Here stand I, Tarāwhai
Treasured emblem in a foreign land
My face turned to the world
Welcoming the multitude alone.
Inscription on a Māori waharoa at the entrance to the Embassy of New Zealand.
The entrance to the Embassy of New Zealand. Photo by Molly McCluskey.
From end to end, Embassy Row has some of the most distinct addresses in Washington. There's the Mansion at 2020, now the Indonesia Embassy; the former Alice Pike Barney home and studio, now serving as the Embassy of Latvia; the former science experiment now housing the Embassy of Tunisia, and more.
But one of the most unique properties, while technically part of Embassy Row, has its own distinction—it's the only embassy with an Observatory Circle address.
Long before the Embassy of New Zealand formed its first legation on the street, even before the Embassy of the United Kingdom moved to this connected stretch of Massachusetts Avenue, life was mostly serene in this section of Washington, away from the furor of downtown, with adjoining farms nearly as far as the eye could see, and an uninterrupted view of the night sky. Stars lit the path from one neighbor's home to the next.
But the arrival of the British signaled a shift, and more Washingtonians flocked to build homes in what a 1929 Washington Post article called, "the section dominated by the new British Embassy, giving evidence to support the theory that fashion follows the British flag." It wouldn't be long before other embassies followed suit, and today the area is filled with the embassies of Bolivia, Italy, Denmark, Sri Lanka, South Africa, and more.
When New Zealand formed its first legation on Observatory Circle, the location was pragmatic, as well as desirable. It was 1941. The former Commonwealth country, then known as the Dominion of New Zealand, had been granted independence from the United Kingdom with the 1931 Statute of Westminster. However, the New Zealand government didn't officially adopt the statute until 1947. Consequently, King George VI had to give his consent for New Zealand to open the legation, and all bilateral relations between New Zealand and the United States had to be run through the British ambassador.
When it was purchased as a combined residence/chancery, 27 Observatory Circle was already known to the New Zealand delegation. It had previously been the home of James Dunn, a career diplomat who had served, among other roles, as the Chief of the European Division of the State Department. In 1937, Dunn and his wife, Mary, had hosted a dinner party with several prominent New Zealanders, including Walter Nash, the minister of finance, customs and marketing. The Dunns would sell their property to New Zealand for $155,000. Nash would go on to become the nation's first Special Minister to Washington with the opening of the legation.
James Dunn, the former owner of the land that would become the Embassy of New Zealand. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Those first few years were challenging for the small delegation. In 1992, in recognition of fifty years of bilateral ties, the late former ambassador Denis McLean wrote, "In wartime Washington, as the United States was marshalling its amazing resources and being propelled into world leadership, the Legation had to ensure a New Zealand voice in the formulation of allied strategy, to foster bilateral ties, to arrange supplies and equipment, and to speak for New Zealand on a whole range of issues. The history shows that New Zealand often felt frustrated by the difficulty in securing recognition as a full and equal partner."
In 1942, New Zealand purchased the property next door at 19 Observatory Circle, (presently the British Ambassador's residence), for use as a chancery. The two houses had been built together in the 1920s by Harry Wardman, the developer of the British Embassy, who had used 19 Observatory Circle as his home until financial troubles forced him to sell it.
The British and the New Zealand properties were so intertwined that on one evening in 1980, attendants of a charity reception at the embassy of New Zealand were briefly and amusingly distracted when "two couples, going home from a rotunda party at the British embassy next door, had shucked off their shoes and were running, stocking-footed, through the thick, N.Z. lawn," the Washington Post reported at the time. "'Oh, Harry, isn't it mah-h-hvelous,' one bird said, 'and it feels just like English gra-a-ahhhs!'"
With the purchase of a new, adjacent plot of land in 1954, the New Zealanders set their sights on creating a building that would be distinctly their own. In 1973, they commissioned New Zealand architect, Miles Warren, to design one which would draw upon New Zealand's Māori heritage.
Jonathan Steffert, the embassy's cultural attaché and Diplomatica's guide, says that honoring those traditions has been a priority since the earliest days of the country's embassy.
"We ensure our physical presence on and offshore reflects our Māori culture and heritage through building design and cultural artefacts, and our people have the expertise, resources and support they need to represent and promote Māori culture and Māori values thoughtfully and authentically," Steffert told Diplomatica.
The building was opened in 1979 by, among other U.S. and NZ dignitaries, the Māori Queen Te Arikinui Dame Te Atairangikaahu, whose spokesperson carried out a ceremonial opening according to Māori ritual and protocol. In 1981, the building won the New Zealand Institute of Architects National Award.
At its unveiling, the current New Zealand embassy on Observatory Circle was described as, "A well-mannered embassy...located somewhat hidden away at the end of Observatory Circle behind the British Embassy and across from the vice presidential mansion." The Washington Post's architecture critic continued that the "New Zealand embassy is polite to the point of gallantry in the way in which it gets along with its neighbors and its sylvan setting."
But relations weren't always so harmonious in this sylvan setting. Before New Zealand staked its claim on this stretch of land, even before the British, this part of Washington was a farm called Normanstone. And trouble came to Normanstone, as trouble so often comes in Washington, by an act of Congress.
An early photo of the US Naval Observatory at its Massachusetts Avenue location. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Before it became a behemoth with its own circle, the U.S. Naval Observatory was a modest Depot of Charts and Instruments, founded in 1830, and housed in a small building at 17th and G Streets NW, rented by Lt. Louis M. Goldsborough for the Navy for $250 a year. According to Geoffrey Chester, who has served as the public affairs director of the Observatory since 1997, and spent nineteen years before that as an astronomer with the Smithsonian, the Depot would have four homes before it would move to its current location.
In 1833, Lt. Charles Wilkes began overseeing the depot, and he transferred the operations from the home that Goldsborough rented to a vacant lot that Wilkes owned near his home on North Capitol Street. There, he built a new home for the transit telescope and other instruments.
Wilkes ran the Depot until 1838, when he left to lead the U.S. Exploration Expedition to the Pacific, leaving his successor to run the Depot. When Wilkes returned from his voyage, however, he unceremoniously booted both his successor and the Depot from his land. The Depot moved again, this time to Pennsylvania Avenue, near what is now Washington Circle, in Foggy Bottom.
In 1842, the 27th Congress passed an act that authorized the Secretary of the Navy, "to contract for the building of a suitable house for a depot of charts and instruments of the navy of the United States, on a plan not exceeding in cost the sum of twenty-five thousand dollars."
Further, Congress decreed, "That the said establishment may be located on any portion of the public land in the District of Columbia which the President of the United States may deem suited to the purpose."
The Observatory would stay in Foggy Bottom for nearly fifty years.
"Completed in 1844, the Foggy Bottom site hosted the newly christened U.S. Naval Observatory until 1893, when it was moved to its present site," Chester told Diplomatica, "This new site was chosen from an initial list of some 40 locations in and around DC."
The site selected to be the fifth and final home of the Naval Observatory, Observatory Circle, was itself once a farm. A neighbor to Normanstone, the 73-acre plantation belonged to Mr. and Mrs. Cornelius Barber, who had purchased it in the 1830s.
"Five of the six Barber children died in a yellow fever epidemic in 1849, and Cornelius suffered the same fate in 1853, leaving Mrs. Barber and her oldest son to run the farm," Chester said. "In 1881, she sold the property to the Navy for $63,000."
When the new observatory was eventually completed in 1893 the Navy made plans to erect a circular perimeter of 1000-foot radius centered on the "clock house". This buffer was deemed as necessary to shield the delicate pendulum clocks from any disturbance caused by vehicles or construction. Parts of the Barber property were outside the bounds of the proposed circle. Some of these were sold or traded for privately owned parcels within the circle. Other parts inside the circle were purchased or condemned. The last parcel to be obtained was around six acres belonging to the Industrial Home School, which was finally purchased in the late 1950s.
In 1894, the Naval Observatory, as it became known, expanded to include a thousand-foot radius around its depot, (today's Observatory Circle). Part of Normanstone, which had changed hands several times over the preceding decades, was deemed necessary, along with tracts of land from several of its neighbors, including Dumbarton, on the remains of which today sit the Embassy of Switzerland and the Swiss Ambassador's residence, Twin Oaks, and several other distinguished addresses. The owners fought the expansion, leading the Secretary of the Navy to direct the Attorney General to "take the necessary steps" to transfer the "condemned land" to the Observatory.
Ultimately, Normanstone gave way, first to the Observatory, then, over the years, to the British and New Zealand embassies.
A rare quiet moment in the great hall of the Embassy of New Zealand. Photo by Molly McCluskey.
On a clear, brilliant afternoon, as Steffert and I tour the embassy, we see no one. The usually bustling embassy, often filled with parties and cultural and political events, is momentarily quiet. Standing alone in the great hall, our words ring out and bounce from the rafters. The room should seem cold, but shafts of light are streaming across the hardwood floors, and the echoes of gatherings past fill the room with warmth. The traffic on Massachusetts Avenue feels far away.
It's not hard to think of Normanstone, and a time when this part of Washington was filled with farms, or that, at night, it might be possible still to find a path to a neighbor's yard by stars alone. Despite its many incarnations, the land itself remains, and in doing so, calls to mind the Māori proverb, Ka mate te kāinga tahi, ka ora te kāinga rua.
When one house dies, a second lives.
A marker commemorating the laying of the foundation stone of what would become the new New Zealand embassy by Queen Elizabeth in 1976. Photo by Molly McCluskey.