Silent and inaccessible, the Embassy of Iran in Washington, D.C. has been closed since the fall of the Shah in 1979. In 2013 I was afforded an unprecedented and unique opportunity: The ability to capture the stillness of this defunct institution and a rare glimpse into a world forgotten by history.
Once a hub of American celebrity merged with and immersed in, Persian culture, the Iranian Embassy’s current uninhabited status still retains a particular rich aesthetic that captures the exclusive solitary nature of this institution. These previously unseen photos continue to haunt us as the geopolitical dynamics between Iran and the United States have only become more fractured as time distances itself from the events surrounding the closure of the embassy. Each passing year has brought a seemingly repetitious “tradition” of hope for reconciliation and the anticipation of further disintegration. All the while the structure is cushioned alongside the active homes of other standing diplomatic missions from countries on Embassy Row, the Iranian Embassy continues to stand as a enduring custodian of vacancy, having sat in forced solitude for the past 15,000 days.
Within this closed space dust still accumulates as it casts a metaphorical layer of enchantment over this derelict residence. A sense of time is quickly forgotten as the remnants of endless ballrooms, offices, and studies echo an environment that once ruled a mere four decades ago.
Gilded mirrors, remarkably intact, leaves us wondering who and what times they bore witness to, in the not too distant past. Jubilant lights and voices no longer fill the building: Only sunlight crosses forth through beautiful stained glass works. Windows are guarded by cast gates organized in the form of the Lotus Flower. As if peering through a portal to another world, gilded mirrors and stained glass windows reflect a past in which expansive ballrooms echo the laughter and mingling of Hollywood celebrities, tycoons, socialites, diplomats, politicians and artists. This modernist building was first constructed in 1959, although the popularity of the Iranian Embassy emerged in the 1960’s and 1970’s under the leadership of then-Ambassador Ardeshir Zahedi (b. 1928).
With Ambassador Zahedi, subsequently, reinventing the interiors to reflect elements of traditional Persian designs, the reintroduction of Iranian beauty and culture quickly made the space a magnet for preeminent stars of the cultural and political worlds. Guests included such luminaries as Liza Minnelli, Elizabeth Taylor, Gregory Peck, Henry Kissinger, Nelson Rockefeller, and countless others. Andy Warhol wrote in his diaries of frequenting dinners alit with Hollywood glamour at the Embassy of Iran, which hosted events such as legendary dancer Rudolf Nureyev’s birthday party. These often “decadent” soirees were also attended by the Shah and Shahbanu, her glittering tiara matched only by the brilliance of renowned beauties like Taylor.
Its midcentury style interiors reflecting traditional elements of Persian folklore and design lie unbeknownst to the majority of people who live in its vicinity and a faded memory to those who attended its vast receptions over four decades ago. Interestingly, despite its kinship to authentic Persian elements, many of the artisans leading the design implementations of the Embassy were of Western or European origin. Still, the results of their work show a true dedication to maintain a genuine sense of Middle Eastern aesthetics. The grand entrance doors, which featured the very traditional 12th century Iranian image of The Lion and The Sun as well as an array of other animal symbols, were actually commissioned works by the American architectural sculptor Ulysses Ricci (1888-1960). Meanwhile, the rooms were lavishly decorated with recognizably Persian flavor (with some small European touches) by UK-based designer Michael Szell (1930-2002) under Ambassador Zahedi’s instruction. The end result was reportedly a truly unique showcase of Middle Eastern design and culture in the United States.
The Embassy has since become a figment of the imagination, if it is even remembered at all, analogous to a horrible divorce where the pain is often best left ignored. The dissolution from the American consciousness is quite evident and palpable. Perhaps it is this unnerving sense of a lack of emotional closure that the Embassy represents which continues to make one uneasy. It has always felt as if we were invited to a party, but when we arrive, everyone (and everything) left the space minutes ago, all of a sudden.
The glamour of Persia, its mysticism and exoticism was a rare world opened to the highest of American society in the 1970s, and just as quickly the doors were flung shut and forgotten.