by Marjorie L. Share and Jane M. Solomon
On April 27th, DC’s Historic Preservation Review Board unanimously awarded historic landmark status to 3101 Albemarle Street, the stately 1926 Colonial Revival stone house located high on the hill at the corner of 32nd Street. The house, which sits among mature trees and overlooks the entrance to Soapstone Valley, is often referred to as “the gateway to Forest Hills.”
The Forest Hills Neighborhood Alliance filed the application. ANC 3F Commissioner Naomi Rutenberg authored a resolution endorsing the application, which the Commission passed unanimously. The application also had the support of adjacent and near neighbors who, along with many other Forest Hills residents, sent notes of support to the Historic Preservation Office of the Office of Planning.
Most significantly, the application was endorsed by new owners, Forest Hills resident P.G. Gottfried and son Bobby, as well as the Polish government, which owned the property from 1979 until its sale to the Gottfrieds in February. P.G., a DC native who remembers playing touch football as a kid on the lawn of 3101, was specific about his intent to retain the house and support the landmark nomination when he submitted his bid to the Poles. Among the many bids they received, all except P.G.’s would have razed the house for development. The selling agent has told us that when Polish officials selected the Gottfrieds’ as the winning bid, their plan to keep the house was the deciding factor.
While the majority of historic homes and structures in D.C. and elsewhere are based upon distinctions of the architect or architecture, 3101 received recognition because of two less commonly-used criteria, “A” (events) and “C” (individuals) that contributed significantly to the heritage, culture and development of the District. The Historic Preservation Office’s Kim Williams, in her staff report to the full board, notes “…the property was the scene of one of the most significant and dramatic diplomatic events in the history of the Cold War.”
In granting landmark status, the Review Board recognized that from 1979 to 1981, 3101 Albemarle served as a diplomatic residence and “safe house” for the then-ambassador to the U.S. from Poland, Romuald Spasowski. On December 19th, 1981, Spasowski telephoned the U.S. State Department from the house and requested protection from the Soviet KGB, which had threatened to “lynch” him because of his support for the pro-democracy Solidarity Movement in Poland led by Lech Walesa, who went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Spasowski thus became the highest-ranking Communist diplomat to defect throughout the entire Cold War, which ran from roughly 1947 to 1991, and to this day he remains the highest-ranking Communist official to have ever defected.
An enduring memorial to human courage
Spasowski had been raised in the promises of Communism by his father, a leading intellectual and author, and was highly esteemed within the Polish Communist party. In 1978, he returned to the U.S. as ambassador, having first held the post during the Eisenhower administration (1955-1961). He had also served as a deputy foreign minister as well as ambassador to Great Britain, Argentina and India.
Upon returning to Washington for his second term, Spasowski soon discovered that the Polish Embassy on 16th Street was home to a security espionage unit, and that whatever he said was reported at once to Moscow. His embassy safe had been broken into and he became increasingly aware that security officials from the USSR and Poland were playing a cat-and-mouse game with him. Looking to escape scrutiny from the KGB and the cramped living quarters the embassy maintained, Spasowski and his wife Wanda asked for and were granted approval from the government in Warsaw to find a new residence. Their search led them to 3101 Albemarle, which they convinced the Polish government to purchase.
To keep out spies and all but trusted colleagues, the Spasowskis acted as their own contractor and architect on work including the western-most rear addition. Wanda also did all the cleaning and cooking herself, including for large diplomatic dinners because all Embassy servants reported to “Security.”
Spasowski kept a secret diplomatic diary, written in code, that he locked and hid in his bedroom at 3101. The Spasowskis were required to attend monthly dinner parties of all Soviet Bloc diplomats that he later described as “hunting and trapping sessions, aimed at snaring dissidents.” At one dinner at 3101, Spasowski confronted Anatoly Dobrynin, the Soviet ambassador to the U.S., who had been a principal actor during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Dobrynin then teased and threatened Spasowski in front of other Soviet bloc ambassadors.
When martial law was declared in Poland and Lech Walesa was taken into custody on December 13th, 1981, Dobrynin summoned Spasowski to the Polish Embassy. Spasowski refused, realizing that once there, he would be beyond the bounds of American protection. Later that week Spasowski went to the State Department. It was a Saturday and there was only one car in front. Inside it were Soviet Embassy employees. Once Spasowski was inside the building, Deputy Assistant Secretary Jack Scanlan warned him that U.S. intelligence had “picked up signs that people from the Soviet Embassy” were following him.
“We have proof,” Scanlan said. “Military attaches are driving around your residence, and tailing your car. Be careful.”
Spasowski returned to the residence where his phone kept ringing with requests from the Polish Embassy that he come at once. Thus, on a snowy evening, less than a week before Christmas 1981, Spasowski called Scanlan at the State Department from the residence saying, “I’m asking for protection; I want the President to grant me and my family political asylum. Please come to my house to get us before the Soviets do.”
The ambassador and Wanda quickly packed their belongings, starting first with his diplomatic diary. Their daughter Misia, her husband Andrzej and neighbors helped gather their things. As minutes passed slowly, the doorbell rang. It was two District police officers dispatched by the State Department to provide protection. The Spasowskis soon watched a line of unmarked sedans come up the long drive – not knowing then whether it was the KGB or FBI.
Following Spasowski’s defection on Saturday, December 19th, 1981, the Polish government confiscated his family’s property, and condemned Spasowski to death in absentia.
Within 48 hours of the defection, Spasowski was at the State Department delivering a speech to the world about Poland’s love of freedom and denouncing suppression of the Solidarity Movement, and shortly thereafter he was in the Oval Office meeting with then-President Ronald Reagan, who was at the end of his first year in office and still recuperating from an attempted assassination.
Reagan had a Christmas address to the nation scheduled for the next evening. After his emotional meeting with the Spasowskis, he tossed out his script and delivered a speech to the American people about the oppression of Poland by the Soviet Union. (He speaks about the Spasowskis about 11 minutes into the video.)
Spasowski’s defection emboldened an already determined President Reagan, and Spasowski went on to play a crucial role in shaping Reagan’s policies and those of his successor George H.W. Bush; policies that contributed to the fall of the Iron Curtain and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Moral courage and creating a safe house were not new to Spasowski. Throughout the Holocaust, while he himself was being sought by the Nazis, he had helped his mother dig tunnels and build secret bedrooms to transform their house near Warsaw into a hiding place for people who were Jewish and other individuals persecuted by the Nazis – actions honored in 1984 by Yad Vashem, the world Holocaust remembrance center in Jerusalem. Spasowski’s mother is included among “The Righteous Among the Nations.”
Recognition of landmark status
Historic landmark status for 3101 Albemarle makes it perhaps the only site commemorated in Washington, DC for actions related to the Cold War, during which the world lived under the constant threat of nuclear annihilation.
Today, the house still reveals the story. The stone pillar at the base of the long driveway on Albemarle carries empty niches; one had featured the Communist hammer and sickle. Neighbors recall when it was suddenly removed in 1990. The remaining plaque, bearing “Peoples Democratic Republic of Poland” was removed around 2011, when the Polish Ambassador and his family moved to their new residence, the former Paul Mellon house, on Whitehaven Parkway.
In his seven hundred-page autobiography, The Liberation of One (1986, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Publishers), Spasowski writes:
“It was close to eight o’clock when we finally set foot outside. The air had turned cold and raw; the snow that had melted in the afternoon sun was now ice. Headlights on, motors running, the cars had assembled in one continuous string. As we walked to an FBI limousine, we saw they were all loaded down with telephones and radio equipment, portable sirens and flashing lights. We rolled down the hill. Behind us the stone house was ablaze with an unnatural light. Every window and spotlight shone, and in at the rising fumes of many cars’ exhaust, the place had the bewitched glow of a storybook palace. As it grew smaller in the distance… I took Wanda’s hand. We were both trembling.”
Key to the end of the Cold War was the period when 3101 stood empty and dark (from 1981 until 1988), a period when the U.S. had revoked “Most Favored National Status” from Poland and all diplomatic relations between the two countries were broken. Today, 3101 remains an enduring memorial to and symbol of human courage, in honor of a man who risked his life again and again to fight oppression and helped bring an end to the Cold War.
Now that the history-making house has been landmarked, here is what is next in store for the property.
The Gottfrieds have offered the Rock Creek Conservancy (RCC) a five-year lease-to-purchase agreement for the mansion and the landmarked lot, which would provide the organization with a headquarters directly across from the very park it serves. Zoning regulations allow a non-profit to occupy a landmarked property if it receives a special exception. That means a comprehensive and enforceable use agreement will need to be developed among the RCC, the Gottfrieds, the neighbors and the ANC.
The landmarked lot is approximately half of the original 1.1 acre property. The Gottfrieds are planning to build houses on the remaining property and are currently developing the site plan and house designs. The development team will share its plans with the community in the coming months.