do something," said Koffi Cisse, who is acting as the government's representative overseeing the construction effort. "Even though there's a war going on, it doesn't mean we have to stop construction. We need offices so people can discuss the problems going on over there."
The new embassy for Ivory Coast, a nation a little larger than the state of New Mexico, has been a long time in the making. Work on the design began in 1996, when the country was relatively stable.
Architect Wanchul Lee, principal of Wanchul Lee Associates PC in Georgetown, said getting the design approved took two years and included much back-and-forth with the local community over design considerations.
"There's always give-and-take about design," said Kindy French, president of the Sheridan-Kalorama Historical Association. "It was a very, very difficult design, trying to build something in the middle of two existing buildings that don't complement each other to begin with."
Demolition and excavation of the site began in May 1999. In December of that year, Ivory Coast President Henri Konan Bedie was overthrown in a military coup. The project was halted for three months, then briefly resumed.
"There was still some money left in escrow accounts, so we picked the project back up," said architect Lee. "Then the money ran out and we stopped."
Construction manager Cisse said the military government that took power "didn't want to give any money to the project."
For three years, the site stayed as it was -- two gutted buildings, a huge two-story hole in the ground, and a builder's trailer parked behind a high chain-link fence.
"It was an eyesore," said the architect. "The fence collapsed at one point. We put some sheeting and support on the two existing buildings so they wouldn't collapse into the hole. But with rain and snow, thaw and freeze, the support weakened. It was all a worry."
Lee said he tried to help the Ivory Coast government look for financing for the project but with no luck.
Sheridan-Kalorama residents, already concerned about other vacant embassy buildings in the neighborhood, were apprehensive about this project stalling, too.
"There was huge concern in the neighborhood about the project," said Chris Chapin, president of the Sheridan-Kalorama Neighborhood Council. "But there wasn't much we could do. It wasn't abandoned. It was a construction project in hiatus. We're very happy they're moving ahead with it now."
After the demolition work, the embassy rented a building farther up Massachusetts Avenue, where the staff relocated. The embassy offices were later moved to the ambassador's residence in upper Northwest. The Ivory Coast ambassador has been living in a hotel since the move.
A second coup attempt in 2002, which failed, led to a civil war in the country that has killed thousands of people and driven more than a million from their homes. The construction project resumed for the third time early the next year, even though the political situation in Ivory Coast remained in turmoil.
Cisse insists the project won't be halted again, no matter what happens in Ivory Coast. "We've got the money right here in the bank," he said. He declined to give a total cost for the project, saying the Ivory Coast government didn't want to make the figure public.
"The government wants to keep this project going," said Cisse. "But there's a war going on, and there are a lot of parties over there that might not like what the government has decided. So we don't want to blow it."