The house the elephants protect

| September 27, 2015 | 0 Comments
The residence of the Thai ambassador was designed in the 1920s by noted architect Werner E. Noffke. (Photo: Dyanne Wilson)

The residence of the Thai ambassador was designed in the 1920s by noted architect Werner E. Noffke. (Photo: Dyanne Wilson)

Wandering along the northern end of Acacia Avenue in Rockcliffe Park, you’ll notice a wonderful display of sophisticated embassy residences, from Japan and Korea’s stone mansions to India’s brick Victorian and Iran’s more modern Arabic architecture. And then you come upon a distinctive large white stucco house with two stone elephants guarding the driveway. The elephants, Thailand’s national animal, represent a country whose kings rode to war on their backs. That they are guarding a home that looks a bit like a mushroom is of no concern to them. Nor to the residents of Ronsonby, as the home of Thailand’s gracious Ambassador Vijavat Isarabhakdi and his wife, Wannipa is called.
The mushroom reference comes from the 1920s design by noted architect Werner E. Noffke for Edith Wilson, sister-in-law to senator W. C. Edwards, a lumber baron of the region. The large lot and country setting inspired Noffke to create a rough stucco exterior with mock half timbers, now painted blue, and short Ionic columns that family members mockingly described as toad stools.

The first reception room is decorated in pale blue and features large portraits of the king and queen of Thailand. (Photo: Dyanne Wilson)

The first reception room is decorated in pale blue and features large portraits of the king and queen of Thailand. (Photo: Dyanne Wilson)

But once inside, any country connotations disappear in the lovely and sophisticated interior of the old home.
The five-bedroom, five-bathroom interior has a classic centre hall design with a long staircase and on the left, two living rooms. The first is decorated in pale blue with gold and cream trim and features large portraits of the king and queen of Thailand. Lovely examples of Thai arts and crafts catch the eye, including lacquered black and gold chairs and delicate gold lacquered cabinets originally created by monks to hold Buddhist manuscripts. In more modern times, these have been adapted in Thailand to domestic households.
An intricate bowl and saucer is an example of a traditional Thai art form dating back to the 14th Century. It involves painstakingly inlaying mother of pearl into black lacquer.
The second living room, which is open to the first, is decorated in cream with splashes of gold. Large windows surround the room, providing a perfect background for cultural artifacts and socializing. The two living rooms are connected by a fireplace.

Ambassador Vijavat Isarabhakdi and his wife, Wannipa. (Photo: Dyanne Wilson)

Ambassador Vijavat Isarabhakdi and his wife, Wannipa. (Photo: Dyanne Wilson)

A visit to this house is a cultural event. A bowl of colourful and finely detailed flowers, which look remarkably real, turns out to be delicately carved pieces of coloured soap. They were presented by a friend as a farewell gift to the family when Vijavat left for a posting as ambassador to Washington.
“She even told me how to pack it so it wouldn’t break,” Wannipa says.
The ambassador laughs when he thinks back to his arrival in February with a windchill of -40 degrees. “Very cold,” he says.
The house was purchased from an Ottawa businessman in 1967 and a new dining room was added along the back, filling the formal room with sunshine from windows on three sides.
Paintings of Thai dancers line the yellow and burnt-orange walls, China elephants prance on the table, and two brightly painted Khon masks guard the room. The masks were worn to establish the characters in ancient masked dance dramas.
“I love this room,” says the ambassador’s wife, dressed stylishly in a gold Thai silk coat dress. “I love decorating,” she adds, a statement that becomes apparent by the quiet elegance of the room and the dining table set for a dinner party. On the sideboard sit intricately carved fruits … a watermelon and cantaloupes along with some white radishes. Daughter Natasha, 14, joined the staff and tried her hand at some of the carving, her proud parents note.

The home is full of Thai treasures such as this Khon mask. (Photo: Dyanne Wilson)

The home is full of Thai treasures such as this Khon mask. (Photo: Dyanne Wilson)

Even the table is set to perfection: China, cutlery and glasses all carrying the crest of Thailand and napkins painstakingly folded into the shape of a lotus, a symbol of Buddhism.
Among the items on the dinner menus set at each place are pad Thai, shrimp cake, spring roll and stir-fried veggies.
“We have a Thai chef and I like to say that the best Thai restaurant in town is here,” says the ambassador.
Judging from the snacks we tasted — tiny spring rolls served in small bundles and delicate chicken saté — he is right.
“Entertaining is an enjoyable part of our work,” he says, although his wife adds that it is also a challenge. With a staff of three, they try not to have back-to-back dinners or receptions.
Behind the dining room, a sunroom has been added, again with glass on three sides, exactly mirroring the dining room. It’s wonderful, says the ambassador, but too chilly for use in the winter.

The dining room table is set for a party. (Photo: Dyanne Wilson)

The dining room table is set for a party. (Photo: Dyanne Wilson)

Margo Roston is Diplomat’s culture editor.

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Margo Roston is Diplomat’s culture editor.

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