US Embassy Relocation: The Past and Future of an Icon

Courtesy wikicommons

Peter McNamara

Plans by the US embassy to move into the former Jury’s Hotel site in Ballsbridge have been backed by local city councillors. The embassy, currently headed by deputy chief of mission, Alexandra McKnight, is located where Elgin Road joins Ballsbridge, just across from the site where it now hopes to move. The embassy needs to double the size of its workforce to 400. Extra space is needed for diplomatic and trade operations which promote US investment in Ireland, totalling $160 billion. 
The United States is upgrading its embassies around the world – a new embassy was opened in London in 2017. Councillors voted to write to the US embassy asking for the original modern-era office building (which is now 55 years old) to be made a protected structure. The move requires a rezoning for the hotel site. There will now be a four-week public consultation before it comes to a full council meeting, possibly in May. Rezoning, planning and construction could take three years, according to some estimates.
US diplomats have been seeking a new home in Ireland for close to nine years. Following a long search, the US government agreed to buy what is now the Ballsbridge Hotel from developer Joe O’Reilly’s Chartered Land. Real estate agent Savills is brokering the deal. Valuers say the site could be worth more than €150 million.
Local and national attention has frequently focused on plans for the hotel since its former owner Jurys Doyle sold it and the adjoining Berkeley Court to developer Sean Dunne for a record €240 million in 2005. Mr Dunne was one of the bigger players in a debt-funded real estate bubble that burst in 2008, sparking a sustained recession that left the State insolvent after bailing out its banks. He subsequently fought a long bankruptcy case in the US, which was resolved in 2019.
The Ballsbridge embassy was the focal point for an eventful century of US-Irish relations: as America grew into the pre-eminent global superpower, the fledgling Irish state strived to assert some kind of identity as a sovereign state. As we consider the future of this iconic Dublin 4 building, it might be timely to look back on the conception and construction of this landmark – and the consternation the modern-looking design first incited.

A Monstrosity Gives a Whiskey Party 
America first opened a consulate in Ireland in 1859 in a building off Adelaide Road. In Feb 1948, the offices of the legation moved to Merrion Square. The Deerfield Residence – a large 18th-century house on over 60 acres in the Phoenix Park, which has been the Ambassador’s official residence in Ireland since 1927 – also housed elements of the embassy. As the years passed, however, it became clear that these locations were no longer suitable and in 1957, the new location in Ballsbridge was announced. A Victorian house was previously on the site, and had been used by Bord Fáilte as their headquarters.
The Harvard-educated John MacLane Johansen was hired to design the Dublin embassy. According to the Irish Times, his criteria were that it should be “modern but defer to local tradition, should beautify the site, should suggest permanence and should satisfy the functional requirements of an embassy” – which included a reception hall for 500 people and office space for 150 employees. These additions were far-seeing as there were only 73 people on the payroll at the time. 
In the 1950s and 60s, the US State Department was building three embassies or consulates annually and the fashion was to adopt designs that flattered the host countries: the embassy in New Delhi had echoes of a Hindu temple; the embassy in Baghdad was made reminiscent of a caliph’s tent; the one in Athens included marble from Mount Penteli, the source of the stone in the Parthenon.
Johansen inspected “Celtic round castles”, Martello towers and the Book of Kells, and even considered the first American flag, before designing a circular building placed within a moat and with a façade “that turned its back on no one”. A “moat” of flowering shrubbery, bridged at the entrance, and a park-like plaza of benches and trees, completed the setting. 
As it turned out, designing this complex building was the easy part. The project was quickly beset with political problems. A harbinger of trouble came early when Representative John Rooney of Brooklyn publicly described the proposed Ballsbridge location as a “slum”.  Rooney, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and a feisty critic of the State Department, had famously described diplomats’ representation allowances as “booze money for cookie pushers.”
Residents close to the site – professors, judges, diplomats and other “eminent” people – reacted with what the Irish Times described as “a mixture of amusement and indignation.” The design was also criticised by Congressman Wayne T Hays of Ohio, a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee and the chairman of its sub-committee on State Department organisation. It was, he declared, an “architectural monstrosity” and its circular design would disrupt its traditional surroundings.
Infighting and budgetary issues delayed the project and almost derailed it completely. It took the arrival of John F. Kennedy in the White House to rescue matters. Johansen personally showed Kennedy his designs and with Presidential endorsement ground was finally broken in 1962. The building was completed in May 1964, and opened on 23 May of that year, an occasion Johansen remembered as a “free whiskey party for some 300 tipsy Dubliners.”

You Can’t Please Everyone
There are five floors to the Ballsbridge embassy building: three above ground level and two below. Irish materials were used whenever possible; the base of the building is of Irish granite and the floors throughout are terrazzo of Connemara marble. Dominating the interior is a three-storey atrium called “the rotunda”. Upon entering the building, the eye of the visitor is dramatically led upward to glass walls at the top of the rotunda. This allows the space to be bathed with natural light. 
On completion the building was broadly welcomed, with voices as diverse as the Architectural Review, Time Magazine, the Irish Builder, the Irish Times and An Taisce uniting in enthusiasm and praise. It was accomplished as any building in the US embassy programme of the 1950s and 60s, and far better than most. The ambassador, Grant Stockdale, proclaimed the building “the showpiece of Europe.” 
In 1969, An Taisce gave the building an award for its effective use of a corner site and today most people would agree that is has – as an Irish Times journalist predicted – “mellowed down into happy harmony with its surroundings.” Among some Dubliners, it acquired the name “Wall of Death” owing to its circular shape. Writing in 1985, Frank McDonald deemed that, despite the building’s modern design, it sits well in its Victorian context as it’s of similar height to the surrounding buildings.
Some minor criticism did continue. A rival architect claimed that the interior had been copied from Kilmainham Gaol, while an anonymous American wrote that the shape represented “a department of government running around in circles.” Incredible as it might seem now, the open space around the building was seen as an enhancement of the amenities of the area and plans to erect protective railings around the building were dropped – in theory, if a woman stepped in from the street and gave birth on the grass her child would be an American citizen.
On that note, it comes as no surprise that security at the embassy today is seen as a priority for an Garda Síochána. The site is protected around-the-clock by a team of armed, plainclothes detectives, who also provide close protection to the ambassador and high-ranking diplomats when travelling outside of the embassy, as well as motorcade security. Within the embassy and residence grounds, security is the responsibility of the US Bureau of Diplomatic Security and Marine Corps Embassy Security Group, who are heavily armed. 
Following the September 11 attacks in 2001, new secure entrances, guardhouses and blast walls were installed. In late 2013 significant upgrades were made to the physical and perimeter security of the embassy, designed to reduce the threat of vehicle bombings and to repel intruders. This was part of US government security directives at diplomatic missions across 14 different European nations in response to the 2012 Benghazi attacks. No doubt the new embassy building, when it is finally completed, will be even more impenetrable. 

Ireland and the American Century
For almost sixty years, the soon-to-be-vacated US embassy has been a Dublin 4 icon, and the focal point for a deepening of Irish-American relations. During the Cold War, Irish military policy, while ostensibly neutral, was biased towards NATO. Irish security forces monitored communists and agents of communist governments operating in Ireland, primarily through embassies in Dublin, sharing information with western allies. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Seán Lemass authorised the search of Cuban and Czechoslovak aircraft passing through Shannon and passed the information to the CIA.
Another notable incident came during Barack Obama’s visit to Ireland in 2011, when the Presidential State Car (known as the Beast) got stuck on a ramp as it exited the embassy. Apparently, the wheelbase of the vehicle was too wide for the ramp – it had to be towed away as a large crowd looked on. President Obama was not on board, and left the embassy through an alternative exit.
A striking image of the 1980s recession was the picture of a line of young Irish people waiting to enter the American embassy in Ballsbridge to apply for visas. Irish immigration to the USA has played a large role in the culture of the United States. About 33.3 million Americans – 10.5% of the total population – reported Irish ancestry in the 2013 American Community Survey conducted by the US Census Bureau. These people have contributed incalculably to US culture, business, and the nation’s success. 
On the other hand, American foreign direct investment in Ireland has been particularly important to the growth and modernisation of Irish industry since 1980, providing new technology, export capabilities, and employment opportunities. This contributed to the rapid economic growth of the Celtic Tiger, when, for the first time in our modern history, Ireland experienced high levels of inward migration.
The Troubles caused a strain in the “Special Relationship” between the United Kingdom and the United States, and brought Ireland and America even closer. In February 1994, British Prime Minister John Major refused to answer US President Bill Clinton’s telephone calls for days over his decision to grant Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams a visa to visit the United States – Adams was listed as a terrorist by London. Clinton later claimed vindication after the IRA ceasefire of August 1994. To the further disappointment of  Prime Minister Major, the American president received Adams at the White House on St Patrick’s Day 1995, despite the fact the paramilitaries had not agreed to disarm.
The US was a central intermediary during the Northern Ireland peace process, sending Senator George Mitchell in 1995 to lead an international body to provide an independent assessment of the decommissioning issue. Clinton himself spoke to a huge rally at Belfast’s City Hall; and it was Mitchell who broke the news on the Good Friday Agreement on 10 April 1998.
More controversially, Ireland’s air facilities were used by the United States military for the delivery of military personnel involved in the 2003 invasion of Iraq through Shannon Airport. The airport had previously been used for the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, as well as the First Gulf War. The  Irish government has come under internal and external pressure to inspect airplanes at Shannon Airport to investigate whether or not they contain extraordinary rendition captives – a euphemism for tortured suspects. Ireland has been censured by the European Parliament for its role in facilitating extraordinary rendition and taking insufficient or no measures to uphold its obligations under the United Nations Convention Against Torture.

How Did the Embassy Cross the Road? 
As far back as 2009, the United States Department of State has been planning to move the embassy. The current building no longer meets the needs in terms of size of the expanding American diplomatic presence in Ireland (between 150 and 200 staff work at the embassy), and does not conform to new construction and security requirements issued by Washington D.C. 
The Ballsbridge Hotel site is currently owned by Gerry O’Reilly’s Chartered Land and is reported to be worth around €150m. It was part of the site once owned by developer Sean Dunne who bought it for €240m before the recession and who unsuccessfully applied for planning permission for a high density luxury development to include a 37-storey tower.
Chartered Land is due to apply to Dublin City Council shortly to have the site rezoned for office use from its current designation, allowing for residential and commercial building. If councillors vote to approve that, the US embassy will submit its plans for the site soon after.
Throughout his presidency, Donald Trump consistently criticised Ireland, the lax Irish tax system, and the high levels of US commercial investment in this country. Given that President Biden is demonstrably proud of his Ballina roots, and has spoken repeatedly on the need for the US to maintain close Irish ties, the future may have brightened some for diplomats on both sides. Although America will be keen to bring industry home, with a Mayo native at the helm, Ireland might hope for a more sympathetic ear. One thing is for sure, the new US embassy will be a bustling place for a long while yet.