• As Diplomacy Changes, So Must Its Architecture

    Swedish Ambassador's Residence

    3900 Nebraska Ave has served as the residence of the Swedish Ambassador since 1950. This year, it'll be put up for sale. Photo by Molly McCluskey.

    Along a prime stretch of Nebraska Avenue in American University Heights on a 4.5-acre plot sits the Spanish colonial that, since 1950, has been the Swedish ambassador's residence. Famed for the tennis courts that hosted heads of state and other dignitaries in matches against former ambassadors, the property has sat vacant since 2019.

    This year, it'll be put up for sale.
    According to current Swedish Ambassador Karin Olofsdotter, the decision to sell the Nebraska house reflects the changing nature of diplomacy, and why diplomatic buildings need to change along with it.
    I sat down with the Olofsdotter for an exclusive interview in a newly remodeled section of the House of Sweden to discuss the impending sale, the House of Sweden renovations, and why the decision to sell the house should serve as a model for other embassies in Washington, and elsewhere.

    Ambassador Karin Olofsdotter sits in the newly-renovated private area in the House of Sweden. Photo by Molly McCluskey.

    Sweden and the United States formally established diplomatic ties in 1818, but by that point, it was merely a formality. The Declaration of Independence paved the way for friendly foreign governments to recognize American sovereignty, and Sweden did so following the Treaty of Amity and Commerce between the United States and Sweden in 1783. The treaty was the initiative of Sweden, whose minister in Paris approached Benjamin Franklin, who was serving as serving as Minister Plenipotentiary to France, and said that he hoped such a treaty would enshrine that “Sweden was the first power in Europe which had voluntarily and without solicitation offered its friendship to the United States.” Franklin then adopted the title Minister Plenipotentiary to Sweden. Sweden's first consul to the United States was dispatched a short time after. The United States sent its first consult to Sweden in 1818. In 1947, the U.S. embassy in Stockholm was elevated to "embassy" status.
    Hence, the Swedes needed an embassy in Washington.
    The Spanish colonial that would become the embassy was designed by architect Arthur Heaton, who, among other distinctions, was the first superintending architect on the National Cathedral. The house was built in 1923 for David Lawrence, who many books on Washington architecture reference as the founder of U.S. News & World Report, although it would be many years before Lawrence would found first the United States News, and later, the World Report, and then merge them into the outlet it is today. (Disclosure: I've been a contributor to U.S. News & World Report since 2015.)
    "New embassy awaits return of Sweden's envoy," proclaimed The Washington Post on April 27, 1950. "The new embassy, the former David Lawrence house at 3900 Nebraska Ave is long and low, with an ivy-covered doorway and a walled garden at the side. The house is surrounded by gardens and trees." The ad for the property claimed the 18-room, 7- bath, 8-acre estate had a "20 miles view" with "finest modern equipment and special features throughout." It was listed for $192,500. The ambassador at the time suggested Swedish government purchase it, and when they declined, claiming it was too expensive, he purchased it himself from a friend for $150,000, and then sold it to the government.
    The exterior remains largely the same, although a modified version of Sweden's Lesser Coat of Arms graces the arched doorway. (Not to be confused with Sweden's Greater Coat of Arms, which represents the Swedish monarchy, and is used for ceremonial purposes.)
    In 2019, an inspection of the Nebraska residence determined it was in need of repair. While the country considered renovating the building, both the house's state and its impractical layout (there are two individual parlors, for instance, rather than a large dining area suited for diplomatic dinners) meant that it would essentially have to have been gutted and rebuilt for purpose, keeping only the building's facade. It was a move that was hardly pragmatic, as the days of long lunches and a few tennis matches in the middle of the workday are long past. Instead, the country is consolidating all of its diplomatic functions into its more well-known, and accessible, House of Sweden.

    The exterior of the House of Sweden in Georgetown. Photo by Molly McCluskey.

    "When the Nebraska house was considered to be in a state where we couldn't use it anymore, we had three options," Olofsdotter told me. "Either we would renovate Nebraska, which would include selling half the land because it's so big, and renovating the building; we could sell half the land, tear down the building and build a new house, or move in here (House of Sweden)."
    "And the plan was to realize the original plans for this house, which was to have the residence in it."
    Owned by the Swedish National Property Board, the House of Sweden is an award-winning property on the Georgetown waterfront that has functioned as the country's embassy since 2006. The upper two of the building's five floors, which had been non-Swedish commercial office space, is undergoing renovations to become the ambassador's residence, and private entertaining space for high-level guests. The lower floors will continue to be open to the public to host exhibits and large ceremonies, as will the open rooftop with views that rival that of the Kennedy Center's.
    Created by architects Gert Wingårdh and Tomas Hansen, the House of Sweden won Sweden's Kasper Salin Prize in 2007. Throughout the building are features meant to showcase Swedish design and culture, from the lights that mimic a Scandinavian winter sky, to the recycled scrap wood flooring, to the water features throughout. When lit at night, the building itself resembles a Swedish lamp with stretched bark that was popular in the 1950s.

    "The entrance railing with white dots is supposed to be the morning mist. You have the black lakes of the northern parts of Sweden downstairs and the Alfred Nobel room is completely black because it's supposed to give you the feeling of darkness in Scandinavia, and when you enter the atrium you get this enormous light and that's how we perceive spring," Olofsdotter said, "And the black lines in the floor, that's supposed to be in the old days when we lived in huts with dirt floors and handwoven carpets on top."
    "These are features of our culture built into the architecture of the house," Olofsdotter said.

    The House of Sweden is designed to evoke the country's seasons and landscapes.

    Photo by Molly McCluskey.

    Olofsdotter expects the building's stunning design, and accessibility, will make it a more desirable destination than the Nebraska house.
    "Things change. In the older days, maybe twenty years ago, people played golf or tennis on the weekdays and had a three-martini lunch. That's just not happening now," Olofsdotter says. "You have to be much more efficient, and time-managed, and really concrete in why you want to meet someone, because everyone is so busy."
    But more than just tennis, Olofsdotter says that even drawing out politicians or businesspeople for the critical diplomatic task of shared dining is challenging with a property not directly downtown. "No one has time to sit in a taxi for 25 minutes to meet with a smaller- or medium-sized country," she said. "And with 180 countries represented in Washington, this town is so stiff when it comes to competition."
    With the five floors, the public and private space, the excellent views and the ease of getting there, the House of Sweden will usher in a new model of diplomacy for the Swedes, and those who visit.
    "It's so close to everything. This floor (4th) will be for dinners for up to 50 people, but usually most things we have 10 or 15 people, and then when we have bigger dinners we will have them downstairs in the event center," Olofsdotter said. "You can take a drink down into the exhibit and then you go up for dinner, or you take a drink on the rooftop and then you go for dinner and then see an exhibit. I think we can make use of the House in such a different way and actually show it to people when they're here for something else."

    The view from the private area of the House of Sweden. Photo by Molly McCluskey.

    Whether it was the country's intention or not, Sweden's decision to release its hold on a property that no longer serves its interests, in favor of streamlining their operations into a more environmentally-friendly, transit-accessible location, is more than just a financial move, and it speaks volumes of the country's values. It's a move Olofsdotter hopes other countries will emulate.
    Some already are. In 2019, several months after the Swedes made the decision to sell their residence, the Belgium government sold their three-story, 28,731-square-foot embassy on a 1.2-acre property at the corner of 34th Street NW and Garfield Street NW, that they had built in, and continuously occupied, since 1956. (The building sold to Vietnam for $23 million.) The Belgian Embassy is now in an office on K. St, which puts them closer to lobbying, trade, and government officials, and, unlike their former embassy, is transit accessible. (The country maintains their separate ambassador's residence.) Dozens of other embassies have taken advantage of pandemic lockdowns for extensive remodeling that will bring their buildings more in line with their current needs. While D.C. Board of Zoning and historic building laws can make such remodeling challenging, those in newer properties, like House of Sweden, face fewer restrictions.
    What will happen with the Nebraska house remains to be seen. Olofsdotter expects it will go on the market this year. The contents have all been emptied; the official embassy furniture, including the famed Josef Frank sofa and chairs, have been moved into House of Sweden, and Olofsdotter has ordered new items for her private areas, although there have been some supply chain delays. Some items have been returned to Stockholm. Items that were deemed not historically significant or of significant value were offered to the staff via silent auction. (Olofsdotter beat out press and public diplomacy counselor Lars-Erik Tindre for a stunning firewood rack, but he is nonetheless content with his vintage champagne glasses win.)

    At one point, there were plans to have a farewell party to the house, but then the pandemic happened. Now, it's been over two years since the ambassador lived in the house, and her thoughts are on the move into House of Sweden, and building a home there, for herself and for the ambassadors who will follow her.
    "Nebraska is a beautiful house and we are leaving it for the right reasons," Olofsdotter said. "It has served us well for 40 years and now this is the modern, new way to conduct public diplomacy."

    A historical photo of 3900 Nebraska Avenue. Photo courtesy of the Swedish Embassy.