Spaso House has been the residence of American ambassadors in Moscow since the establishment of diplomatic relations between the United States and the former Soviet Union in 1933. It stands one mile west of the Kremlin at No. 10 Spasopeskovskaya Square, not far from the Garden Ring Road (Sadovoye Kol’tso) and the Arbat, an ancient region of Moscow.
The area surrounding Spaso House was inhabited in the 17th century by the Tsar’s dog-keepers and falconers. Spaso House and the square on which it is located are named for the handsome Russian Orthodox Church situated on one side. Erected in 1711, the Church of Salvation on the Sands (Tserkov’ Spasa-na-Peskakh) was depicted in the 1870s by the artist V.D. Polenov in a painting entitled “A Small Moscow Courtyard” (Moskovskiy Dvorik), which now hangs in Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery.
Designed by architects Adamovich and Mayat, Spaso House was completed in 1914 for Nikolay Aleksandrovich Vtorov, a wealthy merchant and manufacturer. It was built in the New Empire Style during a period that favored ostentation. The interior is built on an astonishing scale, with a main hall 82 feet long crowned by a soaring domed ceiling, from which an enormous chandelier hangs. This chandelier of Russian crystal is believed to be the work of the famous silversmith Mishakov and to be the largest house chandelier in Moscow.
Although not as vast as the ground floor, the living quarters are impressive for their spaciousness and attention to detail, such as beautifully molded ceilings, carved doors and handsome chandeliers. Other than the addition of a one-story ballroom wing in the 1930s, the mansion has not changed much in appearance.
The construction of Spaso House coincided with the end of one era and the beginning of another. Russia’s involvement in World War I resulted in political and civil unrest that directly affected the life of Spaso House’s master. There are many rumors surrounding Vtorov’s fate. One account claims that he was shot in his office by a revolutionary in 1917. Another version states that Vtorov struck a deal with Kerensky’s Provisional Government, ceding his mansion in return for permission to leave Russia. A third version claims that Vtorov was murdered by his own son in the front vestibule of Spaso House. Only the facts that Vtorov died in 1917 and that one of his two daughters was living in Paris in the early 1950s are certain.
Following the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, the newly formed Soviet government expropriated all of Moscow’s mansions, including Spaso House, for official use. Soviet Foreign Minister Vyshinskiy mentioned during a Spaso House reception that his predecessor, Georgiy Vasiliyevich Chicherin, the Commissar for Foreign Affairs from 1918 to 1930, had lived at Spaso House for some time during the 1920s.
When the first American ambassador, William C. Bullitt, arrived in Moscow at the end of 1933 to present his credentials, he was shown three buildings allocated for possible use by the American Embassy. Two were chosen: Spaso House was selected as the ambassador’s residence and another building then under construction on Mokhovaya Street, next to the Hotel National, was to serve as temporary offices and staff apartments until an embassy compound could be built on Sparrow Hills – a plan that never materialized.
At the time the United States entered into diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, Spaso House’s public rooms were being used for official entertaining by the Soviet Central Executive Committee. Several Soviet officials who had been living on the second floor of the mansion had to be housed elsewhere. They included I.M. Karakhan, Deputy Commissar for Foreign Affairs; Mikhailov, American Specialist for Izvestiya ; and Florinskiy, Chief of Protocol. Following their departure, workers began construction of the ballroom wing, which, due to difficulties with the floor, was completed more than a year later in 1935.
Ambassador Bullitt occupied Spaso House for the first time in March 1934. For several months, the residence also was used as the embassy’s chancery and housed some of the staff until the new building on Mokhovaya Street was completed.
The summer of 1934 has often been described as a honeymoon in American-Soviet ties. The establishment of diplomatic relations inspired good feelings, which prompted tens of thousands of American tourists to visit the U.S.S.R. One of these visitors was the sister of Charles W. Thayer, the author of Bears in the Caviar and other works describing embassy life in Moscow, who was then living in Spaso House as the ambassador’s secretary. During this visit, Miss Thayer met Third Secretary Charles E. Bohlen; a romance developed, resulting in marriage, and twenty years later Ambassador and Mrs. Bohlen returned to Moscow as the occupants of Spaso House from 1953 to 1957.
The beginning of this “honeymoon” period saw two memorable parties at Spaso House: the Christmas party of 1934, described in Bears in the Caviar, at which three trained seals went berserk in the ballroom, and the Spring Festival of 1935, described by Irena Wiley in Around the Globe in 20 Years as “the only one great party in Moscow of the USSR.” The famous writer Mikhail Bulgakov attended the ball which inspired the scene of the masked ball in The Master and Margarita. The animals borrowed from the Moscow Zoo for the Christmas party caused a number of calamities: An unhousebroken baby bear ruined a Soviet general’s uniform, and hundreds of finches, also not housebroken, flew noisily about the high-ceilinged rooms during the party and for days thereafter.
A musicale hosted by Ambassador Bullitt during the summer of 1935 was another memorable event. As later recalled by the then chief of the consular section, Angus Ward, guests in the newly completed ballroom witnessed Sergei Prokofiev conducting his own composition, the opera The Love for Three Oranges.
The advent of World War II and the German invasion in 1941 brought new horror to Russia and more changes in Spaso House. Part of the building was turned over to office use to accommodate the overflow from the growth of the official American community. A bomb shelter was even built in the basement. Through all of this, the residence remained largely unscathed, only suffering some broken windows, unlike the nearby Vakhtangov Theater, which was heavily damaged.
In the late fall of 1941, as the Germans were approaching Moscow, the seat of the Soviet government was transferred to the east, to the Volga city of Kuybyshev (Samara). The foreign embassies naturally followed. Spaso House was the evacuation point for the American community; official personnel and correspondents met at Spaso House and proceeded to the station, where they boarded a train to Kuybyshev to the accompanying sound of distant Soviet anti-aircraft fire. Ambassador Laurence A. Steinhardt’s departure for Kuybyshev left Second Secretary Llewellyn E. Thompson, who later served as ambassador in Moscow in the 1950s and 1960s, responsible for American properties and the remaining skeleton staff. Thompson was one of several ambassadors who first entered Spaso House as a junior officer.
A few months after the move to Kuybyshev, the Germans were pushed back from the Moscow area, never actually entering the capital, and the new ambassador, Admiral William H. Standley, and his staff could resume embassy operations in Moscow. Spaso House has continued throughout the postwar years to serve as the ambassador’s residence, and as such has welcomed a host of distinguished visitors, including five American presidents, three vice presidents and eight secretaries of state.
In recent years steps have been taken to restore Spaso House to its original 1914 splendor. Ambassador Thomas J. Watson arranged for the restoration of the exterior fanlight windows, destroyed during World War II, to glass of its original bright ultramarine blue color. In 1983, during Ambassador Arthur A. Hartman’s tenure, an ambitious program to repaint the residence was undertaken to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between the United States and the Soviet Union. A recent redecoration in 1995 of the representational rooms and the ballroom has restored the interior to the New Empire Style.
A variety of distinguished American art has been exhibited in Spaso House over the years, a tradition now continued through the State Department’s Art in Embassies Program. Under this program, paintings and sculptures are loaned to embassies around the world by museums and galleries, offering visitors to Spaso House an opportunity to become acquainted with the richness and variety of American art. The Art in Embassies Program was originated and developed by Mrs. Llewellyn E. Thompson (Jane) who was an amateur artist and lived at Spaso House. She founded the program knowing Spaso’s vast white walls would always be friendlier hung with fine American art.
Spaso House has long been associated with the American presence in Russia, and as such is the appropriate residence for the American ambassador in Moscow. The following is a list of the American ambassadors to Moscow who have resided at Spaso House, with their dates of arrival:
William C. Bullitt — November 1933
Joseph E. Davies — November 1936
Laurence A. Steinhardt — March 1939
William H. Standley — February 1942
W. Averell Harriman — October 1943
Walter Bedell Smith — March 1946
Alan G. Kirk — May 1949
George F. Kennan — March 1952
Charles E. Bohlen — March 1953
Llewellyn E. Thompson — June 1957
Foy D. Kohler — August 1962
Llewellyn E. Thompson — December 1967
Jacob D. Beam — April 1969
Walter J. Stoessel, Jr. — February 1974
Malcolm Toon — January 1977
Thomas J. Watson, Jr. — October 1979
Arthur A. Hartman — October 1981
Jack F. Matlock — April 1987
Robert S. Strauss — August 1991
Thomas R. Pickering — May 1993
James F. Collins — September 1997
Alexander Vershbow — July 2001
William J. Burns — July 2005
John Beyrle — July 2008
Michael McFaul — January 2012
John F. Tefft — November 2014
Jon Huntsman, Jr. — October 2017
John J. Sullivan — January 2020
(Text excerpted from April 1964 Foreign Service Journal article entitled “Spaso House” written by Ambassador Peter S. Bridges, former U.S. Ambassador to Mogadishu, Somalia and career Foreign Service Officer.)