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Apostolic Legation of the Papal State

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1938–1939, Frederick V. Murphy. 3339 Massachusetts Ave. NW

The lavish Apostolic Legation (serving ecclesiastical, not diplomatic functions) was guided through its design and construction phases by Amleto Giovanni Cicognani, Apostolic Delegate to the United States between 1933 and 1958. Murphy, head of the architecture department at Catholic University, did his first design in 1932 and his second six years later, both unconventional modernized versions of Italian Renaissance palaces. His updating of this potent architectural tradition may have been in reaction to the overt historicism of the many Neo-Renaissance mansions in the immediate area, it may have reflected the influence of European modernism on him, or it may have reflected Cicognani's desire to express at once the modern mission of the Catholic church while referring to its strongly Roman heritage. Murphy designed the U-shaped complex to have a separately articulated main block facing Massachusetts Avenue, its self-contained rectangular form and division into three stories with regular vertical bays a traditional format followed by Renaissance urban palaces. His deviations from this formula are subtle. He gave the ground level and second floor equal prominence (rather than focusing most of the architectural attention on the second floor) in direct response to internal function. Wall articulation is linear rather than sculptural, with the alternation of narrow and wide stone courses on the tall “rusticated” basement very refined and centered on the plain door surround decorated simply with the papal tiara in a coat of arms. Framing on three sides of each second-story window is unusual, a treatment usually reserved for entries. Three ground-floor reception rooms—the Popes' Room, American Cardinals' Room, and Apostolic Delegates' Room—are decorated with portraits of the appropriate group. The second floor contains two large salons and a large dining room. There are three chapels among the building's fifty rooms. The expense ($475,000) and opulence of the complex are not overtly expressed by the facades, faced with Indiana limestone treated with three different finishes. The slightly rough surface of the rusticated basement was achieved with abrasion wheels and rubs, smoother second-floor walls were sand rubbed, and those on the top story chat sawn. The three sides of the interior courtyard are surrounded by an arcaded loggia; in the center is a reproduction of the pine cone from the Cortile del Pigna at the Vatican. Formal Italian gardens are terraced down the steep slope at the rear.

Writing Credits

Pamela Scott and Antoinette J. Lee


What's Nearby


Pamela Scott and Antoinette J. Lee, "Apostolic Legation of the Papal State", [Washington, District of Columbia], SAH Archipedia, eds. Gabrielle Esperdy and Karen Kingsley, Charlottesville: UVaP, 2012—,

Print Source

Buildings of the District of Columbia, Pamela Scott and Antoinette J. Lee. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993, 388-388.

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