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Thursday, August 2, 2018

Kinshasa 2018 – Former US Consulate Identified


In a post a few years back (Feb. 2, 2012), I reported my surprise at finding a photo of the first US Consulate in Leopoldville, located in a well-known landmark building on Place Leopold (aka Place Salongo and or Nioki).  The Consulate closed soon afterwards as a consequence of Depression era budget cuts and did not reopen until 1934.   In the records I’ve consulted to date, there is no indication where the new Consulate might have been.  We know that Vice Consul Patrick Mallon hosted a reception at the Consulate for the Pan American flying boat crew in November 1941 (Apr.27, 2013) and another reference indicates that the Consulate moved to new premises in May 1943.
The Credit Foncier Africain building - State Department seal on left corner of the building.

During the Second World War, the US stepped up its presence in the capital to support the broader war effort.  The Belgian Congo was so strategic, that in addition to the Consulate, the Bureau of Economic Warfare (BEW, later the Foreign Economic Administration, predecessor of USAID), the Office of War Information (OWI, predecessor of US Information Agency) and even the Office of Strategic Services (OSS, predecessor of the CIA) opened offices in the city.  At the same time, at the end of 1941, Pan American Airways, under contract to the US Government, launched an air route from New York serviced by Clipper flying boats. The following year, the US Army dispatched a construction battalion to upgrade Ndolo Airport for land based aircraft (May 23, 2011), as well as the 23rd Army Station Hospital, to ensure an alternative trans-Africa route to India and China if North Africa fell to Axis forces. The US Army, BEW and OSS obtained properties on Ave. Gen. Olsen provided by the colonial government under terms of the Lend-Lease agreement. Although this was an industrial area behind the rail yards of the Gare Centrale, it was conveniently located to the airport.  The OSS managed a succession of agents engaged in a clandestine effort to prevent Germany gaining access to Congo’s uranium by investigating illicit diamond sales.
US Troops on parade in 1942
The Consulate moved in May 1943 to the premises recently vacated by the US Army on Ave. Olsen (Kabasele Tshamala).  At the same time, the Colony granted a 1 acre (71 hectare) plot to build a Consulate. Already, the State Department was budgeting for new facilities. In February 1943, Frederick Larkin, the Director of State’s Office of Foreign Buildings, testified before the House Appropriations Committee that Leopoldville was one of eight projects, “in very bad condition”.  The following year, when the Consulate was raised to Consulate General, Larkin travelled to Leopoldville to begin preparing plans for the new Consul’s residence on the River. It was now one of 10 priority projects around the world and the Executive Office of Management and Budget planned for a completely furnished combined consulate and staff living quarters.


The process of building a new Consulate took a long time and appears to have been sidelined to other priorities. In 1951 the House Appropriations Committee was still presented with a combination office building and staff quarters in the planning stages. By now, however, the Consulate owned a lot at Ave. Aviateurs and Wahis, the site of the football pitch used by Ste. Anne (where the Consulate would eventually be built), and held two other residential properties on Ave Leopold (Tshatshi) and Blvd. Albert (30 Juin).  But no construction had started.
The lot at Aviateurs and Wahis in the 1930s (center right). Ste. Anne in the foreground. 
Student gymnastics in the lot in front of Ste. Anne.
US Consulate property in Kalina.


Meanwhile, the Consulate offices remained on Avenue Olsen.  The Consulate was lodged rent tree under terms of the Lend-Lease Agreement, but neither the Belgian nor US governments were prepared to do anything to improve the property. A missionary couple who visited in 1952 described the Consulate as, “a small office in a shabby orchre-colored building.” In August 1953, Consul Patrick Mallon (on his second tour, now Consul General) described the public perception of the Consulate as,

"a joke, and I am frankly ashamed, humiliated, when anyone other than a native comes into the office and sees the filth and squalor, the absurdly overcrowded conditions and the general tone of the office which can be best described as 'rotten'".

The consulate was in an industrial neighborhood on an "unbelievably rough cobblestone street", and on two sides of the compound were a soap factory and a chemical plant. Trucks carrying beer and soda bottles from the Brasserie de Leopoldville (June 12, 2015) clattered by in both directions -- with full and empties. Five of eleven consular officers (some with families) lived in three adjacent properties. In August 1956, a visitor noted a new Consulate was under design to replace the "rattletrap: that now housed the Consulate and the US Information Agency. A Consular officer described the premises in 1958 as, "an acient wooden house, a decrepit construction, standing seemingly on its last legs, while we waited for a new office building to be completed. 
The Sabena Guest House on the road to the airport. Note the cobblestone street.
The Department’s budget for 1954 acknowledged a property on Ave de la Raquette, the actual site of the Residence, and estimated the cost of construction of an office building at $220,000. By 1955 the Consular Residence was complete and the Department could concentrate on the Consulate. The new Consulate was inaugurated by Governor General Petillon in January 1958 (Jan. 29, 2011).
The new US Consulate in 1959.
The location of the former Consulate remained elusive. A guidebook from 1953 listed the Chancery at Ave. Olsen and a letter on USIS letterhead provided a street address of 25 Olsen (I could digress here to note that Kinshasa parcels can have any of three different numbering systems, and many gates have no numbers at all. But another time). It seemed the Consulate would have been located at the junction of Ave Syndicat, but when visited earlier this year, a wooden “rattletrap” was not apparent and the wall around the compound precluded further investigation.  A reader of this blog (who incidentally arrived in Kinshasa in 1956 as I did) shared a photograph from the era.  This weekend I went down Ave. Kabasele to the site and was pleased to confirm the location against the photograph. Whatever the complaints about a rattletrap wooden building, the structure behind the wall is clearly a 1940s structure. Certainly not “rattletrap” at the time of occupation by the Consulate. It appears staff were indulging in chronic complaining about their posting, or perhaps referring to outbuildings on the property.
US Consulate on Ave. Olsen 1950s (note cobblestone street)
The US Consulate site today.
On the way to the old Consulate, I passed through Pl. Forescom with the new Congolese Armed Forces Monument in the roundabout. A crane with a wrecking ball was taking down the remains of the CFA building. When I returned later that afternoon, it was gone. Congolese authorities, and certainly commercial interests, have no motivation in preserving the first US Consulate in Kinshasa, but the building had architectural merit in its own right. The rond point is changing. Bralima and the owners of the Forescom building seem committed to permanently draping the building in beer billboards. Across the way, another modern wedge-shaped structure sits where Chez Patrick Restaurant used to be. How the new developer’s plans fit into the circle remain to be seen.
The CFA building in 2002

The wrecking ball at work. New building facing the corner of Ave du Port.
The Armed Forces monument. CFA building behind billboard on right.
The Forescom building 2018.
References:

  • Lawrence, 1972, American Foreign Service Journal.
  • Liturgical Arts, 1956
  • U.S. Congress, House, 1943. Appropriations Committee.
  • U.S. Congress, Senate, 1955. Appropriations Committee.
  • U.S. Congress, Senate, 1956. Appropriations Committee.
  • Williams, Susan, 2016. Spies in the Congo.