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This piece originally ran on July 7, 2014. We’re republishing it on Columbus Day because Jonny Grave ‘discovered’ something that’s been there for a long time. -ed.

By Jonny Grave

Normally on these photo excursions I would be much more skittish. My eyes would be somewhat hidden behind my aviators, or my scarf would be around the bottom half of my face. My camera would be at the ready, and my bike would be stashed off to the side without a lock, to ensure a speedy getaway if anyone with a badge moves in. On this sunny Friday afternoon, however, I found myself willfully handing over my driver’s license to an armed security officer in exchange for a visitor’s pass. They asked me to sign into the ledger. Next to “PURPOSE OF VISIT,” I scrawled “BYT, Hidden in Plain Sight.”


The Pan American Union Building is located on 17th, between C St and Constitution Ave. Its presence is marked by a very abrupt change in the architecture. Heading South, after passing the White House, the Eisenhower Building, the Corcoran, and DAR, the last landmark before the Washington Monument’s lawn is a stately piece of Spanish colonial-period architecture. Among the Corinthian columns, the Greco-Roman carved exteriors, the gleaming white marble and polished granite steps that are so common in the District’s architecture, there is a building with high windows and a terra cotta roof. Inside is a world completely separate and apart from the surrounding structures. Their entrance hall is effectively an indoor rainforest.


Sometime in 1826, Simón Bolívar sought to bring together the American States into one cohesive league of republics. This was a time when the future of the Americas was uncertain. The United States had barely come out of the War of 1812. Most of Central and South America were still European colonies. Bolívar was in search of not only a way to secure independence from Europe for all American States, but to provide mutual defense and a supranational governing body to ensure they would never be threatened again.

Ultimately, his plan didn’t quite work, but the concept stayed alive for the better part of fifty years. Over the course of the 19th Century, the number of nations gaining independence from Europe continued to grow, as did the need for a Pan-American Union. The United States seized the opportunity, deciding that initiating a conference of American States would give the US the upper hand in future talks. Secretary of State James G. Blaine lobbied the hell out of Congress for nearly a decade until the first Pan-American summit was held in DC in 1889.

Over the course of the next fifty years, the Pan-American Union organized conferences, wrote legislation, came to international agreements, and helped solidify relations between all American States. In 1948, the Bogota conference, led by General George C. Marshall, set the stage for the creation of the Organization of American States, an organization promoting solidarity between its 35 member-states.

The OAS Headquarters are located inside the old Pan-American Building, originally built in 1911 by Lyons-born architect Paul Philippe Cret. While he was firmly based in the traditional Beaux-Arts style, his first major contribution was vastly different from the other structures going up around town during the same era. The use of open space, wide walls, and vast windows allow the sunlight to pour into the atrium with full force. Elements of indigenous American art are found throughout the building. The tile work is a curious Mayan-revival, while the central fountain stands upright with Aztec figures carved into the stone. They provide a strong juxtaposition to the European-style busts found on high pillars along the walls and balconies.


The Visual Arts Unit of the Pan-American Union grew with the creation of the OAS. Eventually, the OAS Secretary General’s quarters were turned into the Art Gallery of the Americas. The gallery features works from artists hailing from all corners of the Americas.


The Gallery, the unrelentingly gorgeous gardens and courtyard, and the Headquarters of the Organization of the American States are all open to the public, and all conveniently hidden in plain sight.