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House of the Americas 100 years: the one hundredth anniversary of the construction of the headquarters of the Organization of American States offers an opportunity to reflect on the history of past efforts to promote inter-American cooperation and on the probable course and nature of such efforts in the future.


For a hundred years a beautiful Beaux-Art building has graced the corner of Constitution Avenue and Seventeenth Street in Washington, DC, a corner buffeted by heavy traffic and visited by legions of curious tourists. A monumental structure built on a human scale, the "House of the Americas" is a peoples' palace that has drawn from the many architectural vocabularies of pre-European America. Its unusual design elements and physical features reflect the unique nature and intent of the building. It is distinct in its dimensions, its balance, its overall design, and its structural and decorative detail. The physical characteristics of the building render it a gem in a stately setting, but its outstanding universal significance goes far beyond this singularity.

After one hundred years, the House of the Americas stands as the embodiment of the efforts of the countries of the Western Hemisphere to secure a better existence for their citizens, maintain standards of respect for national sovereignty, and promote collective security and cooperation. Tangibly and inseparably associated with inter-Americanism as a living tradition, the significance of this structure that is now the OAS headquarters building is evident in the continuity of the organizations that have occupied it, from the Pan American Union to the Organization of American States. Over the last one hundred years, the inter-American system has gradually been constructed under the roof of this building,


The House of the Americas was first built as the headquarters of the "Bureau of American Republics," soon after renamed the "Pan American Union." It lodged a large library and information center that contained the creative and informational publications of all the member nations. It also housed conference and meeting rooms in which the successive problems common to the member nations were discussed and responded to first by the Pan American Union (PAU) and then by the Organization of American States (OAS).

For one hundred years, the House of the Americas has served as a center of operations and as a planning site for international conferences, seminars, and meetings held in various member nations. And over time, the PAU/OAS became the forum for establishing the legal conventions and agreements that define and support inter-American economic, social, political, and cultural collaboration.

During the years of the Pan American Union, the multitude of resolutions, conventions, and treaties that emerged as the fruits of its labor established the foundation for international law in the Americas, and frequently by extension throughout the world. The many questions and topics debated in the PAU established the agenda for the Organization of American States which succeeded it. Some of the issues addressed include: customs and maritime law; human rights; international arbitration; political asylum; public health; intellectual property; international commerce; women's rights; tourism; drug trafficking; child welfare; education; postal regulations; indigenous fights; and copyrights and trademarks.

Since then, the Organization of American States has continued the process of legal codification and has continued to be actively engaged in many of these questions. It has advanced the cause of women's rights, responded to the problems related to drug trafficking, and carried the banner of universal education. The OAS has successfully promoted horizontal cooperation for development, human rights, and representative democracy. At the same time, the collectivity that the PAU/OAS building represents has expanded to include the countries of the Caribbean and all of the sovereign nations of the Americas. The continuum of the PAU/OAS has birthed the Pan American Health Organization, the Inter-American Development Bank, and dozens of smaller organizations and centers that have each responded to the particular needs of the peoples of the Americas.


Today, the exterior of the House of the Americas still has a graceful and welcoming elegance with statuary and friezes that represent the balance of North and South America. Allegorical female figures representing the two continents flank the entrance, each sheltering a child that represents the youthfulness of the nations of the New World. The letters "A" and "P" recur throughout the decoration on both the external and internal walls of the building. Sometimes they are intertwined, representing the Americas as an integrated entity and Peace, the primary concern of those who were instrumental in the construction of the House of the Americas. Both the facade of the building and the interior space incorporate many decorative and sculptural elements that symbolize the continuing mission and character of the OAS.

Passing through one of the three principal portals, each one augmented with bronze grillwork inspired by the grilles at the doors of the Cathedral of Zaragoza in Spain, one emerges into a high formal Entrance Hall, a rectangular space with a barrel vaulted ceiling running north to south across the weight of the building. Immediately noticeable is the lavish, yet understated, decoration recurrent throughout the building--medallions, friezes, and wall plaques with symbols for peace, justice, freedom, the quest for knowledge, the natural bounty of the land, the identity of its nations and heroes, and most predominantly, symbols of the Americas as a whole.

Upon entering the building, however, one is drawn quickly to a serene interior patio, the focal point of the building and what has been called its most notable architectural statement. With a bubbling fountain at its center, this patio is reminiscent of the tradition of fountains in the inner courtyards of many buildings, public and private, that date from the time of ancient Rome to Southern Spain and later to Spanish America. Each of the four corners of the patio's rectangular floor plan contains generous and slightly raised planting beds where rubber, cacao, coffee, palm, and other mature tropical trees fill the space with verdant growth all year. Two stories above, a glass ceiling that was once retractable and used until the incorporation of air conditioning, allows a daily flood of sunlight that adds to the atmosphere of peace and calm. Sitting on one of the marble benches in the patio, one might look up and around to take note of the surrounding detail: cartouehes in glazed polychromed terra cotta depicting maps of the Americas and doves of peace; plaques bearing the names of the heroes of American nations; the coats of arms of the original member nations of the Pan American Union; the escutcheon of Canada; and the symbols for freedom and justice.

Water cascades from the two stacked basins of the pink marble fountain, flows into, and then overflows from, the fountain's octagonal base. The sound is soothing. The fountain is covered with carved Aztec and Maya figures. Gargoyle-like snake heads of Quetzalcoatl, the plumed serpent deity of the Aztec, encircle and punctuate the second basin. The patio floor is inlaid with black stone decoration depicting images based on the relief panels at Maya archaeological sites at Palenque in Mexico and Copan in Honduras. On the main access is the image of a priest or aristocrat holding a staff and ceremonial knife. He is flanked by two seated men, perhaps prisoners.

Beyond the patio is the recently renovated hall named after "The Liberator Simon Bolivar." This is the principal council chamber of the OAS, which blends traditional architecture with modern technology. On either side of the patio are graceful marble stairs leading up to the Gallery of Heroes which overlooks the patio. Each OAS member state is invited to place here a bust of a national hero or a figure that represents its national character. Bolivar, Washington, Artigas, Jose Marti, Jose Bonifacio de Andrade, Marcus Garvey, and many others share a special place in this gallery.

Each of the five doors of the gallery leads into the Hall of the Americas, one of the grandest rooms in Washington. Painted white and rich in its ornamental plasterwork, it contains many of the allegorical symbols that are found throughout the building. High above in each corner is the word "Pax." The Hall is markedly formal, a Beaux-Arts composition with a vaulted central nave 45 feet high from floor to ceiling, 100 feet long, and 65 feet wide. Three stunning crystal chandeliers hang from the central vault and on its western side there are five majestic arches with glazed paneled doors through which daylight floods into the Hall. In the transoms of the doors are leaded glass designs of trees bearing the seals of the original 21 member nations of the Pan American Union. They symbolize hemispheric unity and strength of purpose. These five doors overlook the Aztec Garden; where at the end of a longitudinal pool sits the original residence of the Director of the Pan American Union, a building that is now the OAS Art Museum of the Americas.


The Hall of Americas has been the venue for important meetings and ceremonies, for official presidential visits, and for receptions and concerts. For more than fifty years, almost every president or prime minister of an American nation has addressed the representatives of the other nations there. It has been the site of major declarations of national and inter-American policy changes, the negotiation of peaceful resolutions of conflicts between member states and the signing of those agreements, and the announcement and discussion of accords and policies that have affected large segments of the populace of the Americas (NAFTA, Alliance for Progress). Of the countless number of events held in this Hall, two come to mind as representative of the work carried out in the House of the Americas.

On April 14, 1940--Pan American Day--as Nazi forces were overrunning Europe and many feared that the fascists would use French and Dutch colonies in the Americas as beach heads, US President Franklin Roosevelt spoke to the ambassadors of the American nations in the Hall of the Americas. He gave expression to a concept of solidarity that would last through World War II and lead to the adoption of the OAS Charter in 1948. He warned that, "any hand that touches any one of us, touches us all."

The second event occurred on September 17, 1977, when presidents and prime ministers of the American nations gathered in the Hall of the Americas to witness US President Jimmy Carter and Head of Government of Panama Omar Torrijos Herrera sign the Panama Canal Treaties. The treaties established that the Government of Panama would assume possession of the Panama Canal and the Panama Canal Zone in accordance with an agreed-upon schedule. This was the result of decades of negotiations between the two nations and bitter political debates in the United States Senate. In a symbolic way, the signing of the treaties was important for all of the OAS member nations. When President Carter was asked why he had been such an advocate for the treaties that had cost him so much domestic political capital, he responded: "It was the right thing to do."

US President Theodore Roosevelt, who played an early role in establishing US control over the Panama Canal, was--interestingly enough--also an advocate of building the House of the Americas. Frequently, during his morning horse rides down the Mall from the White House, he would stop at the construction site and give unsolicited advice to the workers and engineers. Now, after 100 years, we can see from a new vantage point the twists and turns of the paths that American nations have traveled to get to where we are now. The original objectives of the organizations that have inhabited this building (peace, justice, the search for knowledge, liberty, and the solidarity of nations) have been respected and, with time, new ideals have been added and defended (respect for the sovereignty of nations, non-intervention, human rights, the improvement of the human condition, and the necessity of representative democracy). It is encouraging that over the last century this evolution and expansion of the principles of the inter-American system have occurred here in this space, at the House of the Americas.

Dr. James Patrick Kiernan is a former director and editor of Americas.
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Author:Kiernan, James Patrick
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Geographic Code:0OAS
Date:May 1, 2010
Previous Article:Art appreciation.
Next Article:The future role of the OAS in service to its member states and the peoples of the hemisphere.

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