The cornerstone of the new Embassy was laid on 3 June 1928, in an informal ceremony with Ambassador Esmé Howard, American architect Frederick Brooke and builder Harry Wardman in attendance. A copy of the architectural plans, the names of the architects and builders, “and other official documents” (according to the Washington Post) were laid inside a strong box.
Along with the building, there soon arose problems simply laying out the grounds. Later that same year, Ambassador Howard, in a letter to Sir Lionel Earle, Permanent Secretary of HM Office of Works (1912-1933) wrote:
I got your telegram about the garden yesterday and am very sorry that nothing in the way of clearing, ploughing, and planting with some nitrogenous plant can be done this year. It would have saved a whole heap of time if we had been able to accomplish this and, as you will remember, I wrote to you about it I think fully a year ago. However, if nothing can be done we must leave it until this spring (7 December 1928).
A year later, there was growing frustration with work at the building site and the plans for the gardens, with the Ambassador writing again to Sir Lionel:
With regard to this I would say that there are one or two questions which need urgent settlement and with regard to which we have been waiting for a reply from Lutyens ever since he left last October. The first of these is drawings for the wrought iron work, particularly the balustrades of the staircases in the house, and of less immediate importance perhaps, for the great gates in front of the house. Secondly, the question of the actual arrangement of the back entrance from Observatory Circle must be settled at once in order to enable Wardman to finish the road and clear away by that exit the rubbish which has accumulated in the upper part of the house near the swimming pool and the tennis court. Otherwise we cannot get on with the latter, or with the final layout of the garden.
Thirdly, Brooke tells me that the proposed second garage and potting shed has been knocked on the head. … the necessity that there will be for the gardener to have some sort of place where he may work, and if necessary raise seedlings for the garden. The expense of keeping up the garden anyhow will be enormous but if the Ambassador is to buy every annual that has to be put into the beds of the formal garden, it will be increased quite unnecessarily and to a very large extent. I would therefore beg you to talk this matter over with Lindsay and see if you cannot get an appropriation for the second garage and a proper potting shed and shed for raising seedlings. I do not think that this need cost so very much.
The Washington Post reported on 4 April 1930 that “Sir Lionel Earle, secretary of public works of Great Britain, has arrived in this country to supervise completion of the new British Embassy in Massachusetts avenue. He is accompanied by Lady Earle. Building and gardens were designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, famous British architect, but laying out the gardens will be done under Sir Lionel’s directions.”
Sir Lionel was eventually compelled to seek private support as there was no money left in the Embassy budget for the hardscaping.
At some earlier point, because of cost or simple practically and desirability, Lutyens’s temple terminating the main axis of the property was scraped from the plan and replaced with a swimming pool. The original one (since replaced) was similar to the pool in the gardens of Dumbarton Oaks where Brooke was previously employed (this is conjecture but Lutyens’s tempietto may have inspired Brooke’s best known work, the District of Columbia World War I Memorial). Photographs of the early 1930s reveal that this area, along with the tennis court, remained unfinished after Sir Ronald and Lady Lindsay came to occupy the new Embassy. An inscription on the nearby brick and limestone pergola of Tuscan columns records the names of eight British subjects who donated the needed money for laying out the gardens—a permanent reminder of the constant difficulties in financing that Lutyens and others faced throughout the project.
Of the sixty-seven architectural drawings now in the British Architectural Library in London (sixty-four of which were presented in 2006 by Ambassador David Manning in Washington to the Royal Institute of British Architects), only three show any aspect of the gardens. One details the layout of house and garden with levels, another of the retaining walls, and the third of paving and steps in front of the main portico. There is no known planting guide.
Lutyens, long known for being dismissive of clients’ budgets, was of course exasperated with all the cost-cutting measures, having had to submit four sets of revised designs to the Government before final approval. He left a lot of the work of interpreting and overseeing his plans to Brooke and the matter of finishing the gardens to others.
It is tempting to surmise (although no documentation exists) that Lutyens felt assured completion of the gardens would be competently handled by the new ambassador’s wife, Lady Lindsay, a trained landscape architect and friend and protege of the renowned landscape gardener Beatrix Farrand. In any event, there is simply no evidence—unlike with Mughal Gardens that lie behind the President’s Palace (Rashtrapati Bhavan) in New Delhi—that Lutyens had anything much more to do with the Embassy gardens other than sketching in their location: There simply was not any money left for the gardens while the architect was actively involved in the Embassy, especially at a time when Lutyens was turning his attention back to finishing the New Delhi Viceroy’s House (which had earned him his Knighthood).
It cannot be said that Elizabeth Lindsay played the role of Gertrude Jekyll in the gardens. Yet landscaping was always a significant aspect of Lutyens’s designs and, in fact, central to the success of his country houses and villas. With both the house and gardens fitted into the contour of the Embassy site and use of traditional, local materials, later softened by the plantings, there came to be a nostalgic, secluded feel to the Embassy that is essential to Lutyens’s and Jekyll’s aesthetic. An appropriate garden needed to be completed first for that to be achieved, for the effect of the buildings alone was cold and hard.
The remaining historical record shows that Lady Lindsay played the key role in the planning and planting of the gardens, most likely with at least some of her own funds (she had inherited a large portion of her father’s estate when he died in 1922).
The Spur on 1 December 1930 noted the lack of landscaping at the Embassy several months after occupancy:
Here you will find neither the planting nor the garden ornament complete. The limestone temple through which the large blue-lined swimming pool is approached is only two wings of a noble arch still in the paper stage. Having made landscape architecture a hobby herself, Lady Lindsay has been particularly interested in the working out of the garden plan–in which some California redwoods [a gift from the Mayor of San Francisco] are doing their best to become giants of the Thirtieth Century.
Sir Lionel Earle, the public works secretary, was focused on finances and did not recognize Lady Lindsay as having any involvement in the grounds, writing by 1935:
I had great difficulty in getting any money to make the garden suitable to the dignity of the house. Sir Esmé Howard, however, put me into touch with a very patriotic Englishman resident in New York, and head of an important business, Mr. Salvidge by name [Samuel Agar Salvage], who on arrival in England called on me and asked how much money I required to make the garden. I informed him that with the very high wages and cost of material prevailing at that time I did not think I could do what was required under £7,000.
On his return to New York he wrote to me that he and four other British subjects [later, a total of eight] in New York were prepared to provide £10,000, which would enable us also to provide a fine hard tennis court and a swimming-pool for the staff of the Embassy. The garden of over four acres was designed by Sir Edwin, and I am told is very beautiful, now that the plants, roses, shrubs, etc., have well established themselves.
Lady Lindsay’s mentor and friend, Beatrix Farrand, much admired Jekyll, having paid a respectful call at Munstead Wood in 1895. Farrand had Jekyll’s books in her private collection, and later purchased Jekyll’s own working drawings and papers. The 18th-century Georgian home and grounds that Farrand transformed at the Embassy’s neighboring estate, Dumbarton Oaks, was just the type of undertaking that the partnership of Lutyens and Jekyll thrived on.
Well-read and traveled, and professionally trained, the Anglophile Lindsay was certainly thoroughly familiar with Jekyll’s writings and gardens. Both Farrand and Lindsay were trained and able, to take on some of Lutyens’s role as architect in the garden, having studied mechanics, drafting and botany. Even before she arrived in Washington, Lindsay kept avid track of the progress of what was becoming one of the country’s most distinguished gardens at Dumbarton Oaks: not only was it an almost bordering property, but the owners, Robert and Mildred Bliss, were her intimate friends.