In April 2017, a blooming array of more than 10,000 tulips was dispatched from Holland to festoon the Dutch ambassador’s stately Kalorama residence. Though Dutch Tulip Days fell by the wayside 10 years ago, this Washington tradition perfectly embodied one of the goals of Ambassador Henne Schuwer’s diplomatic mission: the celebration of things quintessentially Dutch to create moments of connection among people. He decided to bring it back. “It gave us an opportunity,” he says of the three-day event that took place once again at his residence. It encompassed receptions, meals, and talks on subjects ranging from tulip care to world hunger with leaders in business, politics, and agriculture in attendance. “You try to play to your strength—and tulips are our strength.”
Schuwer and his wife, Lena Boman, began their diplomatic stint in Washington in September 2015. They had lived in DC with their four children from 1997 to 2002 when Schuwer served as deputy of the mission, so their return—now as empty nesters—felt like a homecoming. “It’s wonderful to come back to Washington,” says Boman, who is Swedish. “We are coming back to happy memories.”
Designed by Washington architect Ward Brown in Neoclassical Revival style and built in 1929 by Wilmar Bolling—brother-in-law to Woodrow Wilson—the residence was purchased by the Netherlands in 1944. Henne Schuwer is the 15th ambassador to occupy it. A renovation in the early 1990s restored original elements that had been altered over the years, and in 2015 the public rooms were refurbished to incorporate modern Dutch design.
“The thinking was, we are known for our 17th-century art, but we also want to be known as innovative and modern, so we wanted to express that,” Schuwer explains. “We do not live our own history all the time; we are a forward-looking country.”
Dutch interior designers Mariet Hendrikx and Heleen van der Gugten embraced the building’s neoclassical style while introducing modern art and furniture by Dutch artists, designers, and manufacturers into a traditional setting replete with Flemish antiques and classical paintings. “The Dutch residence is intended as a stage for classic and modern Dutch art and design,” notes van der Gugten. Inspired by the work of Dutch photographer Bruno van den Elshout, its color scheme of blues and sandy hues turned out to be similar to the one at Mount Vernon. “It was a nice coincidence,” observes the designer.
Curator Philippine Noordam of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs selected pieces from the ministry’s collection that, she says, “would offer a connection between the old and new art, a dialog between modern and classical.” For example, a modern portrait by Mary Alacoque Waters above the mantel in the library pays tribute to the 17th-century Portrait of a Lady by Paulus Moreelse, which hangs on the first floor. And 17th- and 18th-century antiques are juxtaposed with modern pieces by Marcel Wanders, Studio Kalff, and others. The Phillips Collection provides art- and furniture-restoration services to the residence when needed.
Tucked away on Linnean Avenue by Rock Creek Park, the Netherlands Embassy, says Schuwer, “is good for work but a bit out of the way for receiving people.” In contrast, the Ambassador’s residence stands front and center on Embassy Row, across the street from the Woodrow Wilson House and a stone’s throw from the Obama and Kushner homes. This prime location means that much of the hosting required by the embassy happens in the residence.
“It is nicer and more intimate to have gatherings here than at the embassy,” reflects Schuwer. “It feels relaxed, open and festive. We don’t want to be exclusive, but it has to be a nice invitation to come to the residence. That creates goodwill and makes people feel special.”
The Ambassador and his wife host gatherings ranging from breakfast meetings and seminars to dinners for 60 in the home’s open, elegant public rooms. A highlight for Schuwer was a dinner in February 2016 honoring Nicholas Kristof and Cindy McCain—winners of the Anne Frank Award for Human Dignity and Tolerance for their work combating human trafficking. “We had tables for 10, to bring people together who might not know each other but might benefit one another,” Schuwer recalls. “For example, we invited someone who trains airline personnel to recognize trafficking situations and introduced her to airline executives.”
Boman agrees. “That’s the whole point of the residence,” she says. “Here, with good food and drink you make connections you sometimes didn’t count on. Our guest lists are very well thought-out.”
A live-in staff of four includes a butler, who has been with the residence for many years, and a young Swedish chef, Joakim Söderberg, who was cooking at a restaurant in Stockholm when Schuwer and Boman enjoyed a meal there and offered him the job. He agreed immediately, though it meant uprooting his life to come to the U.S. “We are very happy with him,” Boman says. “He is hard-working and cooks delicious food, all different cuisines. He has never served the same thing twice.”
The staff occupies the fourth floor, while Schuwer and Boman enjoy private quarters on the third floor that encompass a sitting area, dining room, and kitchen, plus three bedrooms. One of these is currently occupied by one of their daughters, who is pursuing graduate studies at Johns Hopkins. The other kids are scattered over the globe, but “they love to come back here,” says Boman.
“Americans are friendly and welcoming,” observes Ambassador Schuwer. “They are exceptionally positive and appreciative.” He adds, “There is a saying that if you break bread with somebody, you cannot leave the table as enemies. We have learned that there is no problem that can’t be solved over a good meal.”
Bob Narod is a photographer in Herndon, Virginia.