The Beginnings of the Embassy

While the Massachusetts Heights area was filling in with private residences at the turn into the 20th century, there were no embassies; foreign missions were concentrated along 16th Street and the vicinity of Meridian Hill Park and Dupont Circle. The British Government continued its history of setting precedent with its buildings in Washington: the first to establish a diplomatic residence (by rentals on K Street) in 1802, the first to own and build its own legation (all other foreign missions continued to be in rentals) and be near Dupont Circle (in a bold move in 1874, for anything above K Street was considered countryside) and then the first to locate on the other side of Rock Creek Park [note of October 2014: not so, Hungarian Legation in 1922 was the first]. Understanding the needs of the British Government as well as Washington’s growing urban pressures, the developer Wardman had quietly arranged for the purchase of parcels, carving out a plot of just over four acres, although oddly shaped by the constraints of Observatory Circle and the designated uniformed-size lots along Massachusetts Avenue and W Street.

Subdivision Book 77, p. 166 (Office of the Surveyor, District Government)

Subdivision Book 77, p. 166 (Office of the Surveyor, District Government)

Wall exam surveys, survey papers, subdivision books in the District Government’s Office of the Surveyor, reveal the progression of the combining and slicing up of lots that ended with such a site that so significantly influenced the architectural design of the Embassy. One dated 16 March 1925 has a side extension from W Street with 100-foot frontage but none from Observatory Circle. In addition to lot 1, fifty feet each were taken from adjoining lots to provide the eventual 200 feet for the entrance. By May of that year, the W Street entrance had been cut down to 50 feet while parcels of 50 feet each from the plots of Massachusetts Avenue were added to the already designated 200 feet length. By June the service entrance was 30 feet and the main frontage back to 200 with surrounding individual lots articulated.

Survey Papers 2147 (Office of the Surveyor, District Government)

Survey Papers 2147 (Office of the Surveyor, District Government)

Although the parcels on either side of Massachusetts Avenue were never built upon, the owners were apparently unwilling to sell, at least not at a price acceptable to Wardman, dealing with the constraints of the British Government’s budget. Nor was Wardman apparently willing to sacrifice his ownership of additional lots on Observatory Circle. But the builder would have been unfazed by such a confounding area of angles, having secured his fortune by shoe-honing row houses in the small, odd lots resulting from Washington’s grid plan bisected by diagonal avenues interspersed with squares and circles. As was his method, maximal use was made of the land even if he had to convince others of its viability.

Wall exam survey, December 1927 (Office of the Surveyor, District Government)

Wall exam survey, December 1927 (Office of the Surveyor, District Government)

 

By November 1925 a service road of 50 feet in width appears off of the Circle. It is in Subdivision Book 80, of 27 December 1927, that the wall exam shows the outline of Embassy buildings sketched in for the first time. And so the property came to resemble a filled-in number ‘4’, with the cross bar from off the Circle and the descender the combined two parcels along the Avenue. This is the outline of the plot so derided in the earlier architectural reviews of the buildings. But the site had a commanding view over the city, the necessary entrance on a grand boulevard, and enough land for formal gardens—a location worthy of Sir Edwin Lutyens’s new British Embassy.

General view showing British Embassy (Airscapes, by Capt. A.W. Stevens July 1931; National Archives)

General view showing British Embassy (Airscapes, by Capt. A.W. Stevens July 1931; National Archives)

The author is very grateful for all the help of Neal Isenstein, Office of the Surveyor, Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, District Government. The archived survey papers, previously unpublished, are an important part of the Washington Embassy’s history.

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