In July 1977, at the conclusion of a four-month language and cultural training program, my U.S. Peace Corps group was invited to a ceremony at the American ambassador’s residence. Thirty of the original 35 trainees had successfully completed the rigorous course, and at the ceremony we would be officially sworn in as full-fledged volunteers.
The address—108 Withayu (Wireless) Road—was embossed on an invitation card I’d received. As dusk approached, I found a brass plaque fastened to a gate pillar that confirmed that the expansive property on the other side was the place I was supposed to be.
As the guards showed me through a pedestrian gate, in the distance I could make out a large, warmly lit house surrounded by acres of manicured gardens and stately raintrees, with moat-like canals marking the perimeter. Here and there, peacocks strutted across the grass.
That evening we were grandly hosted by U.S. Ambassador Charles S. Whitehouse, who I later learned was a Yale graduate and former CIA officer in Congo, Turkey, Belgium, and Cambodia.
A few hundred meters farther south along Withayu Rd, with separate wings on both sides of the street, is the American embassy itself, one of the largest diplomatic missions in the world. Judging from the long lines of visa applicants standing outside the consular section every weekday, it may also be one of the busiest.
Today the ambassador’s residence seems a world apart from these sterile centres of bureaucracy. If it weren’t for the high security fences one might mistake the 10-acre green oasis for a resort, complete with a separate guesthouse, pavilion, swimming pool, and tennis court.
Decades later I learned that the main villa, a magnificent teak edifice designed in tropical-colonial style, was built in 1914 by Horatio Victor Bailey, a British engineer who travelled to Siam to work for Bangkok Dock Company, one of the kingdom’s first active American firms. Bailey, an adventurer who turned his back on a substantial family inheritance to make Bangkok his home, also became one of the founders of Siam Motor Works and a purveyor of royal silver to King Vajiravudh (Rama VI). The latter bestowed Bailey with the Thai name title and name Phra Padibat Rajaprasong, meaning “one who carries out the royal intention.”
In traditional Thai fashion, the house was raised high on stilts to avoid flood damage during the rainy season and to allow cooling breezes to circulate underneath, through, and around the home. This open-air lower section was later walled in. Square rooms upstairs opened onto each other and out to a cooling porch, with a broad veranda running along the front of the house. With the advent of air conditioning, these were closed in as well.
The interior of the house was also designed to allow air to circulate freely, with very high ceilings and walls topped with intricately carved teak-lattice ventilators. British colonial–style touches included a dedicated billiards room (now the dining room), and carved teak embellishments, including faces that appear to match Asian eyes with European noses at the window corners. The massive house featured only two bedrooms.
Former U.S. ambassador Ralph “Skip” Boyce, who lived at the residence from 2004 to 2007, undertook extensive research on the house while supervising once-every-seven-years refurbishments. Boyce told Architectural Digest that he believed the design to be “an Englishman’s idea of a Thai country home.”
“The original explanation was that there was one bedroom for each of Bailey’s two Thai wives,” recounted Boyce. “Well, it turns out he had three wives, all of whom lived with him here in the house, all at the same time. The bedrooms were actually where the bedding was stored during the day. The open-air porch is where Henry Bailey slept, communal-style, with his three wives.”
Bailey died in 1920, and his surviving wives and children continued to live in the home for two years. After that they moved out and hired the law firm of Bangueley and Tooth to administer the property. The firm rented the house to the Belgian legation to Siam from 1922 to 1926. Baron de Villenfange de Sorinnes, a Belgian royal guest of the legation in 1922, wrote that the house was “without doubt one of the most beautiful in Bangkok.”
The Siamese treasury bought the house from the Bailey estate in 1926. Belgium continued to house its legation here until 1927, when Prince Traidos Prabandh, Siam’s minister of foreign affairs, requested that it be transferred to Raymond Stevens, an American advisor to the ministry. Stevens lived here until he left the country 1936, when his successor Fredrick Dolbeare took over.
When the Japanese invaded Bangkok in World War II, American advisors cleared out, and the property was occupied by Japanese troops. Scorch marks left by charcoal cooking braziers can still be seen in the teak floor in a few places.
When the war ended and the Japanese left, Thailand’s first American Ambassador, Edwin Stanton, asked the ministry of foreign affairs about using the property as the official ambassador’s residence. The Thai government consented, reportedly as a gesture of gratitude to the United States for opposing Great Britain’s wish to punish the country for collaborating with the Japanese in World War II.
Stanton described the condition of the house when he encountered it in his memoirs. “With an avenue of magnificent dark spreading raintrees leading to it, we saw a sprawling sagging house, painted chocolate brown, shutters hanging precariously; indeed the whole house listed to one side. The extensive garden surrounding the house was crammed with rusted war junk, remnants of jeeps, trucks, gun carriages and tanks left there by Japanese troops. The property was encircled by a wide canal containing more rusted junk, which jutted out of the water at grotesque angles.”
The ministry paid for the restoration and renovation of the property and Stanton became the first to inhabit what has remained the official U.S. ambassador’s residence ever since.
Current U.S. ambassador Glyn T. Davies took up residence in August 2015, and continues the tradition of hosting everything from working lunches with local administrators or sit-down dinners with senior U.S. officials to large-scale receptions with musical entertainment. Sadly, Peace Corps swearing-in ceremonies now take place in the field, rather than at the ambassador’s residence.