Old Chinese Legation

The Old Chinese Legation was only the second purpose-built legation in Washington, DC.

Located at the corner of 19th and Vernon streets NW, the Old Chinese Legation was only the second purpose-built legation (after the British Embassy) in Washington, DC. The old British Embassy on Connecticut Avenue NW has since been demolished, making the Old Chinese Legation the oldest standing building in DC commissioned and formerly occupied by a foreign government.

The building was constructed during an era of significant geopolitical changes, which encompassed the United States’ rising international status, due to its victory in the Spanish-American War in 1898. During this time, the United States and the Qing Dynasty had a fragile relationship – with diplomatic relations first established in 1844. In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, targeting Chinese immigration to the United States. The following decade, the United States and European powers (as well as Japan) sent troops to China during the Boxer Rebellion, as well as agreed to the Americans’ Open Door Policy, which furthered foreign economic involvement in China.

In 1878, the first Chinese Legation was established on K Street NW in the former home of Governor Alexander Shephard. The legation then moved several times, including a stint at the Stewart Castle on Dupont Circle. In 1902, construction started on the building in Washington Heights, a neighborhood which had first started to develop in the 1890s. Efforts to construct a purpose-built legation building were driven by Minister Wu Ting Fang, who is also credited with selecting the legation building’s architectural style. As quoted in the landmark nomination, “The Chinese minister ‘preferred something American or adaptable to American home life rather than a building of the Chinese type.”

The Old Chinese Legation was designed by prolific Washington architect Waddy B. Wood in an Elizabethan/Jacobean Revival style, an early Washington example of this style. This romantic revival style gives the building a look reminiscent of an English manor house. The building is clad in brick masonry, but also includes limestone and terra cotta ornamentation throughout.

The primary façade (south elevation) facing Vernon Street includes a main entrance with a terra cotta surround, broken segmental pediment, and pilasters. The main entrance is flanked by two-story bays with parapeted gable roofs. Each bay includes a balcony with balustrade. Limestone ornamentation is found throughout the façade, including on the symmetrical limestone porches which extend on both the west and east sides of the building. This elevation, facing Vernon Street, featured the ambassador’s residence. The west elevation along 19th Street once housed the chancery and its offices. It is less ornate than the Vernon Street façade, but features the same stylistic elements.

The residence was constructed to allow for the minister to reside on the second floor, facing Vernon. This was in line with Chinese custom, which dictated that higher-ranking officials, such as a minister, should sleep on a floor above lower-ranking individuals, including secretaries and servants.

The new minister, Liang Cheng, moved into the building – officially the Imperial Chinese Legation – in April 1903. He was replaced by Minister Wu in 1907. After the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1912, the building served as the Legation of the Republic of China from 1912 to 1935.

Minister Alfred Sao-ke Sze, serving in the 1920s and 1930s, would be particularly influential, as he secured American support for China, which was then dealing with Japanese aggression. Japan would end up invading Manchuria in 1931 and continue its encroachment into China through the 1930s and into World War II. Minister Sze also brokered a truce during the “Tong Wars.” When the legation was elevated to embassy status in 1935, Minister Sze became Ambassador Sze, the first Chinese ambassador to the United States. In 1937, the Chinese Ambassador moved to Twin Oaks in Cleveland Park. The building in Washington Heights would continue to house the chancery until 1943, when it moved to the Fahnestock House on Embassy Row.

The Republic of China (Taiwan) sold the property in the early 1960s. During that decade, a parking lot almost replaced the aging building. Luckily, due to opposition, this plan was scrapped and the building was converted into apartments. In 1987, further renovations were completed and the building became condominiums.

DC Inventory: April 25, 2024
Within the Washington Heights Historic District

This site is a part of the Finding Asian American History in Washington DC digital tour.

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Map

2001 19th Street NW