Embassies, consulates and official residences are vital in representing Thailand’s image abroad and many of them have intriguing histories, reflecting changing times in both the cities where they stand and the country they represent. Natnalin Thananan investigates four of them
The royal thai embassies located all over the world serve not only as a place for official work or issuing documents. They act as a lighthouse for Thais living abroad, who in times of need can turn to diplomats who are there to help and guide our citizens. Over the years, the Thai government has accumulated some of the most interesting and prestigious historical buildings in the world as Thai properties, and whether it is the embassy or the residence of the ambassador, the country can be proud of how well these precious treasures have been maintained.
The United Kingdom houses the largest population of Thai expatriates in Europe and the two countries have had a relationship that goes back more than 400 years. Indeed, the first official Siamese embassy was established in London and the royal Thai embassy there is celebrating its 130th anniversary this year and has asked Sumet Jumsai Na Ayudhya, an architect, writer, artist and historian, to compile some background information about its origins.
“In 1882, the Siamese legation was located at 8 Glendower Place in South Kensington and my great uncle Prince Prisdang, the first resident Siamese minister to London, rented it. The embassy then moved about to addresses including Cornwall Mansions and Ashburn Place. Many Thai students from that time will remember Ashburn Place, which is where VIPs and royals would stay on their visits,” says Sumet who studied architecture at Cambridge University. In 1965, the 99-year lease expired and the embassy moved to its present location, at 29-30 Queen’s Gate, still in Kensington. The building comprises two seven-storey townhouses. They are in the Georgian style, but it is not clear exactly when they were built; the properties first appeared on the Land Registry on July 12, 1917.
The Thai government acquired the two freehold buildings in 1963 for 90,000 pounds – 40,000 for number 29 and 50,000 for number 30. The embassy underwent refurbishment during 1995-1996 and was officially re-opened by HRH Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn on May 23, 1997. “There are many embassies in the same area,” says Sumet. “At the entrance hall, there are photographs of past ambassadors on the walls. The picture of Prince Prisdang was taken when the prince graduated from King’s College, London.” Inside, the ambassador’s office is connected to a large meeting room on the first floor. A ground-floor function room hosts original portraits of King Mongkut, copies of photographs taken during King Chulalongkorn’s visit to London in 1897 and a photo exhibition in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the 1960 visit to the United Kingdom by Their Majesties King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit. The embassy has a number of original portraits of past kings and queens of Siam adorning its walls. One particular piece of interest is an original photo of King Mongkut, printed on cloth; while images of King Chulalongkorn, Queen Saowapha and King Vajiravudh all bear their signatures. More recently the building has been home to HRH Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn when he was studying in the UK and HRH Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn when she visited the country
The Queen’s Gate buildings used to serve as both the ambassador’s residence and the embassy, but the envoy’s quarters are now in Tregunter Road, about a mile away. This property also comprises two buildings, which were acquired by the Thai government for a total of 7.7 million pounds in 1993.
After his post in London ended, Prince Prisdang was assigned as a permanent minister, (equivalent to today’s ambassador) to Paris in 1884. “The first Siamese legation was on the Rue de Tournon, which became Rue de Siam when Prince Prisdang arrived in 1884,” explains Sumet. “Prisdang asked the French government to rename the road after our country because it led straight into the garden of the villa that housed the embassy. The legation subsequently moved its base to 8 Rue Greuze, off the Trocadéro, just across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower; and that’s the site of the embassy to this day.” Sumet has led tours to this part of Paris. His family was stationed there for many years and was close to the ambassador’s family; Sumet himself even lived in the embassy for a year, as his father was out of the country on business and had asked the ambassador to look after his son. “I stayed in the room on the top floor and have heard rumours that it was haunted, but I’ve never experienced anything myself,” he recalls. “The ambassador and his family lived on the second floor, and the office building was located in the back. It could be quite crowded for dinner parties and for hosting events, so around the 1970s ambassador Boonchai Charassangsomboon initiated the purchase of a separate residence.”
He describes the ambassador’s residence as remarkable. “It was beautiful, reputable for its beauty and the location is even better than that of the embassy. It had exquisite French windows that would open up into a garden, as well as spacious living and dining rooms.” The residence is located at 6 Rue Alberic-Magnard, which was built in 1927. The previous owner was Josette Solvay, a French actress better known as Josette Day; she was at one time married to Marcel Pagnol, the author of Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources and later took the lead role in Jean Cocteau’s 1946 movie version of Beauty and the Beast. She acquired the property after her second husband Maurice Solvay, part of a successful manufacturing family, passed away. The Thai government bought the building from her in 1965 for 4.1 million francs. “They even found a chest full of letters between the actress and her lover in the basement,” says Sumet. “I think the embassy must have returned it to her family.” The residence is a two-and-a-half storey building with two living rooms, one hall and one dining room on the ground floor; the kitchen and wine cellar are both in the basement. The house also has a total of 10 bedrooms, three on the first and seven on the second floor, with living rooms on both. Sumet remembers staying there while on one of his visits: “The ambassador’s bedroom was towards the left and the rooms where VIP guests stayed were towards the right. Many important guests stayed there; Her Majesty Queen Sirikit stayed on a number of occasions.”
The royal Thai embassy in Italy is located at 130/132 Via Nomentana in Rome. The building was long rumoured to be the home of Enrico Caruso, the legendary Neapolitan tenor, and some still claim that his name was on the contract when the Thai government purchased the building on October 15, 1915, by Phraya Pipat Kosa, Siam’s first minister to Italy at the time. According to Teddy Spha Palasathira, in his book Addresses, this is the oldest building now in use as a Thai embassy, having been constructed in 1880. The interior designer Professor Chairat Na Bangchang says that the embassy was closed between 1943 and 1952. Because the building was old and in need of repairs, the firm Orazio Architetto was commissioned to survey the infrastructure and determine its weaknesses and problem spots in 1988. Renovations started in 1993 when ambassador Anurak Thananan was posted there. His late wife, Natchari, an interior designer by profession, oversaw the renovations. HRH Princess Chulabhorn stayed there in July 1996 and it was officially reopened by HRH Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn on June 8, 1997.
The foyer of the building is spacious with a corridor to the left leading to a large living room, and two smaller salons. The main living room was decorated in traditional Thai style with tones of reds and gold, with large paintings of the King and Queen and a grand piano. The room is spacious with large windows letting in natural light and two separate seating areas. One room is referred to as the Venice room as it has original mosaic tiles that were kept intact during the renovations, with a Murano glass chandelier and ornate furniture. A large marble staircase in the foyer leads to the second floor where the ambassador and his family live. There are altogether four bedrooms on this floor, a master bedroom with an en-suite bathroom, two bedrooms sharing a bathroom in the middle and a smaller bedroom with its own bathroom. Across from the master bedroom is also a family room, where the family can enjoy down time. Close to the family room and the master bedroom is a door to the second floor balcony that overlooks the Via Nomentana. Downstairs to the right of the foyer is a door leading to the dining room with its wood-panelled ceiling. The long table seats up to 24 guests.
Also known as Villa Thai, it is home to many beautiful art pieces from famous Thai artists, from the painting of the Suphannahong royal barges by Tawee Nantakwang to the portraits of the current King and Queen by Pranee Tantisook. Kien Yimsiri’s contemporary art piece and an oil painting by ML Poom Malakul Na Ayutthaya also adorn the hallways. Works by Italian artists can also be seen, including a portrait of a woman holding a child in the white living room by Giuseppe Carosi and a red piece by Ettore Forti.
The residence has two kitchens; one a pantry on the first floor, the other an industrial-sized unit in the basement next to the wine cellar. Also in the basement are the servants’ quarters, three guest rooms and a bathroom. There used to be a secret passageway that ran from the basement to the catacomb across the street. Past officials living in the embassy apparently bumped into tourists who had accidentally wandered along this passage while visiting the tombs; sadly, it was blocked up during the renovations in the 1990s. “There are many passageways that run under the city, and the Christians used them to escape persecution by the Romans,” says Anurak. “There are even stories of tourists who’ve become lost for days in these underground tunnels while out exploring.”
The residence of the Thai ambassador to the United States is located at 22nd Street NW and Decatur Place. The upscale Kalorama neighbourhood at one time or another has housed many prominent figures, including presidents Herbert Hoover and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. American architect and interior designer Ogden Codman Jr built the house for his cousin Martha. The four-storey, red brick classical revival property remains one of the few intact homes designed by the architect, and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The Martha Codman house is set against a hillside with a courtyard in front, formed by two side wings of the building.
According to Pauline Metcalf in The Town Houses of Ogden Codman: A Brief Tour, “The major rooms, all with 14-foot ceilings, are in the wing on the left.” The drawing room overlooks the courtyard, then comes the music room and at the back, the dining room. Metcalf also explains that “all three [rooms] have doors opening on a terrace that wraps around one side of the house from the back.” The famous landscape architect, Achille Duchene gave advice to Codman on this terrace. In 1995, the building became the residence of the Thai ambassador and was refurbished completely under the direction of ambassador Manaspat Xuto. “When my husband, ambassador Nitya Pibulsonggram and I were posted there between 1996 to 2000, the gardens were further refurbished and replanted,” recalls Pacharin Pibulsonggram. The building has hosted many important dignitaries such as members of the Thai royal family, ambassadors of major countries, prime ministers of Thailand, World Bank directors, government figures and celebrities.
Another prominent building in the United States owned by the Thai government that deserves a mention is located in New York City at 20 East 82nd Street between Fifth and Madison Avenues. The townhouse, which was completed in 1901, was designed by architect Richard W Buckley, who was responsible for many other residences on the Upper East Side. “The house was purchased by the Thai government from the original owner, Emily O’Neill on December 29, 1949 for the sum of US$90,000,” says Pacharin, who lived there while her husband was Thailand’s permanent representative to the United Nations. It was declared a landmark in the Metropolitan Museum Historic District in 1977. “In 1979-1980 the offices were moved out of this building and it became the residence of the ambassador and permanent representative to the United Nations,” explains Pacharin.
The French Beaux–Arts style townhouse comprises six storeys, retaining almost all of its original architectural detailing, including a beautiful Tiffany-style stained-glass skylight over the central stairwell, which extends all the way to the fifth floor. The first storey’s floor is laid with a marble mosaic and two white columns flank the formal entrance foyer. The beautiful staircase has bronze banisters and posts and leads to the second storey, which houses a central reception area, a drawing room and a formal dining room. The latter has mahogany panels both on its walls and ceilings. A bedroom and library are situated on the third floor, the latter panelled in mahogany and boasting a richly carved mantelpiece. More bedrooms and storage space are located on the top floors. The townhouse has hosted many prominent figures, from Her Majesty Queen Sirikit to ambassadors, secretaries general of the United Nations and members of the Rockefeller family.