The gardens of the British Ambassador’s Residence in Washington are central in the extended narrative of the place. The setting, grounds and structures, planned by the architect of the complex, the eminent Sir Edwin Lutyens, were meant to be seen and work as a whole. The significance of the particular location within Washington and what has transpired within its grounds reveal the city’s transformation from provincial town to world-class capital. Topography, as seen in the history of its landscape, shaped how the city grew from its sparsely populated beginnings. The gardens cannot be separated from either the development of Washington nor the British Embassy; nor can the diplomatic buildings be studied as isolated from the capital. Each layer of the garden’s story tells something about its creators and the mission of the place.
The Ambassador’s Residence, Consulate offices and surroundings combine to form a single unit of the British Embassy, located on Massachusetts Avenue, one of the best if belated exemplars in Washington of L’Enfant’s Baroque vision of a grand vista, monumental buildings and statues. Beginning in 1928, on one of the higher elevations in the city, Lutyens’s design rose over the capital, with views towards the center of the Federal city and the Capitol dome. While the architect created the foundation of the Residence gardens, with paved and enclosed terraces, flights of steps and paths near the house, making the outdoors an integral part of the overall design, other individuals and influences had a profound impact on shaping the gardens and altering the landscape. From the interesting history of the area in the 19th century into the many influential events of the 20th, this blog looks at the factors and persons involved—from the first homestead and farms, early real-estate development of the area during the decades of unparalleled economic growth, the tortured beginning of the new Embassy, the generally overlooked American architect, Frederick Brooke, and controversial English-born builder, Harry Wardman. The Depression, another world war, the Camelot years, and threats to security during the Cold and Vietnam Wars, mark eras in the life of the place.
A stone’s throw from one another, separated only by a ridge, the British Embassy and Dumbarton Oaks have histories not unexpectedly intertwined through the years. But it is surprising the intersecting far-flung lives, careers and friendships of the creators of the north Georgetown estate—Robert and Mildred Bliss and their landscape designer, Beatrix Farrand—and of first ambassador to occupy the Massachusetts Avenue Embassy, Ronald Lindsay and his wife, the former Elizabeth Sherman Hoyt. Their relationships have previously been overlooked by Farrand scholars.
Lady Lindsay was a trained landscape gardener, a wealthy American, well-connected to the elite political, cultural and social circles of Washington. She was central in the most significant event to take place in the Embassy gardens, the Royal Visit of 1939. The intense criticism from those who felt snubbed for being excluded from the tea party for the King and Queen, the first reigning monarchs to set foot in the United States, and the negative press in an isolationist country found an easy target. Alas, this uproar is what Lady Lindsay is most remember for now in history, an event that Senator Claude Pepper remarked on “If American-British relations can survive that, they can survive anything.” Yet, almost uniquely suited for the pivotal role she would play, Lindsay was the person who first nurtured and loved the Embassy’s gardens. A former employee of Farrand’s, it was she who thought through and planted the grounds, providing the setting that finally completed Lutyens’s design of what is essentially an English country house in America.
To follow will be chapters, or posts, roughly chronological, covering the history of the place, a biography of the landscape of the Washington Embassy. Gardens are an ephemeral art and never stay the same. This blog is an attempt to uncover some of layers of the past at the British Ambassador’s Residence.