The Landscape Before the Embassy

Tourist’s pocket map of the state of Virginia (Philadelphia, 1849; Dibner Library, Smithsonian Institution)

Tourist’s pocket map of the state of Virginia (2nd ed., Philadelphia, 1849; Dibner Library, Smithsonian Institution)

Around 1820, an immigrant from England, Robert Barnard, purchased twenty-four acres in the original ‘Pretty Prospects’ Maryland land grant, part of the older (surveyed in 1702), much larger property, ‘The Rock of Dumbarton.’ The tract, ‘Normanstone’, desirable land on beautiful and high ground overlooking the heights of Georgetown towards the Potomac River, was big enough for a family to be self-sufficient and to farm with slave labor, as were other estates in this part of the countryside. There were a few other estates scattered over this area in the then-unincorporated Washington County, part of the diamond-shaped plan formed when the capital of the new nation was laid out in 1791.

Boschke’s Map, 1861 (Office of DC Surveyor)

Detail of Boschke’s Map, 1861 (Office of DC Surveyor)

The ridge of Clifton Hill lays between Normanstone and the estate variously named through the years that eventually settled as Dumbarton Oaks. Before each gained renown, the properties had humble beginnings, dotted with farm buildings, cow paths and pastures, gates, springs, and orchards. The main houses were aligned with each other, facing south, looking over the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal and the port of Georgetown, with land sloping toward Rock Creek to the east.

The beginning of the twentieth-century was when the working farms and crumbling buildings saw their last. ‘The Oaks’, purchased by Robert and Mildred Bliss in 1920, began to be transformed as Washington architect Frederick H. Brooke removed Victorian additions from the core, restructuring it into the Federal Period brick house of Dumbarton Oaks that stands today.

After an initial period of recovery following the Civil War, during a time of wild economic growth (1880-1920), the Federal Government quickly expanded and new official buildings pushed residential neighborhoods out of downtown. Normanstone’s fate was sealed when the new Naval Observatory was moved immediately to the north and west and the federal Rock Creek Park established to the south and east. The construction of a private bridge over the barrier of the Rock Creek ravine, followed by the much-delayed large one (1901) that extended Massachusetts Avenue, transformed the area into a perfect location for newly wealthy Americans to build luxurious private estates, and land speculation boomed. The vestiges of the nineteenth century were disappearing with the city’s ascendancy as a world capital.

Thompson's private bridge (Kiplinger Library, Historical Society of Washington DC)

Thompson’s private bridge (Kiplinger Library, Historical Society of Washington DC)

This also laid the groundwork for a desirable if bold location for a new British Embassy. In the place of Normanstone rose the only Lutyens commission (apart from a tomb in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, New York) to be built in North America. The local Brooke, hired as on-site supervising architect, was at its cornerstone laying ceremony on 3 June 1928, although Lutyens was not.

Collins, Kathleen. Washingtoniana photographs. Washington: Library of Congress, 1989.
Cropley, Marilyn. Davis and Cropley heritage with the life of William T. Cropley, aka Wilmer Lee Davis. Victoria, British Columbia: Trafford, 2004.
Eaton, Louise Cropley. Normanstone: a capital curiosity. Unpublished typescript, of 14 May 2007.

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