igh on Massachusetts Avenue, across from the U.S. Naval Observatory and nestled between the Vatican's embassy and a serene city park, the Embassy of Finland harbors a secret. On one cold January evening, I'm about to become one of its caretakers. And it, I hope, the keeper of mine.
From the outside, the Nordic-designed building of glass and stone is imposing; all windows and light. As darkness cloaks Embassy Row, and Finland's neighbors are quiet and still, the building itself seems a beacon, standing over neighboring Normanstone Park like a lighthouse warning sailors of a perilous coast.
Designed by Finnish architects Mikko Heikkinen and Markku Komonen, and built in 1994, the embassy is one of the newer buildings built-for-purpose embassies in Washington, and the first to receive the U.S. Green Building Council Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) platinum certification, the council's highest designation. As one brochure from the embassy describes it, "At first glance, the building's glass and stone exterior appears to be an exercise in Nordic understatement. However, underneath the polite and reserved outer surface lies a sophisticated and passionate soul."
"In this sense, the embassy is a lot like the people it represents."
Finland purchased the property at 3301 Massachusetts Avenue in 1991. It was the third, and most likely final, embassy location for the Finns, who had, in 1950, leased the property at 1900 24th Street. It was at that West End location where, in 1955, the Finnish delegation was elevated from a legation to an embassy, and its minister, to a proper Ambassador. The move was prompted by a change of Finnish law, which also elevated the status of their legations in the then-Soviet Union, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Great Britain, France, Italy, Poland, and China. Of the 79 countries represented in Washington at the time, all but a dozen had proper embassies.
Although the U.S. and Finland established bilateral relations in 1919, following its declaration of independence from the Russian empire in 1917, Finland's complicated alliance with Nazi Germany during World War II meant a halt in diplomatic relations between the two countries until 1945. (This period saw several changes in diplomatic relations between embassies and their hosts in Washington, as we noted in our profiles of the Czech and Latvian embassies.)
The embassy moved, in 1978, to 3216 New Mexico Ave, and then, the Finnish government bought the property at 3301 Mass Ave. It took the Finnish government three years to find the location, and it put an offer on the property within twenty-four hours of it going on the market. They paid the full asking price of USD $6 million, even though, at the time, it was the site of a vacant home, previously belonging to former Congressman-turned-lobbyist, Charles W. Thompson, which would hardly be suitable for the newly relocated delegation. And, had it remained, the ghost of Thompson, a Democrat from Texas (who repeatedly voted against the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1960, and declined to vote on the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965) would hardly be a fitting roommate for the progressive Nordic country. The house was demolished.
However, like many envoys have discovered upon searching for a home in Washington, stringent zoning board regulations meant the Finns had a few hurdles to jump through before gaining permission for their new embassy. The outcome was hardly foregone. The Swedish government had spent several years attempting to build an embassy nearby, before eventually moving their plans for what would become the stunning House of Sweden to the Georgetown waterfront.
Further, according to DC Board of Zoning minutes from 1991, the site's proximity to the Naval Observatory required consulting with the Secret Service and Naval Observatory that "the proposed height of the subject building will not have an adverse impact on either the observatory or the Vice-president's residence." The Board also requested “that the applicant submit into the record calculations on the intensity of light produced by the project for review by the Naval Observatory" before deciding that neither the light, nor height, of the proposed property would cause offense. In fact, the proposed light itself was deemed by the Finn's architect as "designed to approximate distant starlight or candlelight and will provide no illumination."
But whereas the board might have pressed on, as it had with numerous other delegations, according to the minutes of the meeting, Finland's history of assisting the U.S. government, and the beautiful property the U.S. embassy in Helsinki enjoyed, both landed in their favor. According to the meeting minutes, it was determined:
"For many years, the United States Government has owned land in an excellent location in Helsinki for its diplomatic mission. It is in the federal interest to reciprocate.
"In regard to foreign relations, the Government of Finland has been helpful to the Department of State in establishing adequate support facilities for the U.S. diplomatic mission in the Soviet Union. Such facilities play an important role in the State Department's ability to function effectively in the Soviet Union, given the difficulties of operating in that country. Because of the support provided to the United States by the Government of the Republic of Finland, it is in the federal interest to approve the location of a chancery at the subject site."
It must have been a relief for the delegation, which had, at both of their previous locations, faced considerable neighborhood backlash on parking, noise, and at times, it seemed, their very presence in residential areas.
And so the Finns moved to the neighborhood, with its view of the Naval Observatory, and joined many of its diplomatic peers on the land that was once the Dumbarton swath. But they didn't just build a beautiful building, they built the most environmentally-friendly embassy in Washington. As I wrote for Washington Diplomat in 2015, when they received their platinum certification:
In 2008, Finland became the first embassy in the United States to receive the Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star for superior energy efficiency. In 2010, the building became the first embassy in the U.S. to be awarded the U.S. Green Building Council’s prestigious Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certificate, then on a gold level. And in December 2014, it became the first embassy in the U.S. to earn platinum status, and only the second in the world.
The first? The U.S. Embassy in Helsinki.
“This [LEED certification] is not a certification you can keep forever,” then-Ambassador Ritva Koukku-Ronde told me at the time. “So, when we were working with maintaining the gold, when I came here I thought we should not only keep the gold, but get the platinum."
Other embassies have since followed suit. In April 2019, the new U.S.-embassy compound in the Hague, designed by Mason & Hanger, received a gold certification. The Canadian embassy in Washington became only the second embassy in Washington to receive platinum status in 2019. And when I toured the Swiss ambassador's residence, the Swiss team made a point of mentioning that although the building had not gone through the certification process, Switzerland had built it to LEED specifications.
But while other embassies might share the Finn's LEED distinction, no other boasts the Finland embassy's stunning sauna made of Nordic white spruce logs, or its role as the host of the Diplomatic Sauna Society.
"The sauna in Finland is a place for political maneuvering, negotiations, bargains," then-ambassador of Finland, Jukka Valtasaari, told the Washington Post when the embassy opened in 1994. "People can't disagree in a sauna. You have only 10 or 15 minutes before it's too hot, so you know quickly what is at issue. If you can't solve the problem in that time, well, it is difficult. I don't expect to try to solve problems in the sauna here."
When I accepted my invitation to the Society, I mentioned it in passing to a friend who, had in turn, mentioned casually years before that she, too, had also once partaken in the special evening. She explained to me that the first rule of Sauna Club, as it were, was that you do not speak of Sauna Club.
Indeed, in the days and weeks after our gathering, I discretely looked to the social media accounts of those in attendance, and took my cue from those who had gone before. But small leaks, here and there, like fissures of steam rising from rocks within the sauna itself, make themselves known. So, before writing this article, I emailed our sauna host, Helena Liikanen-Renger, and asked for the guidelines.
Her response, "You can talk about the Diplomatic Sauna Society, but not what is discussed inside the sauna."
"What happens in the sauna," she added, "stays in the sauna."
And here's the secret; because while the Finns don't hide that they have a gorgeous, fully-equipped 12-person sauna and changing area which they stock with Nordic toiletries and other treats for special guests, what is discussed in the sauna is strictly off-the-record.
Not sharing the events of a truly extraordinary evening is, of course, itself an exercise in Nordic understatement. But there is no room for maneuvering, negotiations, or bargaining in that rule, and so until the day when we all follow the path, lit like starlight, back up Massachusetts Ave, our sophisticated and passionate souls will, like the embassy that briefly contained them, continue to hide underneath our polite and reserved outer surfaces.