By Audrius Brūzga
The Lithuanian Embassy in Washington, DC, is the longest-serving Lithuanian diplomatic mission abroad. A symbol of Lithuania’s freedom, it assisted all Lithuanians in preserving their hopes for freedom and helped them withstand fifty years of Soviet occupation until the reestablishment of the Lithuanian state. The embassy is considered a living symbol of the continuity of Lithuania’s diplomatic service. Its rich and diverse story will leave its mark not only in the diplomatic history of Lithuania, but that of the entire world.
After reestablishing its independence following the First World War, the most important task for the new Lithuanian Republic was to gain international recognition and to strengthen its economy. In 1919, realizing the importance of the United States in securing international recognition of its statehood, Lithuania sent its first representative, Jonas Vileišis, to the United States. In 1920-21, the Lithuanian envoy, who did not have diplomatic status, faced important economic and diplomatic goals—organizing the collection of funds among Lithuanian-Americans and preparing the groundwork for the de jure recognition of Lithuania.
Voldemaras Čarneckis (1921-1923) continued Vileišis’ work. On July 28, 1922, the United States recognized Lithuania de facto and de jure. On October 11th of that same year V. Čarneckis presented his credentials to the State Department. That date is considered the official start of the Lithuanian Legation’s activities in the United States.
After received U.S. recognition, Lithuania sought to acquire a building for its legation. Lithuanian envoy Kazys Bizauskas (1923-1927) purchased a building at 2622 16th Street NW in Washington DC, for $90,000, on a large 17,000 square foot (1,580 square meter) plot of land. On June 1, 1924, Lithuanian diplomats moved into the new premises, which are still in use today.
The Lithuanian Legation building—an Italian-style villa with a tower—was one of the many homes owned by Senator John B. Henderson and his wife Mary Foote Henderson. It was designed by architect George Oakley Totten, Jr. (1866-1939) who was well-known for his exclusive residences. The future Lithuanian Legation building was built between 1907 and 1909 by the George A. Fuller Company. The building had two sections. On the right was a narrow one with a five-storey tower, while the left one was wider and had four storeys. The Lithuanian Legation occupied the right side of the building, which to this day maintains its original design. In about 1950, the four-storey section was demolished and replaced by a modern apartment building.
Until its sale to the Lithuanian government, the building housed the Swedish and Danish Missions in Washington and was later leased to other diplomats. In 1924, with the approval of Mary Foote Henderson, it was sold to the Lithuanian government.
Having received the first $5,000 payment, Mrs. Henderson refused to accept further payments. When the Henderson will was filed after her death in 1931, the Lithuanian government settled the remaining debt with her heirs.
After the departure of Kazys Bizauskas, legation staff member Mikas Bagdonas (1927-1928 and 1934-1935) took over as Lithuanian Charge d’Affaires a.i. Later, Bronius Kazys Balutis (1928-1934) and Povilas Žadeikis (1935-1957) served as Lithuanian envoys. P. Žadeikis became the longest –serving Lithuanian diplomatic representative in the United States, having held the duties until his death in 1957. P. Žadeikis served during a complicated time in Lithuanian history. Following the 1940 Soviet occupation of
Lithuania, the legation in Washington performed a key diplomatic role continuously raising the issue of Lithuania’s independence and helping maintain the United States policy of non-recognition of the Soviet occupation of Lithuania.
Juozas Kajackas served as Lithuania’s Charge d’Affaires a.i. between 1957 and 1976, when Dr. Stasys Antanas Bačkis (1976-1987) became Lithuania’s envoy to the United States. In 1983 Dr. Bačkis was appointed Chief of the Lithuanian Diplomatic Service. S. Bačkis was one of the few diplomats to remain in Lithuania’s diplomatic service in exile throughout the country’s occupation that lasted more than five decades.
Dr. Bačkis faced the challenge of handling needed renovations of the embassy building. In 1979 he helped organize a committee that coordinated the process. The committee, the Lithuanian-American Community, the Lithuanian-American Council and other organizations and private donors collected $130,000, an amount sufficient for the purpose.
In 1987, when the health of S. Bačkis deteriorated, Stasys Lozoraitis, Jr. (1987-1993) a counselor at the legation took over the duties of Lithuanian envoy. When Lithuania declared independence on March 11, 1990, the Lithuanian Legation took on embassy status and S. Lozoraitis was named ambassador.
The first ambassadors from newly independent Lithuania to serve in Washington, DC, were Dr. Adolfas Eidintas (1993-1997), Stasys Sakalauskas (1997-2001), Vygaudas Ušackas (2001-2006) and Audrius Bruzga (since 2007). They all sought to win the support of the United States for strengthening the Lithuanian state, expanding its economic reforms and guaranteeing support for its Euro-Atlantic integration.
The ambassadors were also responsible for the actual embassy building which, thanks to generations of diplomats and Lithuanian-Americans, had served Lithuania for more than 50 years. The building underwent a thorough remodeling in 1994-95, funded by a $375,000 Foreign Ministry grant and by individual and institutional donors in Lithuania and the United States.
In 2004, it was decided to launch another fundamental reconstruction of the embassy. This involved restoration of the existing structure, while preserving its historic and architectural character, and building an annex.
Constructed in the early years of the 20th century, the building could not easily meet today’s structural and security requirements or accommodate the needs of an enlarged diplomatic staff. According to the renovation plans submitted by Saulius Gečas of New York’s TPG Architecture firm, the embassy would be expanded from 12,000 square feet to 26,760 square feet. The restored historical structure will be used for ceremonial and formal activities, while the new annex will house administrative offices, conference rooms, and other quarters.
The joint efforts of the Lithuanian community in the United States and of all the Lithuanian diplomats who served in Washington have helped Lithuania to strengthen its independence and win international recognition. They have also helped Lithuania in its quest for full-fledged membership in the European Union and NATO. Equally important tasks await Lithuanian diplomats today. They include the need to serve the Lithuanian nation and its people to enhance Lithuania’s security and prosperity. The embassy will spare no efforts to assure that cooperation between Lithuania and the United States, based on the values of democracy, freedom, tolerance, and solidarity will continue to be productive and meaningful.