The design of the plantings that Elizabeth Lindsay did for the British Embassy gardens followed the tradition of Gertrude Jekyll. From extant, available photographs, plants were used as strong design elements, providing form, texture, and depth to the landscape with a predominate palette of greens. Lady Lindsay made the rose garden, in the largest terrace of the gardens, the principal feature—a “room” comparable to the ballroom of the Residence. The shrub and the climbing roses in the beds and against walls display the influence of Jekyll’s cottage style. Here, in the rose gardens, she added the double-flowering Japanese cherry trees that she was so fond of.
The Embassy gardens were established as English picturesque, with species—some that would have been exotic to Jekyll—that would do well in the relatively harsh, East coast climate, with predominately North American flowering shrubs and trees, clipped yew hedges (there remains a part of a circle of them that used to surround a large tennis court area), bulbs and roses. Near the tennis court was a knoll of dogwoods, daffodils and Virginia bluebells. A tulip poplar, likely planted in 1931, remains there today. Edging the stretch of lawn were white lilac, tulip trees, dogwood, hawthorn, magnolias, azaleas, forsythia, and American red oaks. The emphasis of the gardens, of course, would have been fall and spring, as an ambassador would not have been in residence, like most of official Washington, in the summer. Lindsay made the gardens to work well for the Embassy’s use, with their bold, simple forms and with a casualness that contrasted with the formality of the interior of the Residence.
Lady Lindsay was ill again for much of the winter of 1934. There was no large-scale entertaining, except for the King’s birthday garden party in June. On May 17th in 1935 was the Silver Jubilee garden party (about 1,400 people) on May 17th, then the King’s birthday of June 3rd. That fall, she had the energy and time to work in the gardens and reported that during the following April, May and June she was busy gardening at the Embassy. She, along with the landscape, became established in Washington.
Lindsay came to cherish spring in Washington and made cherry trees a feature of the gardens (six of the old, gnarly trees are hanging on today). A photograph that appeared in The Washington Times (23 April 1938) shows her in a casual standing pose in one of the parterres, proprietorially grasping a blooming branch of cherry. Congresswoman Isabella Greenway of Arizona moved next door to the Embassy to be near her old friend “Lillybub” and stairs were built between the two properties for ease of visits (her home was the former Wardman residence, now the Passport Office, on Observatory Circle). That passage way remains today.
Lindsay, Greenway (née Selmes) and Eleanor Roosevelt were all childhood friends, New York City debutantes who were to become allies and close confidants during their Washington years. Lindsay, when she was able, was part of the “air our minds” bi-weekly luncheons whose members were Roosevelt, Greenway, chairman of the Consumers’ Advisory Board Mary Harriman Rumsey, Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, and social activist and Congresswoman Caroline O’Day. Mrs. Roosevelt wrote of Lady Lindsay’s “keen” if not “wicked” sense of humor, noting “We looked at things from more or less the same point of view.”
By June, The Washington Star (4 June 1935) declared that the entire grounds paid homage to the King:
The garden, which was laid out by an English landscape artist, is one of the most beautiful in the Capital, and yesterday it was as though even the flowers were paying tribute to his majesty, for everything was in full bloom. The fragrant roses, planted in square and oblong plots about the grounds and in many with rare species of iris or wax-like tulips nearby gave the effect of gay little mats on the velvety grass of the grounds. In addition to the growing flowers, great standards of mock orange were flanked about the gay striped marquees.
During the 1930s, the unexpected element of informality was often remarked upon: the ability of garden guests to wander, with drinks served from tents, including usually one (containing “the hard drink” bar) near the blue-green pool at the end of the long passage away from the Residence. Along this walk from the axial corridor of the house were planted flowering shrubs (mountain laurel and rhododendron), as they were in much of the gardens. During the major spring parties in the Lindsay years, the frequently mentioned plants of the gardens during May were tulips (mauve, yellow, red, white) and iris of the parterres, lilacs, bridal wreath, wygelia. In June, the roses were foremost and came to be celebrated in the city. In the Jekyll tradition, Lindsay was careful about the color patterns of the flower borders and wouldn’t allow for any careless cutting of blooms. She was particularly proud of the flowering shrubs and trees.
Expecting and hoping for Sir Ronald’s tour of duty to soon end, Lindsay must have felt some urgency to complete the gardens as she envisioned them, and to be practical for their role at the Embassy. The 1930s, a time of overwhelming world events and a tense Anglo-American relationship, kept the hard-working, effective and popular career diplomat at his post well after the anticipated five-year stay. The press, always eager to attend the social events there, never failed to note the luxurious grounds. In addition to the red oaks, Lindsay’s other trees included magnolia and ginko. Photographs of these parties show an allée down the expanse of lawn from the portico.
As Lindsay’s ambassadorship kept being extended, the Embassy parties became firmly fixed in the Washington social calendar as a coveted invite. At the Coronation garden party for George VI, The New York Times reported: “The gardens were a mass of flowering hawthorn, lilac and spirea, with great borders of vari-colored tulips and banks of iris” (13 May 1937). Of the same event, with 1,500 (reportedly) attending, the Washington Herald enthused:
But so spacious are the gardens, with their lovely stretches of English turf, their hedge-bordered terraces that, although “everybody” turned up between the hours of 4 and 6, there was never a sense of crowding … Picture blossomy stretches of white lilac, dogwood, bridal wreath, rosy masses of azalea, bed after bed of gay parrot tulips, wine red, yellow, mauve, snowy white …
Increasingly, the gardens became closely associated with Lady Lindsay. The French ambassador’s wife even sent over her two extremely well-dressed daughters to help out in the gardens, much to Lindsay’s amusement. A Washington Star headline of 5 October 1937 read: “Lady Lindsay works in garden as new society season nears;” and “After a Summer in New Hampshire Lady Lindsay again is giving her personal attention to the British Embassy garden.” And, in the Washington Times:
—symbolizing the approach of a new Washington social season … But even during the season she gets up at 6:30 am on nice mornings and works in the garden until 10:30, breakfasting there. By 11:15 she is at her desk in the massive red brick Embassy for her real job.” Her industry was further remarked upon: “Only eight years ago moving vans carried furniture to the embassy over what is now one of the most magnificent lawns in Washington! When asked how many gardeners were employed Lady Lindsay replied ‘only one and myself!’ She arises at 6 o’clock in the morning and spends from four to six hours a day working on the flowers” (23 April 1938).
For the King’s birthday party, The Washington Post (10 June 1938) set the now-familiar scene:
The Ambassador and Lady Lindsay received on the pillared terrace that leads out to the loveliest green expanse in all Washington … After greeting their host and hostess guests paused at the top of the wide steps leading down to the garden to admire the scene … the grass carpeted stretch extending down to the orange marquee … the magnolia trees to one side, and on the other, rose-bordered paths and rows of trimly clipped hedges leading further away than one can see from the terrace.
This was the last party celebrating the monarch’s birthday until 1947. Having seen European devastation first-hand, unlike most in her social world (Lindsay, on a Red Cross inspection tour during World War I, endured a harrowing four-hour bombing raid in the French village of Bar-le-Duc), the coming war weighed heavily. The building of the Embassy gardens, rather than being a futile undertaking as she felt when she gave up her landscape architecture practice, became an achievement as well a source of solace to her.
Lindsay must have been enormously satisfied with the recognition of her work, including the successful running of the Residence. In 1938, the Washington Post observed “The British Embassy gardens are the particular pride of Lady Lindsay, who possesses a high quality of landscape gardening knowledge. The embassy gardens are a glowing testimonial to her horticultural prowess” (24 April 1938). Another writer in the same paper (5 June 1938) marveled: “The carefully manicured beauty of it all seems incredible when one realizes that eight years ago the garden was just a stretch of uncultivated real estate, and the embassy had not then been built. Lady Lindsay is an expert gardener, and deserves most of the credit for the lovely grounds.”
Later that year, she received word the American Rose Society had accepted a variety in her name: Rose Hon. Lady Lindsay. She planted the flower in the terrace beds, and with typical wit and humor, would use it as a metaphor, to deflect the coming storm of criticism that would be directed toward her with the impending arrival of the first reigning British sovereign to North America.