The Government of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria, defunct for nearly three decades, remains the posthumous owner of Bulgaria’s embassy in Washington, DC. So says the city’s real property tax database in a neat if entirely inadvertent fulfillment of the aphoristic certainty of death and taxes. All the same, the tax payment side is less than assured. The proposed assessment for the 2019 fiscal year is $5,931,630, up $44,100 or less than 1% over the prior year. It’s a moot point, though, since foreign missions don’t pay tax on their property unless there is the highly unusual case of lack of reciprocity.
Records show that Kate Willard Boyd (1864-1940) owned the house cum embassy, perhaps inheriting it from her parents Caleb Clapp Willard (1834–1905) and Allie C. Jones Willard (1836–1874). Caleb owned and operated the Ebbitt Hotel as well as acquiring a lot of downtown property. His older brothers managed the still operating Willard Hotel. During the Civil War, author Nathaniel Hawthorne said the Willard “may be much more justly called the center of Washington and the Union than either the Capitol, the White House, or the State Department…” When iconic Bulgarian writer Aleko Konstantinov visited the city in 1893, he strolled down down Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House and passed the Willard Hotel on his way to see the Capitol, declaring “The city of Washington, if not the prettiest, is at least one of the prettiest cities which I saw in Europe and America.”
Kate married John Covert Boyd (1850–1927), surgeon and medical director for the United States Navy, one of the incorporators of the American Red Cross, and one of the founders of the Kappa Sigma Fraternity. On March 27, 1951, having inherited the house from his mother Kate, Walter Willard Boyd and his wife Ruth sold it to the three-year old State of Israel for $170,000. Nearly thirty years later, on November 16, 1981, the State of Israel sold it in turn to the People’s Republic of Bulgaria for an unknown amount. Just one day shy of nine years later, Bulgaria’s National Assembly voted to change the name of the country to the Republic of Bulgaria and removed the red Communist star and state emblem from the flag. It seems to be taking the District of Columbia’s Recorder of Deeds quite a bit longer to make the adjustment to the fall of communism.
The purchase of the building by Bulgaria from Israel may have been incidental in 1981, but the countries are connected in a way that is far from inconsequential. Fascistic and aligned with Nazi Germany Bulgaria may have been, but it was one of the few countries to have saved the Jewish population within its borders from the death camps and it established diplomatic relations with Israel at the country’s founding in 1948. Bulgaria had cut off diplomatic relations nearly 15 years before signing the deed for its new embassy, but Israel had not forgotten the country’s wartime efforts. By 1981, the Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem had already recognized eight Bulgarians as being among the Righteous Among the Nations, including Dimitar Peshev who in 1943 was vice chairman of Bulgaria’s National Assembly. When he died alone in 1973, he had been forgotten by his countrymen but not by Israel.
On November 13, 2013, an article entitled “DC intersection renamed for Bulgarian who saved Jews” appeared in The Times of Israel. The Council of the District of Columbia had “symbolically designate[d] the intersection of 22nd and R Streets, N.W., in Ward 2, as Dimitar Peshev Plaza.” Were any of the principals involved in the effort to honor Peshev in this way were aware of the embassy’s previous owners?
In November 2016, I wrote a post called Degrees of Separation describing how surprisingly often objects and events seemed to connect to Bulgaria. But in following the trail of the Bulgarian embassy in DC, the words of French philosopher and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin may be more apropos:
“Remain true to yourself, but move ever upward toward greater consciousness and greater love! At the summit you will find yourselves united with all those who, from every direction, have made the same ascent. For everything that rises must converge.”
The white, red, and green colors of the Kappa Sigma and Bulgarian flags. The hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue, the family that owned both it and the house that became an embassy, and a Bulgarian author who found himself on that same avenue nicknamed “America’s Main Street.” Bulgaria’s purchase of its embassy from the State of Israel decades after—despite its dominant politics—its successful efforts to save the country’s 48,000 Jewish citizens from Nazi death camps. Dimitar Peshev’s recognition by Israel’s Yad Vashem. DC’s symbolically naming the intersection closest to the Bulgarian embassy as Dimitar Peshev Plaza. Surely not everything converges, but it’s delightful to discover how very much does.