I may have fallen in love with the Yucatan in the early 1970s in Washington, D.C. We were on a high school trip to the nation’s capital and New York. People say things like “trip of a lifetime” and this truly was. A small town boy’s mind and eyes were opened to the world during these travels. Of course we visited all the sights, the actual Constitution, the Smithsonian, the White House and Capitol, the Washington, Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials.
But the place I couldn’t get out of my mind was the Pan American Union Building, housing the Organization of American States. We walked from the bus through a light D.C. drizzle, passed a striking statue of Queen Isabella, opening the huge bronze doors into the soaring atrium of the building, filled with lush tropical plants and birds beneath a sliding glass roof. We were surrounded by strange iconography I had never seen. This was not “colonial” as in red brick and white columns of the east coast. This was something entirely new.
Mesoamerican, particularly Mayan-inspired, and indigenous designs surrounded the warm humid tropical garden patio, a striking contrast to the frisk air outdoors. Snakes spouting water were part of a pink marble fountain having Native American images. Exotic flowers scented the air. The red tile floor had black designs copied from Mexica, Maya and Inca ruins. A number of designs in the building are copied directly from the ruins at Copan. Above are the coats of arms of the original 21 member nations along with names of important figures from the Western hemisphere. Outside is the Azteca garden, with the Annex building in back — the former home of the OAS governor.
We stood there — small town high school kids, slack-jawed — and a guide came up to announce,
Ladies and gentlemen, you are no longer standing on the soil of the United States of America.
The building is considered an embassy — not of one country but of all independent nations of North, Central and South America. As such, the building and grounds are considered international territory. This place was exotic, striking, new, exciting and strange all at once. Quite an impression on this kid.
In 1908, US Secretary of State Elihu Root, who was joined by Theodore Roosevelt and Andrew Carnegie, laid the cornerstone, saying,
Temples of religion, or patriotism, of learning, of art, of justice, abound; but this structure will stand alone, the first of its kind – a temple dedicated to international friendship... May all the Americas come to feel that for them this place is home, for it is theirs, the product of a common effort and the instrument of a common purpose.
On April 26th 1910, United States President William Taft inaugurated the House of the Americas with a ceremony in which he planted the “Tree of Peace” in the central patio of the new building.
The House of the Americas was built on land donated by the US government, with two-thirds of the funds ($750,000) contributed by philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, who dubbed it ‘Temple of Peace of the Americas’.
The building was designed by Architects Paul Cret and Albert Kelsey and conceived to represent the diverse history, cultures and values of the Americas. It became the headquarters of the International Bureau of American Republics, later Pan American Union and present Organization of American States, and a famous DC landmark.
Looking back now, some 40 years later, it seems to me that a die was cast on that day. Years later, when traveling to Yucatan, rediscovering lush tropical gardens and Mesoamerican cultures, maybe these early experiences had a greater subconscious impact than I realized. I know, consciously, I loved that building and all the new discoveries more than most sights during those travels. And I know it opened my mind to more travel, more cultures, more ideas and more experiences.
I’m so happy that I was able to take that high school trip and so happy that later years brought me into contact with Yucatan, seemingly at random. If we watch for patterns in our lives, they can tell us more about who we are.
Today, this building is considered perhaps the first modern era construction reflecting an emerging “Maya Revival architecture.” Anyone who has a chance to visit Washington DC owes it to themselves to view the fantastic structure, tiles, designs, artwork, plantings, statue, and stunning marble staircases, columns and rooms.