The old German Embassy in Washington

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The old German Embassy was located just west of Thomas Circle at 1435-41 Massachusetts Avenue, NW. In 1894 the German embassy occupied a new chancery at 1435 Massachusetts Avenue. That building, constructed in 1873 as a private residence on a design by Adolf Cluss, was subsequently expanded to include 70 rooms and would be occupied by Germany – with wartime interruptions – for nearly 50 years. The opening of the embassy was marked by a formal ball attended by 500 members of the Washington diplomatic corps, along with several members of the United States Congress and Chief Justice of the United States Melville Fuller. Music was provided by a detachment of the United States Marine Band. In this early period, the embassy also hosted the return visit of President of the United States Theodore Roosevelt to Prince Henry of Prussia during the prince’s official visit to the United States in 1902. old German Embassy Washington

German Embassy, Washington DC, 1906
Interior of German Embassy ca. 1906, Image from Library of Congress.

During the years prior to American entry into World War IFranz von Papen was posted at the embassy as a military attache, though was ultimately declared persona non grata by the U.S. government as a result of suspected espionage. In February 1917 the United States terminated diplomatic relations with Germany. The staff of the embassy were returned their passports by the U.S. government and departed for Germany shortly thereafter. old German Embassy Washington

Following the conclusion of World War I, in 1921, Germany re-established diplomatic relations with the United States, and the German embassy reoccupied its former chancery. In the spring of 1938, the German government approved plans for the construction of a new chancery. Construction, however, was ultimately sidetracked by the war in Europe.

1941 San Francisco incident

A serious diplomatic incident occurred in January 1941 when U.S. Navy sailors Edward Lackey and Harold Sturtevant, both on leave from the psychiatric ward of the Navy’s Mare Island Hospital where they had been treated for sleepwalking, scaled a fire escape, tore down the flag from the German consulate in San Francisco and destroyed it. According to the sailors, they were unaware of the building at which the flag was being flown was the German consulate. In his memoirs, consul Fritz Wiedemann, who witnessed the incident, recalled it as “both surreal and comical”. The United States government issued an apology to Germany. The two sailors were briefly jailed and dismissed from military service, though following the onset of war with Germany they were pardoned and allowed to reenlist. old German Embassy Washington

On December 12, 1941 – following Germany’s declaration of war against the United States – Switzerland assumed the role of protecting power of Germany in the United States and took custody of the chancery of the German embassy; the staff was, meanwhile, interned at the Greenbrier until an exchange of diplomats was arranged the following year. During World War II, Switzerland used parts of the chancery to house its own staff, thereby alleviating a housing shortage for Swiss diplomatic personnel in the United States. Following the German military surrender in May 1945, Switzerland acknowledged the extinction of the German state and declared itself absolved of protecting responsibilities. The chancery of the embassy was surrendered by Switzerland to the United States government as trustee of the Allied Control Council that month. Upon receiving custody of the building, the United States government removed all documents and files that had been left behind by the German delegation and held them until 1950, at which point they were given to the then newly established West German government. old German Embassy Washington

In 1945 the Justice Department Alien Property Office seized the old embassy and sold it in 1951 for $165,000. When the Federal Republic of Germany sent over its first postwar diplomatic mission in 1951, they decided not to go back to the old embassy, and with the aid of $300,000 compensation from the United States bought a new residence for its Ambassador at 1900 Foxhall Road. old German Embassy Washington

German Embassy, Washington DC 1917
Count J.H. Bernstorff, Ambassador from German. Leaving the German Embassy (1917). Image from the Library of Congress.

In earlier days, mystery and intrigue seemed to hang over the embassy. Stories circulated about the Germans using the top-floor rooms for radio equipment to code and send spy messages overseas. Others reported watching bits of ashy paper waft from the chimney on Pearl Harbor Day, speculating that official papers might have been burned. During World War II, the Swiss occupied the building. When the State Department took over in 1945, officials found $3 million in American currency that was reportedly used for espionage payments. old German Embassy Washington

The long-vacant building on Massachusetts Avenue finally went under the wrecker’s ball on November 24, 1959, to make way for a parking lot with plans for a future 1,000-room motel.

Parts of this article was first published in 2010 by

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