With the return of the diplomatic corps and the beginning of the fall social season of 1930 in Washington, the press was filled with reports of the new British Embassy on Massachusetts Avenue. The Ambassador’s Residence had already been put to work: the first large party to be held there was that August for 600 of the legal community and foreign guests of the American Bar Association. There were frequent mentions of the incomplete state of the gardens, the only public indication of the chaos of the rush of the move into the still-unfinished Chancery and Residence.
With the stock market crash of 1929, the builder Harry Wardman had lost almost everything, being woefully overextended and further burdened by financial mismanagement by his principal assistants. The construction of his most cherished ambition suffered as a result. Work on the Embassy was delayed, since subcontractors were not being paid, and the effects of the disruption were manifested several years later when the Residence was essentially condemned after the ceilings were found to be about to collapse.
Sir Lionel Earle, Permanent Secretary at H.M. Office of Works and Public Buildings (and cousin of Lutyens’s wife, Lady Emily), stated that the gardens were being planted under his direction (The Washington Post, 4 April 1930). But the Ambassador’s wife, Elizabeth Lindsay, meanwhile, was laying the groundwork for her own vision of the gardens, nearly fifteen years after having given up her landscape architectural practice. Showing savvy with the press, she left hints in newspaper interviews, while letters and diary make clear her intentions and eagerness to make the gardens her own. Publicly, Lindsay let it be known that she was no dilettante but professionally trained and well qualified to take on the as-yet unstated role of Embassy gardener.
Following her first press conference, The New York Times, described Lady Lindsay this way: “not only as the diplomat every diplomat’s wife should be but as a trained, qualified and experienced landscape gardener, probably the first in the local diplomat corps” (29 March 1930, p. 2). The Washington Star quoted her saying landscape architecture as being “’one of my greatest interests … I took up the study years ago before there were regular schools for professional study. However, I did take a course in architecture at Columbia University and later a botanical course both in England and in Boston … ‘Have I ever done any gardens professionally?’ she smiled. ‘Yes, before my marriage I did several in Cleveland and Long Island.’” (30 March 1930). She added: ‘”Landscape gardeners have very little time for specialization in flowers,’ she replied to a question ‘It is work in which one must look for its beauty far ahead.”’
There were to appear several mentions of replanting in her correspondence and newspaper articles. First there was much to contend with. In her letters, as well as a diary of work that was sent to the Foreign Office, she listed the many problems of the building (including bugs and rats, windows and that doors either wouldn’t close or open, not enough furniture, no curtains) and she recounted with incredible good (if gallows) humor the trials of moving into the plagued Residence. During that hot, rainless first summer, Lindsay wrote to Mildred Bliss:
Never in all my days have I dreamt of anything like the unholy mess & confusion our house is in. No one had ever decided anything. All the things that ought to have been thought of in the beginning were forgotten,—and now the money is all spent, & nothing can be done. Mr. Brooke [the American on-site architect] in his inimitable manner ordered some fly screens, but not all. He is unable to think of any way to open & close the high windows, & can only suggest leaving them permanently closed! I discovered a room the other day which has been entirely closed up – sealed up … It has 2 windows but no door, and Mr. Brooke is as surprised as I was! The whole thing is a screaming farce, and a maddening disaster. But we are going in on June 4th.
In the same letter Lindsay reveals her close relationship with both the Blisses and their neighboring estate of Dumbarton Oaks:
However, I came to talk of the Oaks, not of our White Elephant. If you had done nothing else but that in life dear, you would have still come out on top! Never have I seen anything so beautiful. I have spent whole days there, and I cannot find a flaw. It is quite perfect. Also it may interest you to know that you save many lives. Whenever a heat wave hits us we quite calmly move to The Oaks, & there we pic nic & bathe, & read. And on top of all that you keep our rooms full of flowers. (Harvard University Archives, Papers of Robert Woods Bliss and Mildred Barnes Bliss, HUGFP 76.8, Box 28, letter of 26 May 1930.)
The Embassy grounds were even more a work-in progress than the house. In a letter to Olivia James of June 18th, two weeks after moving in, she wrote:
The work being done in the lower garden has necessitated the removal of a section of our iron railing, and the trucking is being done across a neighbor’s vacant lot. There is no other possible access to the lower garden except on foot down flights of steps. It is of course impossible to carry in trees, shrubs, soil and fertilizer by hand to say nothing of ploughs and barrows. The neighbor [Mrs. Sherman Flint, in what is now the Polish Ambassador’s Residence] has been extraordinarily kind in making no protest at the cutting of a roadway through her property and the damage to her trees.
Despite the respite provided by the Bliss property, but not surprising given her history of heart problems, Lindsay soon became ill and needed several months away to recuperate, a pattern that was to repeat itself for the rest of her time in Washington. Her poor health, and Sir Ronald’s reticence in discussing it, helped contribute to Lady Lindsay’s reputation for aloofness. Correspondence shows that Lindsay enlisted Mrs. Bliss to help counteract the rumors circulating because of her absences.
Years earlier, Lady Lindsay’s devoted Henry Adams wrote to her aunt extolling her self-confidence while at work at the Red Cross during the Great War: “You would suppose that Elizabeth owned the white marble building down by the State Department” (letter to Elizabeth Cameron of 7 January 1918). She likewise set to work on owning the British Embassy, despite the suspicions of the staff. Detail-oriented and used to tackling problems with dispatch, Lindsay must have been pained to have the grounds of the Residence in an incomplete, sorry state. Photographs of the time show forlorn and drought-stricken plants stuck randomly here and there with the austere-looking building in the background. Despite her well-developed sense of the absurd, it was no doubt difficult, with her training at the Arnold Arboretum and knowledge of the English garden aesthetic, to have two California redwoods planted at the base of the portico steps. A doomed gift from the mayor of San Francisco, the trees would not have lasted long in the Washington climate, but they are still seen there like sentinels in an aerial photograph taken October 1930.
The Washington Post gave a perceptive account of the setting in October 1930 when the Embassy was opened to journalists for review:
The whole has been admirably designed as an organized unit with the adjacent gardens, on various levels of ground, which is an important element in its construction. For it is not only the business part, facing Massachusetts avenue; there is the large residence, the gardens, the swimming pool, tennis courts and garages that go to make up the stately manor house in this period, when so many fine houses were built in England. … This entrance of the house faced the formal garden, which is not as yet entirely complete … From the entrance to the swimming pool one can command an extensive view of the whole structure with the gardens and the tennis court. It is only here that the masses are seen in their right proportions and the impressiveness of the building and gardens realized. … the green trees of the garden which are just being planted make an ensemble which recalls the best of the famous old English country houses which are one of the greatest charms of that country … The mayor of San Francisco sent two small redwood trees as a gift to the ambassador and they have been planted on the first level of the garden.
The Spur on 1 December 1930 noted the lack of landscaping at the Embassy several months after opening:
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 are doing their best to become giants of the Thirtieth Century.
With her experience from a young age managing the large Hoyt family estate on Long Island and her years of Red Cross work, Lindsay became the efficient, organized executive of the Residence, established its routines, and did make something of the landscape in short order. With her intimate friend, Mildred Bliss, Lindsay could be less political, but wrote (in an undated letter from the Embassy, probably in 1931): “How is your house? I like mine. Which is a very pleasant sensation. We are all settled now, and as the dust of battles dies down, I look about me in pleasurable enjoyment.” And, in another to Bliss around this same time: “What a day. I went into the garden in a wheel chair after you left, and wondered what it is that we all fuss about.”
In the fall of 1932, the ever-adaptable Lindsay was in the garden, transplanting and putting in new shrubs. She wrote satisfyingly to James (3 November): “I have ‘gone native,’ and am having the time of my life. I have 5 men working in the garden and am out from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m. every day; rather resentfully dashing in to entertain some infernal nuisance for lunch. Everything is being moved and mauled, and the improvement is great.”
By the time of the garden reception for Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, The Washington Post (23 April 1933) described that the portico, where the hosts received 1,100 guests, as overlooking “one of the most beautiful panoramic views of the city … The formal gardens of the embassy, never more beautiful than in the bright spring sunshine of yesterday, caused more than one comment as the guests wandered over the terraces, listening to the strains of the string orchestra, which played in the lower rose garden.”
Lindsay’s future editor of her letters, Olivia James, concluded that: “during all her time in Washington, the development of the Embassy grounds and the creation of a beautiful garden was one of her chief interests and certainly her greatest relaxation and delight.” Having at least for a time regained her strength and vigor, and after recounting a sixteen-hour trip along Skyline Drive in which she drove herself to Charlottesville, Virginia, Lindsay wrote of her joy of the grounds:
No proud mother has ever been more moved at her child’s first step, than am I on seeing the oak trees, which we planted, put on their autumn colouring. Truly when the days come on which my successor walks this garden, the ghosts of Sandy [her dog] and myself will accompany her. And we will freely admit that it is not beauty which brings us, but the love created by loving labour in the vineyards (6 November 1933).