The Old Swedish Ambassador’s Residence, completed in 1924, was the home of 12 Swedish ambassadors between 1950 and 2019. The mansion was originally constructed for David Lawrence, owner and founder of U.S. News and World Report, and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Nixon in 1970. Located at 3900 Nebraska Avenue NW, the Old Swedish Ambassador’s Residence is known for its iconic Spanish Colonial Revival style as designed by Arthur B. Heaton, as well as the important role it played in the international relationship between the United States and Sweden.
The land, just south of Tenleytown, on which the Old Swedish Ambassador Residence would be located was purchased, first, in 1922 by David Lawrence, a prominent, controversial, and looming figure in both Washington and the nation’s political and news spheres. He hired architect Arthur B. Heaton to design the home for the Lawrence family, which was constructed between 1923 and 1924. The home was built in the Spanish Colonial Revival and Mission styles, which were popularized by the 1915 Panama-California Exposition in San Diego.
The picturesque home consists of an asymmetrical, L-shaped plan, and is two-stories tall with a basement that is not visible from the front facade. Heaton’s design of the residence included many characteristics of the Spanish Colonial Revival and Mission styles, such as low pitched roofs covered with clay tiles, stucco wall cladding, and carved wooden doors similar to those found on early Spanish missions in California and the Southwest. The front facade of the house includes the most ornate details, such as the arched, double-leaf paneled wooden door with an elaborate and decorative cast stone surrounding it – which is reminiscent of Plateresque and Churrigueresque styles. At the top is a shield that originally included the monogram “ELD” for David Lawrence and his wife Ellanor, but is now the shielded crest of the Swedish national emblem. The residence is only the second building that Heaton designed in the Spanish Colonial Revival style.
There was also a large and extensive plan for the landscape of the 11-acres that originally made up the property. It was designed by female landscape architect Ruth Bramley Dean (1889-1932), but very little of her original design – which included a formal garden for the southeast side of the house with access to a pool garden, a tennis court on the north side of the house, and a greenhouse and orchard – would be implemented. What remains of Dean’s design are the entrance drive, stone terraces, and service court (partial).
As the home of David Lawrence (1888-1973) and his family from 1924 to 1945, the residence would be used for meetings of the Princeton Alumni’s Triangle Club, as Lawrence was a member and president of this collegiate organization. Both of Lawrence’s daughters hosted their large wedding receptions at the residence, and the house would also be leased for 10 months to wealthy heiress Elinor Ryan. Lawrence’s daughter, Nancy, was a debutante and hosted many events, such as teas and evening soirees; and in 1940, a formal debutante party was held there for Nancy. The family left the residence in 1945, having purchased a large estate near Centreville, Virginia in 1935 that had previously been used as a country retreat.
The residence was then owned by Madana Real Estate for a short period of time between 1946 and 1950. Madana advertised that the building would be suitable for a “Private home, Embassy, private school or other institution.”A fire that started in the basement oil heater extensively damaged the 20-room house in December 1946, causing $50,000 of damage to a house supposedly valued at $100,000. Despite this destruction, the home was soon repaired for future use.
The residence was bought in early 1950 by the Swedish government, and the Swedish Ambassador, Erick Boheman, moved in that spring with his family. They moved from the previous Swedish Ambassador’s Residence at 2249 R Street NW, opposite Sheridan Circle (this property is now the Embassy of Kenya). The new residence soon became well known for its extensive and elaborate receptions, with an ever-evolving cast of visitors to the residence who would often compliment the beauty of the property, with its surrounding green space, and the similarities it had to the American Embassy in Stockholm. One such celebration held there was the 70th birthday of King Gustav VI Adolf of Sweden in 1952, which was attended by several hundred guests, including diplomats from around the world, U.S. government officials, and Supreme Court Justices. The Bohemans were the force behind the residence’s reputation as a venue for high society events.
The residence was not without scandal, however, as Gunnar Jarring, the new Swedish Ambassador to the United States in 1958, was entangled by two. The first scandal involved an embassy aide who was indicted for embezzling embassy funds, and the second scandal was in 1963, during the height of the Cold War, when a former attache to the Swedish embassy admitted to sharing intelligence with the Soviet Union about Swedish and American military plans. Nonetheless, the 1960s also saw a brief lull in tension and a rise in American infatuation with Swedish royalty, after several members of the Swedish royal family toured the country and attended events at the residence.
The next decade brought on the peak of tensions between the American and Swedish governments. A rift generated between the two nations over the actions committed by the American government during the Vietnam War, particularly because of Sweden’s opposition to the entire conflict. In turn, the Nixon Administration advised Sweden not to send another ambassador to the U.S., and the residence would sit vacant from 1972 to 1974. During this absence, the residence was broken into and portraits of major Swedish leaders were stolen and never replaced.
The relationship between the U.S. and Sweden rekindled in the early 1970s. Following President Nixon’s resignation in August 1974, the new Swedish Ambassador, Count Wilhem Wachtmeister, was welcomed. The Wachtmeisters are known for the subsequent “Party venue years,” and are estimated to have hosted more than 65,000 guests over the 15 years that the ambassador served – making him also the longest serving ambassador in Washington. The Wachtmeisters hosted the Swedish king at this residence, and held an annual “Opera Ball” with famous celebrities and Washington’s elite in attendance. These events saw the likes of Joan Kennedy and Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, and were declared a “who’s who” of Washington. Along with these festivities, the following decade would also see controversies, such as demonstrations and strikes that were held at the residence.
The residence has sat vacant since 2019, when the Swedish Ambassador relocated to the House of Sweden, a modern building that was completed in 2006 and is located at 901 30th Street NW on the Georgetown Waterfront. With this move, the curtains closed on an era teeming with elegant galas, tea parties, royal guests, and controversies. The home and surrounding property was purchased in 2023.
DC Inventory: December 21, 2023