Lutyens in Washington

Nine perspective drawings by long-time Lutyens’s collaborator Cyril A. Farey for the proposed new British Embassy were exhibited on 5 February 1927 to the United States Commission of Fine Arts. Meeting in the New York office of architect William Delano, the established American professionals comprising or acting as consultants to this committee (Cass Gilbert, Charles A. Platt, Daniel Chester French among others) would have already been well-versed with the project. Then in April Lutyens called on President Coolidge to make an official presentation. This all might have been a formality or a courtesy reflecting a sensitivity to the site being just below the Naval Observatory, which performed (and still performs) a scientific role for the U.S. Navy and the Department of Defense. The location is also close to the federal lands of Rock Creek and Normanstone Parks.

But as revealed in press accounts that tracked the announcement, developments in the plan, and each visit of Lutyens to Washington, there was great excitement that a world-renown architect would be working in Washington. If not quite a 19th-century backwater, the District of Columbia was still a place that the New York Times needed to record Lutyens’s opinion that “His last visit to this city was two years ago, and he said today that in the intervening period the city had made much artistic progress in building” (14 April 1927).

watercolor, ink and  graphite drawing by Cyril A. Farey [1927] (Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress)

Watercolor, ink and graphite drawing by Cyril A. Farey [1927] (Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress)

Sir Edwin Lutyens had been in New York in 1925 to accept the Gold Medal award from the American Institute of Architects. During that trip to America—his first—he journeyed to Washington to meet with Ambassador Esmé Howard for preliminary discussions about the Embassy. Before sailing to America, Lutyens had written to his wife, Lady Emily Lytton:

I am going to do the Embassy at Washington, a distinction. Dinner and lunch invitations come in by wire two a day from America so my time will be full. I rather dread it but it will be an experience. (7 April 1925).

During his two-day stay at the British Embassy on Connecticut Avenue, the architect did some sight-seeing, giving mixed reviews of the capital’s buildings and city layout: “The plan is not as good as Delhi or as fine.” Notably, for what came to be an important feature of the Ambassador’s Residence, he described this scene:

The Lincoln memorial is a great thing, placed too close to the Washington obelisk which again blocks everything, so big is it … A glorious thunder storm came on and the marble colonnade of huge dimensions and the ink black sky and vivid colouring of trees and red roofed buildings made an impressive spectacle (28 April 1925).

And, the next day:

In the afternoon I went with Betty Feilding to Mount Vernon—the house of Washington. So charming overlooking a wide reach of the Potomac river, so pathetic and all so small … It is very difficult to describe—a little manor house surrounded by smaller houses, butler’s house, dairy, weaver’s house, gardener’s house, stables. Charming little box garden etc. etc.

Ambassador Esmé Howard (seated), 1924 February 29 (Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress)

Ambassador Esmé Howard (seated), 1924 February 29 (Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress)

Lutyens, with Ambassador Howard and the local architect hired as the American representative, Frederick H. Brooke, toured the land on Massachusetts Avenue which developer Harry Wardman had already secured. The done-deal of the site had been nominally approved by Sir Lionel Earle, Permanent Secretary at H.M. Office of Works and Public Buildings on a trip during the previous October. Earle’s description of the new Embassy location is in his autobiography, Turn over the page (1935):

Sir Esmé and I, finally selected a site on high ground in Massachusetts Avenue. It belonged to a Mr. Wardman, an Englishman by birth who had migrated to America as a young man with half a crown in his pocket, and had made a considerable fortune in building and real estate operations. He was interested in doing the best for his native country, although an American citizen. He offered to sell us four or five acres of this undeveloped site and take the site of the old Embassy (the buildings were valueless) at a very generous price. The new site impressed me favourably, although it was difficult to appreciate its merits easily, being covered with high scrub, but one could see that ultimately, when cleared, the view over Washington towards the capitol would be very fine. It was protected at the back by Government property, the Naval Observatory, and on one side by a public park which could never be built on. I went to the Meteorological Office and there found that, over a period of ten years, the temperature in the great heat of the summer was about ten degrees less on this Massachusetts Avenue site than in Connecticut Avenue, an enormous advantage to the staff, which had to remain in Washington during the summer.

It was also Earle, a cousin of Lady Emily’s, who had recommended Lutyens as architect. Mary Lutyens, writing of this time, was harsh in what her father undertook:

The site for the new Embassy on Massachusetts Avenue was impossibly narrow for an imposing building and the sum available ridiculously low considering the cost of building in America. No more was to be allocated for it than what the sale of the existing Embassy on Connecticut Avenue would fetch.

The daughter quotes him from a letter in 1929 as reporting “America bores me drefful.” She further declared:

In Washington Father had some of the same sort of trouble as he had had in Delhi. ‘They are perfectly terrible at getting things finished,’ he reported on May 27 [1929], ‘and the Office of Works official stringency as regards funds has led to a sort of mental paralysis … everyone is so tired of correspondence and estimating and reestimating that they are dog tired of the job. It is a pity to spoil a good building.’ To my mind the Washington Embassy is one of his least successful buildings.

After his initial visit of April 1925, staying just two nights, Lutyens made only four subsequent trips to Washington, all after the plans had been finally approved by the Treasury in May 1926: one (April 1927) before ground had been broken and three after the construction was well under way (October 1928, September 1929 and May 1930, just before occupancy of the Chancery and Residence). Although he toured around the area some with the architect Brooke, including visiting at least one of the American’s commissions (possibly Dumbarton Oaks) and the National Cathedral, it is unlikely he studied Virginia plantation houses (except for the scorned Mount Vernon).

There is, of course, some affinity with the colonial architecture of Virginia, but more as a result of the common heritage of 17th and 18th-century English architecture and evoking Christopher Wren than of a direct influence. Of Lutyens’s newly completed Embassy, a writer in The Spur in 1930 said:

Instead he has adhered to the simple dignified lines wherein lies the strongest Anglo-American architectural bond. Looking at only the entrance facade, with its great portico, the Embassy suggests on the whole some of the large American country houses which owe their all to English influence.

Lutyens, well into the monumental phase of his career, was more attuned to the dramatic play of dark and light with movement to the columns of the imposing Residence façade, as revealed by his amazement of the dramatic thunderstorm at the Lincoln Memorial. Indeed, according to the architectural historian Gavin Stamp, the Embassy portico in an early plan was one long colonnade facing the garden (Scheme B (104) of November 1925).

Much of the contemporary American press and later architectural historians—notably Lutyens’s biographers Christopher Hussey (in 1939) and Gavin Stamp (2006) and, the most definitive and detailed, in a chapter by Stamp and Allan Greenberg in Lutyens abroad (2002)—wrote admiringly of the distinctive style and inventive solutions for both public and private buildings of the design in the awkward site. The then-approximately four acres resembled a filled-in number ‘4’. Later writers emphasized the challenge of planning such a prominent building with inadequate funds.

British Embassy from Massachusetts Avenue, photo by Theodor Horydczak, undated (Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress)

British Embassy from Massachusetts Avenue, photo by Theodor Horydczak, undated (Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress)

Its first occupant, the shrewd and politic Lady Lindsay, declared in a letter of 11 June 1930, “Sir Edwin Lutyens proved to be a most lovable creature, and one who was not only anxious to do everything he could, but who actually did it.” She was later to write to Sir Lionel Earle (14 March 1931):

… how really beautiful this place is. I am more and more amazed at your foresight and imagination in having selected this particular site … If anyone ever says to you that anything is wrong here, bid them come and see for themselves, and talk to those of us who are fortunate enough to live in this house.

Photographs of the recently completed Embassy taken from lower on Massachusetts Avenue (as for H. P. Caemmerer’s Washington: The National Capital (1932) and the wire services) show a rather forbidding place with the abrupt long, blank wall where the greenhouses now stand: for this English manor house in America needed an appropriate landscape to be complete and become more of a world of its own. Lady Lindsay, diplomatic in her “public” letters (private ones are another matter), was keenly aware that a more naturalistic, informal garden was needed to soften and enliven the structures. Lutyens’s “good building” eventually did result as various details were worked out, the gardens were established, and the Embassy settled into the surrounding land. This was well after Lutyens had last visited Washington and had turned permanently away from that side of the Atlantic.

British Embassy from Massachusetts Avenue, in H. P. Caemmerer, Washington: The National Capital (GPO, 1932)

British Embassy from Massachusetts Avenue, in H. P. Caemmerer, Washington: The National Capital (GPO, 1932)

Notes & Bibliography

Butler, A. S. G. The architecture of Sir Edwin Lutyens. With the collaboration of George Stewart and Christopher Hussey. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Antique Collector’s Club, 1984. Originally published by Country life in 1950.

Caemmerer, H. P. Washington: The national capital. Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1932.

“Capital society events,” The Washington Post 14 April 1927, p. 7. It was noted that “Sir Edwin Lutyens, of London, who has been a guest of the British Embassy, is passing several days at the Carlton hotel. Mr. Harry Wardman entertained informally at luncheon yesterday in his honor. Sir Edwin, who is an architect, has drawn the plans for the new British Embassy and is in this country to make the final arrangements.” This same column had reported the dinner held by Ambassador and Lady Howard for Lutyens during his first trip on 21 April 1925.

Greenberg, Allan. Lutyens and the modern movement. London: Papadakis Publishers, 2007.

Hopkins, Andrew & Gavin Stamp, editors. Lutyens abroad: the work of Sir Edwin Lutyens outside the British Isles. London: British School of Rome, 2002.

Hussey, Christopher. “The British Embassy–I. Washington.” Country life. 1939 January 14, p. 38-42. “The British Embassy–II. Washington,” Country life. 1939 January 21, p. 64-68

Hussey, Christopher. Life of Sir Edwin Lutyens. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Antique Collector’s Club, 1989. First published in 1950 by Country life.

Kraft, Brian. Database of District of Columbia building permits found the previously lost one for the Lutyens’s Embassy (estimated cost of $800,000 with Brooke given equal billing with Lutyens), dated 30 January 1928. He also recorded that on 1 October 1873, The Evening Star reported that Sir Edward Thornton was given a permit to build the British Legation at Connecticut Avenue & N Street. The architect was John Fraser.

Percy, Clayre and Jane Ridley, editors. The letters of Edwin Lutyens to his wife Emily. London: Collins, 1985.

Stamp, Gavin. “The British Embassy Washington DC, USA,” Country life, 30 November 2006, v. 200, no. 48, p. 62-67.

Stamp, Gavin and Allan Greenberg. “’Modern architecture as a very complex art’: the design and construction of Lutyens’s British Embassy in Washington DC” in Lutyens abroad: the work of Sir Edwin Lutyens outside the British Isles, edited Andrew Hopkins and Gavin Stamp. London: the British School at Rome, 2002. This insightful and detailed account and analysis of the building, with the author’s access to the files of the Office of Works now in the Public Record Office.

United States Commission of Fine Arts. Massachusetts Avenue architecture. Vol. 2, 1975.


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