From the outside, it’s easy to assume that the Foursquare-style house built in 1919 has a storied American past. After all, its first resident, Daniel Calhoun Roper, was FDR’s Secretary of Commerce.
But this brick manse is actually a bastion of Finland, having housed 14 Finnish ambassadors to Washington since that nation acquired it in 1946. Once visitors cross its porticoed threshold today, they find interiors that celebrate all things Finnish, from iconic mid-century furnishings and art to a poolside sauna—home to occasional meetings of the Diplomatic Finnish Sauna Society (more on that later).
The residence has seen numerous renovations and expansions over the years. In 1959, a wooden porch was enclosed and a backyard pond was converted into a swimming pool—later joined by a log-covered sauna.
A 2006 makeover extended the dining room, created a sun-filled wing called the Winter Garden and built a patio with stone walkways descending to the pool terrace, where a modern sauna building replaced the original.
Throughout the decades, traditional interiors reflected the home’s vintage. But Finland’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs eventually decided that the residence was due for an update. In 2013, the Ministry and Finland-based interiors firm Protest Design Oy launched a makeover aimed at capturing the spirit and breadth of Finnish design and art today. They focused on elements crafted from organic, renewable materials to reflect the Finns’ love of nature.
“We felt the original architecture stood fine on its own—only the lighting needed a little update,” says interior architect Marko Nenonen of Protest Design Oy. “But the residence was furnished with classic art and furniture, which we thought was a little pompous and didn’t say much about today’s Finland. We wanted to create a vibrant and layered interior by mixing art and design pieces from different eras, as if someone had collected these items over a long period.”
The project was completed before Ambassador Kirsti Kauppi arrived in DC in 2015. “I really love the house,” she says. “My favorite room is the Winter Garden. It’s so peaceful and you can see how nature changes all the time. Of course, there are the gray seasons but they’re not very long here in Washington.”
On a tour of the residence, Kauppi remarks, “We’re a small nation but we really have the whole range of creative talent. I like to say that everything in here—furniture, textiles, design, art—is Finnish. The only thing that is not is this carpet—and it’s Swedish,” she quips, pointing out the foyer rug in a nod to her Nordic neighbor.
Small meetings often take place in the front sitting room, furnished with mid-century classics by Alvar Aalto. “Aalto is the most famous architect in terms of functionalism,” the ambassador says. “He’s a good example of an architect who designed furniture, lamps, vases and more.”
Like the residence itself, she explains, much of the furniture and art on display represents a bridge between Finland and the U.S. For example, a table and chairs by Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen grace the Winter Garden while Womb Chairs by his son, Eero Saarinen, dot the living room. A boy when his family immigrated to the U.S., the younger architect would later design Washington Dulles International Airport.
“The other thing I love is that we have a lot of works of art and design by women,” Kauppi continues, “not only contemporary but from the 19th and 20th centuries—really avant-garde women artists in their time.”
Kauppi hosts more than 100 events a year at the residence, welcoming heads of state, diplomats, politicians, journalists, expats, artists and musicians. The house, she says, helps facilitate diplomatic connections. “It’s about exchanging views and learning about each other, but it’s also very much about telling the story of Finland through the building, through the interior decoration, even through the food.” The ambassador welcomed a new chef in August after his predecessor was tapped as official chef of Finland’s president, Sauli Niinistö, who has visited the Washington residence four times during Kauppi’s tenure.
Recently, Kauppi held a luncheon for female ambassadors to welcome new colleagues from Germany and Moldova. “We are good friends,” she said of the loose-knit group of about 20. “The beauty of our sisterhood is that we know that, no matter where we are, we can rely on each other. It’s a great source of strength.”
One of the most coveted invitations, though, is a meeting of the Diplomatic Finnish Sauna Society. An embassy press officer launched the group in 2008 to celebrate the Finns’ reverence for turning up the heat together: In a country of five million people, there are an estimated three million saunas.
The Society hosts casual evenings at the ambassador’s residence and at the nearby embassy, which boasts a sauna of its own. “We always have some kind of program, then you go to the sauna and then you eat,” says Kauppi. “It’s a platform for connecting in an informal setting.
“We love nature and we love authenticity,” she continues. “Saunas are a place where you relax and pause. It’s very much about people being genuine. You cannot pretend anything if you are naked in a sauna. That’s the beauty of it.”
Whether a visitor comes for a steam, a concert or an official tête-à-tête, Kauppi welcomes them with warm hospitality and lack of pretense. “Every time I host a simple event or corporate event here,” she vows, “I say that in this house the tradition is that you can talk openly, frankly—and in a good atmosphere.”