The Second World War as Seen in the Embassy Landscape

Esso pictorial guide to Washington, D.C. and Vicinity: 1942 (Map Division, Library of Congress)

Esso pictorial guide to Washington, D.C. and Vicinity: 1942 (Map Division, Library of Congress). An excellent example of a map conveying much more than simple geographical location.

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).

"British Ambassador dons full regalia for Diplomatic reception at White House", 14 December 1939 (Harris & Ewing photograph, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress)

“British Ambassador dons full regalia for Diplomatic reception at White House”, 14 December 1939 (Harris & Ewing photograph, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress)

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).

"The uniforms are different but the cause is the same. Officers of the United Nations attend a garden party of the United Nations Club at Dumbarton Oak, Sunday, September 6th, 1942." In the middle is the British Embassy Military Attache (Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress)

“The uniforms are different but the cause is the same. Officers attend a garden party of the United Nations Club at Dumbarton Oak, Sunday, September 6th, 1942” (Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress)

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.

British Embassy gardens, 21 September 1941 (Washingtoniana Division, MLK Public Library)

British Embassy garden party, 21 September 1941 (Washingtoniana Division, MLK, DC Public Library)

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.

Cherry trees around the Tidal Basin, ca. 1945 (photo by Theodor Horydczak; Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress)

Cherry trees around the Tidal Basin with the Lincoln Memorial in the background, ca. 1945 (photo by Theodor Horydczak; Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress)

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.

U.S. Vice President Henry A. Wallace in his victory garden, August 1942 (John Vachon; Prints & Photographs Division, Library of CongressO

U.S. Vice President Henry A. Wallace working in his victory garden, August 1942 (John Vachon; Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress)

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.

British Embassy, ca. 1945 (Theodor Horydczak; Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress)

British Embassy, ca. 1945, the “tempo” filling in most of the courtyard of the Chancery and with an additional floor towards the back. Lothian’s landscaping is shown towards the left of the Chancery (Theodor Horydczak; Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress)

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.

Garden party of the New Zealand Legation (in the Brooke Wardman house on Observatory Circle. Lord Halifax is in the background, along with the Embassy, Spring 1942 (photo by Marjory Collins; Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress)

Garden party of the New Zealand Legation (in the old Brooke Wardman house on Observatory Circle). Lord Halifax is in the background, along with the Embassy, Spring 1942 (photo by Marjory Collins; Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress)

Notes
Video. District of Columbia, 1945. An educational film by Carl Dudley explaining Washington, D.C. to a general audience, includes an appearance of the British Embassy. By permission of Patrick Montgomery.
The Daily Boston Globe (13 December 1940), did a laudatory piece the day after Lord Lothian passed away entitled, “Lothian popular here as Ambassador of Britain:”
Lord Lothian, an affable bachelor and a former news writer and editor, immediately established intimate and cordial press relations … since Lord Lothian assumed the critical post at Washington and a job that admittedly meant the life or death of the British Empire, have proven increasingly the wisdom of the British Cabinet’s choice. Informal in manner, unpretentious, a bachelor who enlivened the sedate Embassy on Massachusetts av. With small dinner parties rather than perfunctory receptions, he won even anti-British Senators and Congressmen to a new view of British aims and methods.
The Ambassador was cremated but his ashes were interred in a mausoleum at Arlington Cemetery, the Maine Mast Memorial, during the war. His remains were was taken back to England in December 1945 by the U.S. Navy.
Model for Bundles for Britain Pin by Malvina Hoffman (photography by Peter A. Juley & Son, 1948, Smithsonian American Art Museum)

Model for Bundles for Britain pin by Malvina Hoffman (photography by Peter A. Juley & Son, 1948, Smithsonian American Art Museum)

“Bundles for Britain” has a fascinating history as related in the New York Times obituary of the founder. As an already twice-divorced Upper East Side debutante, at the age of 30, Natalie Latham decided to remake her life and created the organization, based on Park Avenue, in January 1940. It was such a success—“one of the 20th century’s most inspired relief efforts”—it rapidly grew from a few of her social circle sending over knitted garments for British sailors to encompassing 1.5 million volunteers across the United States shipping over everything from cots to ambulances to England—essentially everything that could be used by the military and civilians alike, except munitions. Latham became the first non-British woman to be awarded an honorary Commander of the British Empire. “Lady Malcolm Douglas-Hamilton, American who aided Britain in war, dies at 103,” The New York Times (2 February 2013). She stood by Ambassador Lothian to greet guests at the British Embassy event in 1940, which also served to open the Washington chapter of “Bundles” and was the subject of a New Yorker profile by Geoffrey T. Hellman (19 April 1941), p. 21-26. Lady Lindsay was guest of honor at the “Bundles” benefit of Garden Week Tours in Virginia, during which Ambassador and Lady Halifax were guests at Mirador, the American home of Lady Astor near Charlottesville.
Bertram, Mark. Room for diplomacy. Reading: Spire Books, 2011, p. p. 231-3, on the “Second world war and aftermath 1940-1950.”
War-time"tempo" for the Chancery: the door to the courtyard extension (Theodor Horydczak, ca. 1940; Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress)

Wartime”tempo” for the Chancery: the door to the courtyard infill (Theodor Horydczak, ca. 1940; Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress)

Callender, Harold. “Envoy extraordinary,” The New York Times (26 January 19410), p. SM10.
Aerial view of National Mall showing temporary World War II buildings (beyond the Natural History Museum), ca. 1958 (Smithsonian Institution Archives)

Aerial view of National Mall showing temporary World War II buildings (beyond the Natural History Museum, where the American History Museum now stands, and on the grounds of the Washington Monument), ca. 1958 (Smithsonian Institution Archives)

Goode, James M. Capital views: historic photographs of Washington, D.C., Alexandria and Loudoun County, Virginia, and Frederick County, Maryland. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books, 2012.
Gordon, Evelyn Peyton. “British property here has been extended to fabulous proportions,” Washington Daily News, 24 December 1940. The last home of builder of the Embassy, Harry Wardman, was leased by his widow for “Offices for British press releases.”
Harmon, Dudley. “5,000 jam British Embassy, open to public for first time at ‘Bundles for Britain’ tea,” The Washington Post (10 June 1940), p. 7.
Edward Frederick Lindley Wood, Lord Halifax, portrait by Boris Chaliapin (National Portrait Gallery Collection)

Edward Frederick Lindley Wood, Lord Halifax, portrait by Boris Chaliapin (National Portrait Gallery Collection, Smithsonian Institution)

Huston, Luther. “Englishman who talks American:  Lord Halifax, in his sweeps around the land, exchanges ideas with many people,” New York Times (20 August 1944), p. SM18. “He has traveled more in the United States than any other British Ambassador except Lord Bryce, who visited every State but two. Lord Bryce was here for six years; Lord Halifax has been here only three years and a half.”
Lombard, Helen, “Duke of Windsor in place of Halifax,” Daily Boston Globe (7 October 1943), p. 18.
“Mount Vernon during World War II.”
“U.S. urged to copy England on food: we are not equaling Allies’ per capita output, says Embassy Official,” New York Times (7 May 1943), p. 16.
Cherry Blossom Festival, May 1941 (Martha McMillan Roberts; Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress)

Cherry Blossom Festival, May 1941 (Martha McMillan Roberts; Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress)

 Cherry trees around the Tidal Basin, with the Jefferson Memorial, ca. 1945 (photo by Theodor Horydczak; Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress)

Cherry trees around the Tidal Basin, with the Jefferson Memorial, ca. 1945 (photo by Theodor Horydczak; Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress)

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