With the ridge of Clifton Hill between them, the British Embassy and Dumbarton Oaks have a shared legacy and stories, the memory of which has nearly been lost over the years.
The original 19th-century estates of both sites were once part of the same Royal land grant, the Rock of Dumbarton. Before each gained renown, the properties were working farms of varying success. William Hammond Dorsey first built on twenty-two acres in the heights of Georgetown around 1800; Robert Barnard purchased his twenty-four acres, named ‘Normanstone’ after the school he attended in his native England, just north in Washington County in 1820. The main houses were aligned with each other, on high ground facing south, looking over the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal and the in-decline Georgetown port on the Potomac River, with land sloping toward Rock Creek to the east. These areas, with the forty-five acres of the estate of ‘Clifton’—a location were the Naval Observatory nearly moved—and neighboring ‘Northview’ where the Observatory did land in 1867, was considered a possible new site for the White House—were deemed the most beautiful in Washington.
In 1832, Robert Barnard and his neighbor William Morton disputed in court their access to the public road, the then-Road to Frederick Town (present day Wisconsin Avenue). Their neighbors, including Brooke Mackall of the estate that later became Dumbarton Oaks, had refused them passage through the surrounding lands. Settlement of the suit resulted in the laying out of a private way to the south from Barnard and Morton’s farms: Morton Road joined Normanstone Road at the head of Lovers’ Lane. Sections of this old Normanstone road that connected the parcels can still be seen in the trails along the Italian Embassy’s land and from Observatory Circle, into the (now) public Dumbarton Oaks Park and onto the old country road Lovers’ Lane, once known as Parrott’s Lane. And there are other traces, some only in personal letters, of an earlier era and a shared past.
As covered in a series of earlier posts in this blog, the beginning of the 20th-century was when the two working farms with their crumbling buildings, graveyards, orchards, springs, fences and gates, cow paths, saw their last. The old Blount estate fronting R Street, ‘The Oaks’, was purchased by Robert and Mildred Bliss in 1920; they were the seventh owners of the property. ‘Normanstone’ finally fell to the pressure of rising land values and the extension of Massachusetts Avenue. In its place rose Sir Edwin Lutyens’s British Embassy complex.
It is the period of the first decade of the British Embassy that the two properties were more intertwined. Lady Lindsay, the wife of the first ambassador to serve at the new British Embassy, Sir Ronald Lindsay, was the American-born former Elizabeth Sherman Hoyt. She was a professionally trained landscape gardener, mentored by her friend and former employer, Beatrix Jones (later Farrand), the great designer of the time whose most famous work are the gardens of Dumbarton Oaks. Lindsay and Farrand maintained a life-long friendship and mutual respect. Long before Sir Ronald’s appointment as Ambassador to the United States, the Lindsays and Blisses had close relationships, furthered during their Washington years and their ties to Farrand.
Lindsay’s letters (later published) to her friend Olivia James and her mother, Olivia Bayard Cutting, recount many hours and details of planning and planting, even telling of lying flat with a hose to water the yews, while there is nothing about getting her hands dirty the correspondence to Mildred Bliss. There are frequent and effusive mentions of gratitude and admiration for the flowers that arrived regularly from the Dumbarton Oaks greenhouses.
You, who are at the other end of the earth [Argentina], continue to shed beauty and charm into our lives with a regularity that can only be equaled by the beats of my heart for your darlins. Your flowers are a joy and a pride, & even my pump perks up & throbs on its way, with renewed hope and affections, as each installment comes in … each bloom and sprig is appreciated more than you can realize. First, it comes from you; secondly it was produced at the Oaks (for which I have a ridiculously personal attachment); & thirdly it is connected with that elusive & beloved Trix (4 April 1931).
In these letters there are frequent but fleeting glimpses of the “elusive & beloved” Farrand. Bliss reported: There is not much color in the garden yet but the chrysanthemums promise well … Trix arrives here Sunday, the 18th, remaining until the 22nd” (10 September 1938). Lindsay often expressed frustration at not having enough time with the busy Farrand while she was in either Washington or Maine (Reef Point in Bar Harbor, Maine, was Farrand’s family home since 1883; Lindsay often vacationed there). Although the Dumbarton Oaks gardens were largely completed by 1933, it was Farrand’s practice to monitor and help maintain projects through the years. In addition, Max Farrand (they had married in 1913) had been appointed as first director of the Huntington Library and Art Gallery in San Marino, California. “Trix has been commuting to California & I have not seen her. I expect you have” (Lady Lindsay from her frequent retreat at Seal Harbour, Maine, 8 September 1934), as the Blisses had a home in Santa Barbara. Lindsay complained: “Beatrix is at the Oaks. Well, so is God in his Heaven; but they are both out of my reach. The British Navy has me in its clutches, & I see no one, know no one, & have no one save sailors” (6 November 1935).
In an undated letter, probably in 1932, after a period of seeking treatment and recuperation away for her heart problems, the adaptable and still adventuresome Lindsay wrote to Bliss in Argentina:
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. As for the Oaks, I have of course been there; & found it more lovely than ever. I can alas only totter about on the top terrace & peer down into all the loveliness below, but that is enough to calm any spirit. The spring is very late this year, but at the Oaks one knows it is near; & oh my stars what you and Trix have done! It is the finest treatment of grades in this country, and not satisfied with that each grade in its turn has been planted in a manner that is inspired. A great master at her profession is my Trix; for when given the dreamed of opportunity of every landscapists—she has lived up to it. As I propel my feeble body about & pause in each delightful corner of the upper levels, I gaze about me and – become sentimental. But proud my dear too. Proud that I know you both; & grateful for all that you two dear women have given us mortals.
Sir Ronald Lindsay was also attached to the gardens at Dumbarton Oaks. Accepting an invitation for lunch, he wrote to Mildred Bliss: “As to Mélisande, I know the owl & mocking bird, but never before knew the “allée” by that charming name. I will now carry this note over with my own hand and shall the more appreciate a part of your garden under a new & delightful appellation” (4 April 1937). Mélisande’s Allée is a brick path between silver leaf maples on the eastern part of the Dumbarton Oaks gardens, parallel to Lovers’ Lane. The name is a bit of a mystery, but apparently named after a part in a Debussy opera. Intriguingly, Lady Lindsay, then Elizabeth Hoyt, had written from Cannes, a stop on her early educational travels, of ‘Westbrook’, James’s family estate on Long Island: “The knowledge that there exists in the world a spot that is not a blaze of color is what keeps me going now”, dreaming of sitting by “Mélisande’s Pool” (14 February 1912). In 1910, Farrand had a commission at ‘Westbrook’ (the family country home, now the Bayard Cutting Arboretum) from James’s father, William Bayard Cutting, the extent of which is not known.
Farrand and Bliss’s creation of Dumbarton Oaks provided Lindsay a refuge from the scrutiny of life at the Embassy. In a note, probably in 1939, she pleaded “I “need” to come to see you & Trix & your garden this morning …”. The making of gardens at the Ambassador’s Residence was another great release from official pressures.
Lindsay carefully did not claim credit for laying out the design of the gardens of the Ambassador’s Residence but rather being the one responsible for designing and installing the plantings. She must have found great inspiration, if not a little neighborly competitiveness and jealousy, in Dumbarton Oaks, particularly given their similarities of terrains. As the Daily Boston Globe reported near the end of the Lindsay’s posting: “Two factors influenced her garden plans, she said. She wanted the garden to be effective as many months of the year as possible and wanted to keep down the cost of upkeep. The onetime landscape architect visited other gardens in making plans. Then she put on old gloves and went to work herself. Now the garden abounds in trees, flowering shrubs, bulbs and the roses which she loves” (21 May 1939).
Lindsay and Farrand, both Anglophile women, were completely immersed in the English gardening tradition that stressed the importance of careful maintenance technique. They were also influenced by Gertrude Jekyll’s use of color and texture of plantings in a design and the importance of roses in the garden. A vital part of both the Embassy and Dumbarton Oaks is the level rose garden terraces with their stone and brick retaining walls. For the Washington Embassy, Lady Lindsay made the necessary rose garden, in the largest terrace of the landscape just below the portico, the principal feature—a “room” comparable to the ballroom of the Residence. As designed, they were meant to have year-round visual interest and, as Farrand wrote in her Plant book for Dumbarton Oaks, “given quite as much to the evergreen and enduring outlines and form as to the Roses, which, at their season, give added charm to this level. The Roses in the Rose Garden are really only secondary to the general design of the garden and its form and mass.”
Tutored by Charles Sprague Sargent at the Arnold Arboretum, Farrand and Lindsay both had the background to use trees and shrubs as visual elements in and of themselves. Adapting the English cottage garden style to America, box, yew and hollies are used as accents and foils in these areas. Both properties have a landscape setting in the city with the illusion of being in the countryside. The expansion of green lawn at the Ambassador’s Residence, gently sloping away, provides year-round, soothing color and partially an illusion of a grand vista.
There is a versatility and flexibility in both gardens, able to provide large spaces for groups and intimate spots for privacy—elements that were put to great use before during the war years. The delegates at Dumbarton Oaks Conference met there for the intense negotiations from August to October 1944 that led to the formation of the United Nations. The first anniversary of the United Nations Club was celebrated at the British Embassy, with Lord and Lady Halifax greeting guests (approximately 1,000 attended), the first time the Embassy opened its gates to an outside group (14 June 1943). At this event, people were allowed to roam up to the swimming pool and tennis court and to dance on the terrace.
The Ambassador’s Residence was the one chance that Elizabeth Lindsay had, several years after giving up professional landscape gardening, to do prominent garden. Although no evidence has yet surfaced, it is easy to imagine the exchange of plants and ideas between the Arnold Arboretum, Dumbarton Oaks and the Embassy. Bliss did ask this of Lindsay: “The garden is radiant, the weather bad, the world askew and I am missing you sadly and do beg you please contribute the inscription for those four Elizabethan benches around the Yew” (30 July 1938). Since much of the personal correspondence of Farrand and Lindsay was probably destroyed, any collaboration is not known and there is no documentation of advice being traded, even given the social cross-pollination between all the principals.
The two landscapes really cannot be compared and are a study in contrasts, each reflecting the times in which they were planned and their differing reasons for being. Dumbarton Oaks was designed at the end of the era when the cultural aspirations of Americans, as they looked toward Europe, can be seen in the gardens of the educated wealthy. The gardens at the British Embassy, hampered from the beginning by a lack of Government Treasury funding, were created during a much different period, when the country had lost its overwhelming confidence; in some ways, it is a product of the Depression.
As expected at the time of high-ranking diplomats to cover some household expenses, particularly those associated with the grounds, it is likely Lindsay used her own funds for the gardens—she had inherited one-fifth of her father’s huge estate in 1922—yet that money must have been limited by the Depression (she may have been partially reimbursed). But still she managed, creating the landscape needed to complete Lutyens’s country house, while offering an impressive and effective backdrop to its diplomatic mission.
NOTES & BIBLIOGRAPHY
Corresponded quoted form the Harvard University Archives, Papers of Robert Woods Bliss and Mildred Barnes Bliss, HUGFP 76.8, Box 28.
The author is most grateful to Mark Bertram for the information on the expected expenses of British diplomats. For more on this history see his Room for diplomacy (Reading: Spire Books, 2011), p. 375-6. Up until World War II “The Office of Works distanced itself for as long as it could from anything to do with grounds and gardens because their upkeep had always been the responsibility of incumbents.” [They] “had for long been able, and unembarrassed enough, to complete the construction of new buildings and to pronounce them ready for occupation without having made any financial, design or practical preparations for their external surroundings.”
In the charming, meandering reminisces of Grace Dunlop Ecker, A portrait of old George Town (1933), is a chapter entitled “Evermay, the Heights, and Oak Hill.” Wandering through the area, after a description of Dumbarton Oaks, the author writes:
Through Lover’s Lane we went to Normanstone, the home of the two Misses Barnards and their sister, Mrs. Talcott. It was a quaint little house, which stood just about where the British Embassy now is. The name is commemorated by Normanstone Drive. Mr. Robert Barnard built Normanstone in 1830. It was a Devonshire cottage of clay, straw, and pebbles, with walls four feet thick.
Barnard first lived there with his wife in a small house called ‘Normanstone Cottage.’ The later, larger home (36 by 46 feet) was designed and built by the contractor Gilbert White and stoneworker Morgan Kavanaugh. Rather extraordinarily for architectural records of this period and class, sketches, specifications and bills for the “Devonshire cottage” survive in the Library of Congress. In addition, there are albumen photoprints of different views of the house and its outbuildings, some portraying slaves (Barnard owned three), servants and groundskeepers. The home faced south-east, with a long porch.
While Lindsay did not relay practical matters of the garden to Mildred Bliss, she herself was not so reluctant:
Give my love to dear Mrs. Cutting and tell Olivia how very much I enjoyed not only seeing her but our tournes amongst the trees. I still have a preference for an elastic type of tree-filling to the cement, but if cement filling must be used it struck me that the Davey people had done it with more skill and discretion at Westbrook than any place I have seen. For your confidential information I may say that the Van Yahres man, with whose work Marie Beale is so pleased, made a none too favorable impression upon me as we moved about Dumbarton Oaks. I think his work may be good and the system in time may prove to be more, or less, satisfactory than cement, but he is plainly not as uncommercial as Marie thinks. (to Lady Lindsay in Oakdale, Long Island 10 September 1938)
One of the few preserved letters from Mildred Bliss to Lady Lindsay in the Harvard University Archives reports on the death of Edith Wharton and Beatrix Farrand’s emotional and financial difficulties. She asked, “I wonder what impression you had of Trix’s condition of mind and body from her letters.” Further on, Bliss wondered if “it might be a nice thing for a small group of us—Edith’s long-time friends—to publish a volume of her letters, both as a tribute to her and to Trix, as well as because of their interest for personally they would supplement ‘The Backward Glance’ and there are literary criticisms here and there that would have their value” (18 September 1937).
Balmori, Diana, Diane Kostial McGuire and Eleanor M. McPeck. Beatrix Farrand’s American landscapes: her gardens and campuses. Sagaponack, New York: Sagapress, Inc., 1985.
Brown, Jane. Beatrix: the gardening life of Beatrix Jones Farrand, 1872-1959. New York: Viking, 1995
McGuire, Diane Kostial, editor. Beatrix Farrand’s Plant book for Dumbarton Oaks. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University, 1980.
Patterson, Robert W. Beatrix Jones Farrand, 1872-1959: an appreciation of a great landscape gardener. [s.l.]: Mrs. Robert Woods Bliss, 1960
Tankard, Judith B. Beatrix Farrand: private gardens, public landscapes. New York: The Monacelli Press, 2009.
Way, Thaïsa. Unbounded practice: women and landscape architecture in the early twentieth century. Charlottesville, University of Virginia Press, 2009.
Whitehill, Walter Muir. Dumbarton Oaks: the history of a Georgetown house and garden, 1800-1966. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press, Harvard University Press, 1967.