In the embassies of Washington DC, where crisis is mellowed by the splash of fountains, and diplomacy is practiced over gleaming silver in frescoed dining rooms, nearly every stately mansion has its own unique history. Many have nothing at all to do with international relations for some of these mansions were built by wealthy individuals who came to America’s capitol between the Civil War and World War I. According to Embassies: A Legacy of The Golden Age by Lawrence Knutson, their builders were America’s new rich ─ tycoons, merchant princes and gold mine wonders. One of these was an Irishman by the name of Tom Walsh. Tom emigrated from Tipperary in 1869 at age 19 and, like many others who were escaping the poverty caused by the Great Hunger; his aim was just to improve his life and fortune.
He started in America as a millwright’s apprentice and followed the lure of gold to the American west in the 1870s. Working as a prospector, he discovered gold high in the Colorado Rockies and watched his fortune rise like a runaway kite. The Walsh’s new wealth allowed them to tour Europe ─ something that young Tom had never imagined in his wildest dreams when he first crossed the Atlantic from his Irish home. On one of his tours he even met King Leopold II of Belgium. Tom took a liking to the King and in true Irish hospitality, he invited the King to visit him whenever he came to America.
In 1897, Walsh relocated to Washington DC, at which time he was a wealthy man and still making money from his mining investment. As his daughter, Evelyn Walsh McLean, later wrote in an autobiography entitled, Father Struck it Rich, “Each morning, we Walshes arose richer than we had gone to bed.” Tom built a 60-room Beaux-art mansion on Massachusetts Avenue splendid enough to welcome the Belgium monarch, to whom he had previously extended an invitation. It was the most expensive mansion in D.C. at the time. He even had his architect duplicate Leopold II’s royal dining room where he enjoyed the King’s hospitality, just to make the King feel at home. To Walsh’s disappointment though, the King never visited Washington, but nevertheless, his home remained ready for royalty. However, in 1919, ten years after Tom had passed away, his widow, Carrie, remembering her husband’s hopes, volunteered the mansion for a State Dinner in honor of Leopold’s nephew and successor, King Albert. The table was set with gold from the Walsh’s Camp Bird mine, including gold candelabra and a table service of gold made from glittering nuggets.
Eventually the Walsh home was inherited by their daughter, Evelyn, who married Edward ‘Ned’ McLean, the wealthy Irish American publisher of the Washington Post, who bought her the famous 45.552 carat Hope Diamond ─ the largest blue diamond in the world. It is now the star gem of the mineral collection at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. The Walsh mansion still stands in Washington DC, although the lucky Irishman who built it for his family is no longer the owner, nor is his family. Today it houses the Embassy of Indonesia ─ and it is still splendid enough to welcome a King. It can welcome you too if you wish to visit, just call the Embassy for an appointment.