Mihran Mesrobian

An Armenian Architect Built Three Top-Tier Hotels near the White House

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WASHINGTON — There are three top-tier hotels near the White House built by an Armenian-American architect. What are now St. Regis and Sofitel, as well as Hay Adams, along with several buildings on Connecticut Avenue, one of the key streets of the Nation’s capital, and numerous constructions in the English Village area as well as Northern Virginia are attributed to this famous designer, Mihran Mesrobian (1889-1975).

Mesrobian implemented the significant part of his projects while working for developer Harry Wardman. “It was very important for Wardman socially to be near the White House to show these hotels were the best in Washington,” noted the granddaughter of the architect, lecturer at the University of Maryland Dr. Caroline Hickman-Mesrobian, telling the story of the hotels located in the vicinity of the presidential office. Wardman and Mesrobian completed St. Regis (known initially as the Carlton Hotel) in 1926, Hay Adams in 1928, and Sofitel (originally Shoreham Hotel) in 1929.

Entrance of the St. Regis Hotel

English-born Harry Wardman (1872-1938) was one of the key real-estate developers of the District of Columbia in the early 20th century. Mesrobian worked for him soon after settling in Washington in 1921. After living for 31 years in Turkey and rebuilding the Dolmabahce Palace of the Sultans (once built by the Balian Armenian architects), Mesrobian chose to move to the United States.

Marriott Wardman Park Tower on a sunny summer day, view from the east

Caroline says that before leaving Constantinople/Istanbul, Mesrobian traveled back to Afyon, where his parents lived, and reclaimed some compensation for some of the lands his family had lost during the Genocide. This was when Turkey’s west was under Allied control following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I. As Mesrobian received Armenian identification documents during the short period of the independence of the Armenian Republic (1918-1920), he was able to make his way to the United States because America was helping the suffering Armenians during and for some period after World War I.

Laurence of Arabia possibly saved Mihran Mesrobian’s life (photo Wikicommons)

About one century later, in 2016, when visiting Washington, Turkish President Recep Erdogan stayed at the St. Regis hotel. The Turkish leader lived in a building designed by an Armenian architect, who, despite his significant record of services to Ottoman Turkey, had to flee due to persecution.

Turkish media reporting about President Recep Tayyip Erdogan staying at St. Regis, designed by Mesrobian

The late Aram Bakshian, speechwriter for three Republican Presidents, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Ronald Reagan, used to call Mihran Mesrobian ‘uncle Mihran.’ “Actually, he was a great uncle as he was married to my grandmother’s sister. Her name was Zabel,” said Aram Bakshian when the author met him last time about two years ago.

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Bakshian passed away in 2022. As someone interested in Mesrobian’s life and professional work, I had met Bakshian to learn more about the prominent architect for my research and media projects a few months before his demise.

Mihran Mesrobian’s Armenian passport

Per Bakshian, Mesrobian chose to settle in Washington because he had relatives here (Bakshian’s grandparents had settled in the District of Columbia in the late 19th century) to help in the beginning. “Plus, Washington is a city with lots of hotels and government buildings that provide opportunities for interesting work for an architect. And Uncle Mihran, having been a palace architect, was experienced in doing large, serious projects,” noted Bakshian.

An old telephone box dedicated to Mihran Mesrobian and Harry Wardman in Washington

Soon after settling down, Mesrobian became Wardman’s chief architect. Together, they worked on numerous projects, including the aforementioned hotels and the Cathedral Mansions Apartment Building. They both remodeled and rebuilt what is now the Marriot Wardman Hotel. Caroline Hickman Mesrobian says Hay Adams, however, is her favorite one as she believes “this is the most elegant building designed by Mesrobian.” She teaches American Architecture at the University of Maryland and has written extensively about her grandfather and the Armenian history of the historic city of Afyon.

Among the archive documents related to Mesrobian that Caroline has preserved is the design of St. Mary Armenian Apostolic church. In 1954, the community purchased an unfinished structure that currently serves as the lower level of the St. Mary Armenian Apostolic Church. “Because this was already in place, he had a rectangular that he had to work with,” noted Caroline, pointing to the sketches and blueprints by Mesrobian.

St. Mary Armenian Apostolic Church of Washington D.C.

 

Mesrobian also designed his mansion near the D.C. line in Montgomery County, Maryland. In 2017, the County Council voted to approve the historic designation for the Mihran Mesrobian house. This, as well as the old telephone box dedicated to Mesrobian at the corner of 29th St NW and Cortland Place NW, are the results of successful efforts by the Mesrobian family. The box contains information about Mesrobian and Wardman and a photograph depicting these two notable professionals and friends.

Aram Bakshian, right, meeting US President Ronald Reagan

Per Aram Bakshian, one of the last projects “Uncle Mihran” worked on was one of the US Congress parking garages. As Bakshian remembers, “They needed something imaginative for the parking areas. It had to have several layers of parking above ground. And he designed an interesting façade. He broke it up, [made it] less monotonous. It wasn’t just a bleak wall. That was one of his late works, towards the end of his career.” Nowadays, this place serves as the parking garage of the Rayburn building of the US Capitol. The office of the historian of Congress noticed that they had no record of it. A company from Pennsylvania designed the building, and, as the office of the historian noted, “If Mesrobian worked for this firm or any of the firms for any of the Congressional buildings, his name wouldn’t necessarily be in our records.”

Mesrobian’s involvement in constructing the US Capitol’s site still needs to be explored and put on record. 2024 will mark Armenian architect’s 135th birthyear.

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