The Mexican Cultural Institute is now a Historic Site in Washington, DC!

The Mexican Cultural Institute of Washington, D.C. was recently designated as an Historic Site in the DC inventory of Historic Sites and listed in the National Register of Historic Places! Such commendation speaks to the century-long heritage of our 16th street mansion, whose murals and decorations are on display to the public. See here for more information about visiting the Mexican Cultural Institute, and here for more about the mansion's history.

Listing in the D.C. Inventory of Historic Sites provides recognition of properties significant to the historic and aesthetic heritage of the nation's capital. The Mexican Cultural Institute was chosen not only as a premier example of the Beaux Arts architectural tradition with historic interior artwork, but also for its association with the rise of Meridian Hill as the home to foreign embassies, and its exemplary illustration of the City Beautiful Movement, which sought to promote beautiful architecture beyond Washington's monumental core.

Jump to: Roberto Cueva del Rio | The Murals | Interior Slideshow

After over six decades of having its offices at the 16th Street (map in the picture) Mansion, the Embassy of Mexico moved to a new building on Pennsylvania Avenue in 1989 making it possible for the Institute to establish its residence here. The site opened its magnificent doors to the new-born institution so it could enjoy the large and spacious facilities, imbued with the spirit and history of this century's bilateral relations between Mexico and the United States. Thus, much like the historical pattern of the country as a whole, the Mexican Cultural Institute was born: the result of a dynamic cultural past with the promise of a great future. Brilliant works by the people of Mexico, the undertaking of thousands of years of encounters with different races and histories, are a decisive factor which have permanently fueled the programs of this noble cultural institution.

The Mansion, one of the most spectacular on 16th Street, is historically significant for both countries. It was designed in 1910 by the prestigious architects Nathan Wyeth and George A. Fuller, who earned their reputation by designing the West Wing of The White House. It was built on request by Mrs. Emily MacVeagh, wife of the Secretary of the Treasury during the Taft Administration. The Mansion was the family's residence in the 1910s, becoming the site where some of the most outstanding celebrities of that time were entertained. In 1916, and for a period of five years, the U.S. government rented the Mansion converting it into the official guest house for visiting dignitaries. It was during this time that the magnificent facilities of the mansion housed King Albert and Queen Elizabeth of Belgium during their visit to Washington, D.C.

In 1921, the post-revolutionary government of President Alvaro Obregón purchased the Mansion (in the picture) to house the Embassy of Mexico, while establishing it as the official residence of its representative in Washington, D.C. Mexico's diplomatic relations with the United States would be conducted from this location over the next 69 years, making it a symbol of the bridges of understanding and friendship between the two neighboring countries.

The Mexican government, in a successful attempt to enhance the Mansion's splendor, added a portico to the Italian-style façade. The interior of this magnificent Mansion has aesthetically integrated and combined different styles and shapes, reflecting the dynamics of Mexican culture. Thus, the main hall, inspired by late 15th century Italian architecture, is a majestic setting for the mahogany English banister and 18th century Mexican altarpiece. The three-story mural by Roberto Cueva del Río, depicting some of Mexico's more colorful traditions, provides a breathtaking backdrop to this grand entrance hall.

Read more about the mansion in a piece by architectural historian Pam Scott here.

Roberto Cueva del Río was born in 1908 in the city of Puebla, Mexico. His family moved to Mexico City when he was a child and there, at age 15, he became an illustrator at the newspaper Excelsior. His newspaper caricatures won him a scholarship to the prestigious San Carlos Academy of Fine Arts in Mexico City, which permitted him to travel through Mexico, exhibit his drawings and caricatures in one-man shows, and paint murals for public schools and private homes. In January 1930, Diego Rivera, then Director of the Academy, gave him an effusive letter of recommendation to support his successful application for support to travel to the United States.

In a May 1931 article in the Mexican newspaper El Universal, José Juan Tablada, an expatriate Mexican poet who met Cueva del Río in New York, describes him as an exceptionally "humble although legitimately ambitious" young man who expresses relief after being offered two important commissions, that he will finally be able to send some money home to his mother.

Cueva del Río portrays Tablada in a caricature dating to 1932, José Juan Tablada and his skyscrapers of cactus and steel. Tablada also tells us that he had recently attended an exhibit of Cueva del Río's watercolors at Delphic Studios in New York, owned by Alma Reed, former New York Times correspondent and noted patroness of Mexican artists. There he observed a watercolor study for a planned mural on the subject of the Tirada de las Flores, the Festival of the Flowers of Tehuantepec, Mexico. This is likely the same watercolor that appeared on the cover of the September 1, 1933 issue of the magazine Town & Country, which contained a brief article on Cueva del Río's Embassy murals, including a photograph of the artist at work on the Embassy stairway. This watercolor, with minor modifications, became the model for the popular Festival scene in the Embassy murals.

Cueva del Río began the Embassy murals in 1933, but left them unfinished when he returned to Mexico in 1935 to paint murals in numerous private residences in Mexico City and also, at the invitation of President Lázaro Cárdenas, in various public buildings, including a Gallery of Illustrious Citizens in the State Capitol Building of Michoacan, President Cárdenas' home state.

When he left Washington in 1935, Cueva del Río signed and dated the murals in the foreground of the "Industrial Mexico" scene (just below the four seated children), the last mural completed before his return to Mexico that year. At that time he also submitted an accounting of his work which provides us with the working titles he used for the various mural scenes and the changes he made in his original plans when he returned to complete the murals in 1941. We learn, for example, that his heroic portrait of Columbus (at the top of the stairway leading to the third floor) was originally planned as a portrait of the Spanish Conquistador Hernán Cortés. Cortés' historic reputation had fared poorly after the Mexican Revolution, whose ideals emphasized the achievements of the pre-Conquest native civilizations, and Columbus, at the time, may have seemed a less controversial figure.

Cueva del Río returned to Washington to complete the Embassy murals in 1941. In a letter dated August 4, 1941, President Cárdenas thanks him for a photograph of the Embassy murals and congratulates him on his progress.

Cueva del Río's public murals tend to deal with historical scenes and portraits of heroes. Unlike The Three Great Ones (Rivera, Orozco, and Siquieros), he is not concerned with political ideology and he avoids their scathing attacks on social injustice. Rather, like many contemporary Mexican muralists, he expresses his nationalism by portraying the uniqueness and diversity of Mexican culture, the dignity of ordinary men and women, the beauty of the countryside, the great events and heroes of Mexico's long history, and the progress of modern Mexico.

Cueva del Río's painting style is very much in the Rivera tradition: strongly modeled figures, bold colors, and heavy symbolism. We can see in a photo of the artist at work that he achieved these bold, simplified shapes by using a black outline technique. Water colors were applied al fresco, that is, on wet plaster. Cueva del Río worked with his left hand only, as his right hand was disabled. It has been suggested that because the Embassy murals were begun when Cueva del Río was only 23 years old, and completed eight years later, when he was 31, that the style and emphases become simpler and more subdued as we progress up the stairway.

The Cueva del Río mural scenes, in ascending order from the ground floor (Click on the pictures for higher resolutions):

Tehuantepec Festival
This scene representing the annual Festival of the Flowers in Tehuantepec, Mexico portrays women and men dancing with garlands of flowers, a family enjoying traditional food and drink, and in the center a male dancer with a dramatic Pre-Columbian mask and headdress.

Tehuantepec Festival - Continued
The watercolor study for this Festival scene became well known as the cover for the September 1, 1933, issue of Town & Country.

Rural scene - Ixtaccihuatl
This rural scene forms a pair with a similar mural on the other side of the doorway to the drawing room, with the great volcanoes of the Valley of Mexico looming over them, Ixtaccihuatl, in the case of this group of somewhat elegantly, traditionally costumed country people, and Popocatepetl, in the following scene.

Rural scene - Popocatepetl
This rural scene portrays typical agricultural activities in the foreground, a small town with Colonial church and government building in the middle ground, and the conical Popocatepetl volcano in the distance.

Industrial Mexico
This scene is intended to contrast with the previous two: it celebrates modern, industrialized Mexico, with its airplanes, tractors, factories and a hydroelectric plant in an urban setting in the middle ground, with the rows of men and women on horseback in the foreground intended to symbolize the continuity of Old Mexico with the new. This scene was signed and dated by the artist in 1935.

The Panamerican Mural
The Panamerican mural symbolizes friendship among North, Central, and South American countries, with notable historic hemispheric leaders (clockwise from upper right): Washington (US), Hidalgo (Mexico, Bolívar (Venezuela), Martí (Cuba), Lincoln (US) and Juárez (Mexico).

The Landing of Columbus
This scene portrays a heroic Christopher Columbus planting the Spanish flag in the New World, backed by the Church and Spanish military might. The artist's original plan called for a portrayal of Cortés here, possibly against the same background.

Pre-Columbian Mexico
This scene is dominated by the mythological founding of the Aztec capital at Tenochtitlan, present-day Mexico City, where an eagle with a serpent in its beak perched on a cactus, with the towering temple-pyramids of the city in its heyday in the background and the bearded god Quetzalcoatl in the upper left.

The above information on the mansion and murals is provided courtesy of Harry Iceland.