Fashion (and Money) Follows the British Embassy

An aerial Associated Press photograph taken in October 1930 of the new British Embassy—five months after Lutyens’s final site visit and its first occupancy—captures the complex in its still-unfinished state.  The areas for the pool and tennis court are excavated but not built, the terrace rose beds are barren, a construction road leads from W Street, and small trees are planted here and there in turf with bald spots.

AP aerial photograph 7 October 1930 (Washingtonian Division, DC Public Library)

AP aerial photograph 7 October 1930 (Washingtonian Division, DC Public Library)

This and other aerial shots, a popular form of photography during the period, also shows several brick Georgian homes in a more complete state, two on Observatory Circle by the Embassy’s service entrance, and four on W Street. Four of these represent the work of the two Americans intimately involved with the Embassy project, the architect Frederick H. Brooke and construction magnate Harry Wardman.

View of the British embassy and surrounding private houses from the southeast (Airscapes, 1931, National Archives)

View of the British embassy and surrounding private houses from the southeast (Airscapes, 1931, National Archives)

The two men profited from the prestigious commission before ground was broken, buying up surrounding plots, intending to live beside the Embassy. As events unfolded for the developer, the benefits were short-lived.

Building permits (#1047 and 1048) were taken out on 19 July 1926 for 19 and 27 Observatory Circle by F.H. Brooke, Architect, and Wardman Construction Company, Owner. Until late 1929, Wardman and his wife lived at number 19, now the British Embassy Consular Section and Passport Office, appropriately enough as the builder had reportedly first arrived in America as a stow-away on a ship bound for Sydney.

3041 Whitehaven Street, built 1927, Frederick Brooke architect (J. Blakely)

3041 Whitehaven Street, built 1927, Frederick Brooke architect (J. Blakely)

Purchased from private owners, number 27 became the first New Zealand legation in Washington in 1941. Although the two former homes are right next to each other, the combined addresses, in a typical Wardman playful touch, state the year they were completed: 1927. From 1929, along W Street (upgraded from the prosaic to the more elegant-sounding Whitehaven sometime in the mid-1930s), new Georgian homes, featured with connecting gardens, were being constructed for wealthy Washingtonians. Amongst them were lot owners (no. 53) Mr. and Mrs. Frederick H. Brooke, in the wooded region backing onto the Embassy gardens. And, with Brooke as architect, a home for Mrs. Sherman Flint (permit #4380, no. 47, 5 November 1926) at number 3041 (once the home of Gerald Lambert, later his son-in-law Paul Mellon, it is now the Polish Ambassador’s residence).

The press kept close track of this real estate development in the area. The Washington Post (1 July 1930) noted the growth near the Embassy:

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View of the British Embassy complex from the east with the two homes on Observatory Circle (Airscapes, 1931, National Archives)

The phrase, ‘Fashion follows the British Embassy,’ was coined long ago, but its truth has again been borne out, for there has been a notable increase in building activity in the vicinity since ground was broken for John Bull’s new home, into which the British Ambassador and Lady Lindsay have recently moved. … Back of the British Embassy is W street, but facing its most ornamental facade, a little community of homes of prominent Washingtonians is growing up. Among those who have built in this neighborhood, are building or are about to build are Senator and Mrs. Frederick H. Gillett, Mr. and Mrs. Frederick H. Brooke, Commander and Mrs. Paul Bastedo and Mr. and Mrs. Reginald Huldekoper. The plan is for these residences to have community gardens overlooking the beautifully landscaped British Embassy grounds.

The British Embassy as seen from Whitehaven Street (J. Blakely)

The British Embassy as seen from Whitehaven Street (J. Blakely)

The Embassy was the selling point for the homes “within its shadow and overlooking its picturesque and elaborate gardens,” even before the grounds were actually planted:

Members of the little group are planning to build their houses after the same general design — red brick Georgian mansions, with white trimmings — and to have community gardens overlooking and possibly opening into the British Embassy garden. Mr. Brooke, who is assisting Sir Edwin Lutyens, distinguished British architect and designer of the embassy, will build his own house and possibly one or two of the others … The little community will abut on Observatory circle and hard by is the big white house which was Mrs. Robert McCormick’s home, with the Hungarian Legation across Massachusetts avenue. On the other side the group of houses will be bounded by the outskirts of Mr. and Mrs. Robert W. Bliss’ great estate and by a tract of land owned by Mr. Truxtun Beale. (The Washington Post, 8 October 1929)

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View of the Wardman-Brooke houses on an unfinished Observatory Circle (Airscapes, 1931, National Archives)

Building the British Embassy was the most important and challenging job of Wardman and Brooke’s careers. While benefiting from the prestige of their roles there, being in a prime position to speculate on land and reap ancillary work, both had much to contend with, and Wardman faced disaster. During the construction, Wardman, woefully over-extended with his fast-paced and grand building visions and mismanagement of financial affairs by his principal assistants, was to lose almost everything in the stock market crash of 1929. For the socially prominent Brooke, dealing with inadequate appropriations from the British Government Treasury, all the revisions and delays consumed much of his architectural practice for a long period at the expense of taking on other work. But the undertaking significantly raised the profile of the already well-to-do Brooke; he went on to other important commissions, although not on the grand scale of the British Embassy. Wardman never recovered enough to fully capitalize on his most fondly held scheme.

The Wardman-Brooke houses on Observatory Circle, UK Passport Service (left) and New Zealand Ambassador's residence (right) (J. Blakely)

The Wardman-Brooke houses on Observatory Circle, UK Passport Service (left) and New Zealand Ambassador’s residence (right) (J. Blakely)

 Notes
Building permit information kindly supplied by Brian Kraft.
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