New Zealand opened a Legation in Washington D.C. in October 1941 with this being upgraded to an Embassy in 1948. The Legation had been preceded earlier in the year by the establishment of a NZ Supply Mission, first in New York then in Washington D.C. by the NZ Trade Representative in Canada. Two members of NZ’s War Cabinet (Gordon Coates, a former Prime Minister, and Frank Langstone) were then sent in May from NZ to handle military and war supplies and trade, shipping and legation issues. With an appointment as “Special Minister” to the U.S. at the end of the year, Hon. Walter Nash, NZ Deputy Prime Minister at the time – and later a NZ Prime Minister 1957-60 – arrived in Washington D.C. in January 1942. He presented his credentials to President Roosevelt as New Zealand’s first representative in the USA on 16 February 1942.
(The first U.S. Legation in New Zealand was established on 1 April 1942 and Patrick Hurley, the first Minister, presented his credentials in Wellington on 24 April 1942.)
The Observatory Circle location was selected for the NZ Legation’s office and residence location. Following the end of the Second World War, two separate offices were also rented downtown to accommodate defence, trade and commercial staff. In 1954 the present Embassy site was bought to accommodate all staff in one building but the decision to build was not taken until 1975.
Queen Elizabeth II visited Washington D.C. for the 200th anniversary of the USA in 1976 and she laid the foundation stone for the new Embassy Chancery building. This was formally opened in September 1979 by the US Vice President Walter Mondale in the presence of the then NZ Prime Minister Robert Muldoon and Te Arikinui Dame Te Atairangikaahu DBE, ONZ, the Māori Queen.
The Chancery was designed by the NZ architect Sir Miles Warren who aimed to create a structure which would harmonise with the traditional Georgian brick buildings common in North West Washington D.C. Arched windows are cut into the solid brick structure of the building, which is fortress-like: splayed base brickwork gives it a strong solid look. To be in scale with its neighbours, the building is broken into three blocks separated by the entrance way and a large reception hall, with the blocks following the curve of Observatory Circle. The rear of the building follows the contours of the ground. The hall’s walls are the brick, arches and concrete of the exterior, with end walls glazed. One of these overlooks the garden and neighbouring parkland, and the other permits views of a conservatory. The hall’s roof is glazed and is supported by open timber trusses.
The building won for its designer the 1981 NZ Institute of Architects National Award. The brickwork of the Chancery won the Annual Brick Award for the Eastern States of the U.S. Nearly 25 years later, the Chancery is now in the process of some renovations.