The transformation of Washington during the Second World War can be seen in structural changes at the British Embassy. Quickly assembled wartime additions to the Lutyens Chancery were erected in 1940. When those proved inadequate for the burgeoning staff’s needs, property was leased throughout the city and land bordering the Embassy’s service road and Observatory Circle was acquired in 1941 for an office building. Such wartime offices and housing—called “tempos”—sprung up all over Washington, and some remained for decades after the war had ended, even on the National Mall. Throughout the Depression, due to Roosevelt’s New Deal and newly created federal agencies, Washington (or at least its middle class) prospered and the city expanded. But the period from 1939 on was the time of dramatic growth. Even before the United States’ official entry into the war, by November 1941 the population increased by 100,000. As the British presence in the capital multiplied during 1940, it was joked that they were staging a third invasion of the capital with 100,000 of their own. A headline in the Washington Daily News: “British property here has been extended to fabulous proportions” (24 December 1940).
The gardens of the British Ambassador’s Residence adapted, as did other landscapes in Washington, with the advent of war. As seen in earlier posts in this blog about the Embassy and Dumbarton Oaks, developing global events soon affected both places. A decade after the acquisition of two lots bordering the Embassy gardens on Massachusetts Avenue, Ambassador Lothian had the new land incorporated into the grounds to accommodate crowds at fundraising events—which apparently was a higher priority than for staff housing and offices on the site. The first open public event ever at the Washington Embassy, an overwhelming success, a benefit for the “Bundles for Britain” relief organization in June 1940, was the start of many such charity events. Because of the uncertain economic times, the owners of neighboring Dumbarton Oaks gave their estate to the Trustees of Harvard University in 1940. Or, as Mildred Bliss recalled (quoted in her obituaries): “We thought it perfectly absurd for two people to have such a huge house and garden under the circumstances.” Their gardens offered a secluded, secure location for diplomats and men in uniform to meet, as well as Byzantine scholars (although sometimes one and the same).
During the war, other fundraising parties followed the “Bundles for Britain” tea at the Embassy, while the annual party honoring the King’s birthday was halted. One, on 6 September 1940, was sponsored by the District Federation of Women’s Clubs for British War Relief (2,500 paid one dollar each to attend). Now newspaper accounts of specific plantings and lush lawns faded as food and the ability to roam the grounds and rooms of the Residence became more prominent. Reporters now simply noted “red, white and blue flowers” decorating the marquees initially made for the Royal visit of 1939.
Lord Lothian’s tenure as war-time ambassador was shockingly short: he died after a brief illness in the Residence in December 1940. His successors seized on the need to use the gardens for public relations and war-related charitable causes. Eleanor Roosevelt and Lady Halifax, wife of the new Ambassador, headed the list of sponsors for an Embassy garden party given by the Daughters of the British Empire on 21 June 1941. A Canadian Club event also benefited the Relief Society the following September. Ambassador and Lady Halifax on 6 June 1942 held a garden party sponsored by the Saint Andrew’s Society for the British War Relief and Washington Civilian Defense. And in September there was a “lawn fete” to aid the American Red Cross.
The American press was delighted to find in Lady Halifax a witty, relaxed person: “accustomed to smug British complacency and formal aloofness, the reporters were happily surprised to find Lady Halifax as easy to talk to as Eleanor Roosevelt” (New York Times, 23 February 1941). There are no mentions of her involvement in the gardens. Apart from aiding the war effort, she had her own health concerns, a family, and the Windsors to deal with (sometime guests at the Residence during this period, as the Duke was Governor of the Bahamas during the war). Photographs published in the Washington Star in April 1945 show a spectacular archway formed by the double-blossom Japanese cherry trees stretching all along the entire terrace to the Lutyens wooden garden gate. Planted by Lady Lindsay, the cherry trees survived and thrived in the Embassy gardens, as did the ones around the Tidal Basin—except for four that were cut down in a suspected act of vandalism three days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. A gift to the city from Japan in 1912, they were now referred to as “Oriental” cherry trees and the Cherry Blossom Festival was suspended until 1947, the same year the celebration at the Embassy for the King’s birthday resumed.
It is hard to imagine there wasn’t a war garden for producing food somewhere in the Embassy grounds, although there is no record of it. Francis Flood, head of the British Embassy’s Food Lend-Lease program, urged members of the Garden Club of America at their annual meeting in May 1943 to follow English agricultural methods to increase production even under wartime conditions. Mount Vernon coped with a huge drop in attendance and a need to feed their employees by planting fruits, vegetables and grains in the old Kitchen Garden as well as in other areas of the estate. Prime Minister Winston Churchill, following what had become a tradition of visiting British dignitaries since the visit in 1860 of the Prince of Wales, toured the mansion and laid a wreath at George Washington’s tomb on 8 January 1942. He was accompanied by President Roosevelt and Ambassador Halifax. Despite initial Department of Agriculture disapproval, the President and Eleanor Roosevelt planted and promoted a victory garden at the White House in 1943. And at Dumbarton Oaks, Beatrix Farrand’s informal arboretum in the Kitchen Garden area became their victory garden.
On 13 June 1943, in what the Washington Post declared was “a colorful fete reminiscent of the garden party for King George and Queen Elizabeth,” the United Nations Club held their inaugural anniversary celebration in the Embassy gardens, the first time that an outside group was allowed to use the property. It was a relatively loose affair, as the 1,000 guests, greeted by Lord and Lady Halifax, were allowed to use the swimming pool and tennis court and to dance on the terrace.
Britain’s fate during the war depended heavily on the support of American public opinion and Ambassador Halifax successfully used the Embassy gardens to enhance Britain’s diplomatic goals. In the period before Pearl Harbor, the ambassador found himself being pelted with rotten eggs and vegetables in Detroit, but the America First attitude faded with the attack. The Dumbarton Oaks Conversations of 1944, which led to the formal charter of the United Nations, also had President Roosevelt and Lord Halifax negotiating over terms of the Lend-Lease policy and $4.4 billion in U.S. aid to Great Britain.
Like so many estates that survived the Great Depression, which marked the end of the country house era in America, the British Embassy gardens were developed only to aid the war effort. The Embassy, along with the rest of the city, was mobilized for fighting and surviving the war. The tone and use of the Ambassador’s Residence gardens had changed entirely.