The story of the Swiss property in Washington begins, as so many great stories begin, with a tree.
It’s an ancient tree, planted long before there was a Swiss embassy in Washington, or even a legation, before there was a neighborhood along the street where the Swiss embassy and residence now lie, before there was a street. It dates back so far that, before there was a Washington, D.C., that tree sat on a swath of land that was known as the Rock of Dumbarton. (Or, as some people will contend, most likely rightfully, Dunbarton.)
The Rock of Dumbarton (as in Dumbarton House, Dumbarton Oaks, Dumbarton Oaks Park Conservancy, Dumbarton Bridge, etc…) was a tract of 795 acres deeded to Scotsman Ninian Beall in 1703. Beall was a particularly tall man with flaming red hair, exiled after being captured at the Battle of Dunbar, and is widely regarded as the founder of Georgetown. “Ninian was patented multiple land grants of which it is said many he never claimed,” Scott Scholz, the deputy director & curator at the historic Dumbarton House, told me. “One such land grant of his was the land that the White House sits on today.”
Another one of the parcels became part of Observatory Circle, transferred to the federal government in 1901 for “the preservation of delicate astronomical instruments from smoke, the heat of crowded dwellings and undue vibrations caused by traffic,” read one newspaper article at the time of the transfer. In 1751, the town of Georgetown was formed in what was then the colony of Maryland, partially by land sold to Maryland by Niall, and later, by land confiscated from his son.
The remaining land was then sold and developed in part and parcel over the subsequent centuries, until one parcel of that land became Single Oak, and Single Oak later became the land that now houses the Swiss delegation.
“Historic home within city for sale,” read the Washington Post in 1939. “Rock of Dumbarton stands on ridge once figured for Capitol site.”
“One part of the Rock of Dumbarton tract has been called Single Oak because it is dominated by a giant age-old tree of that variety, standing out in stately grandeur from among many other beautiful old trees,” it continued.
It may have just been a claim to enhance the mystique of the property, but legend has it that George Washington himself once looked at Single Oak, and thought, “Now there would make an ideal spot for our federal seat.”
In 1926, future Vice President Henry Wallace built a house there.
Even today, in the face of modern traffic and local condominiums, this property on a hill is a stunning spot, six acres of greenery, close to the National Zoo and the Cathedral. It’s steps away from the empty plot of the Benin embassy on Cathedral Avenue, sparsely populated in a city where space is at a premium.
The Swiss government purchased the property in 1941, majestic oak and all. In August of that year, the Swiss celebrated their country’s 650 years of democracy with enthusiastic yodeling heard throughout the neighborhood. In 1953, the legation upgraded to an embassy, and the Swiss in Washington welcomed the first official ambassador.
For the first few decades of their residency, the Swiss team operated from Single Oak. A new chancery was built by Swiss architect William Lescaze in 1959, while the ambassador lived in Wallace’s Single Oak manor. In 2004, the embassy tore down the home, and replaced it with the current residence, a modernist building impressive for its deceptive minimalism, designed to evoke the grey and white of the Alps in winter. From the air, the residence resembles the Swiss cross, built on an axis so that visitors entering the front door have a direct line of sight from the arctic entry to the Washington Monument, visible thanks to a break in the tree line that seems rather mysterious and not at all sanctioned. An authentic Swiss clock, similar to the one functioning as a meeting point for wayward travelers in Zurich’s HB station, adorns the drive. A flat, glassy water feature lays parallel to the parking area, a hazard, I’m told for more than one driver who has attempted to leave after a cocktail reception, and found themselves, and their vehicle, swimming.