The Embassy Gardens in Post-War Recovery

Garden part hosted by Lord Inverchapel, 12 June 1947 (Washingtoniana Division, MLK DC Public Library)

Garden party hosted by Lord Inverchapel, 12 June 1947 (Washingtoniana Division, MLK DC Public Library). View above shows the wonderful Lutyens slate-on-edge patterning of the portico terrace.

The Immediate Post-War Years

The monarch’s birthday celebration in the gardens of British Embassy, last held in 1938, was revived in June 1947. The ambassador who greeted guests entering through the wooden Lutyens garden gate was the unconventional, if not eccentric, Archibald Clark Kerr, 1st Baron Inverchapel. Wearing white linens, he presided over a more casual affair than those parties of the 1930s. Lord Inverchapel, who served a short appointment (1946–48), had two reported hobbies: pipes and gardening. The staff was startled when he personally plowed up a good amount of land behind the Embassy to plant a vegetable garden, perhaps the first one—a belated victory garden—at the Embassy, working there without much in the way of clothes. The Washington Post related this story:

A young American secretary once was sent to the British Embassy to deliver a note. While waiting for the answer, he saw a man, shirtless and in shorts, spading. “Working hard?” inquired the American. “Yes,” replied the digger. “I hope they pay you well,” remarked the young man, sympathetically. “Do they?” “Not enough,” said the gardener, who, of course, was his Britannic Majesty’s Ambassador (3 February 1946).

Garden party, 10 June 1949 Washington Star (Washingtoniana Division, MLK DC Public Library)

Garden party, 10 June 1949 Washington Star (Washingtoniana Division, MLK DC Public Library)

Inverchapel did not entertain much and had little use of the formalities of diplomatic life. It was reported that “most of  the time he wears casual Scottish tweeds. He revels in sunshine, and on warm days often may be found at work in a secluded garden corner, or a porch screened from view.” (Boston Globe, 11 May 1946). Quick-witted, Inverchapel had already been popular with Americans, even if, as the New York Times (23 June 1946) wrote, he was “more likely to be found working in the British Embassy gardens on a hot spring day, clad only in shorts, with his back exposed to the sun, than showing Washington’s ‘cave-dwellers,’ the old society set, around the grounds … [one may find him] with a spade in his hands, excavating for a row of radishes.”

A sign that the austerity of the war years was beginning to recede was a flattering profile of Lady Franks, in a Post article of 20 November 1949, entitled “Still magnificence pervades British Embassy—at times.” It begins: “The British Embassy is an edifice of authentic magnificence, its double-square staircase, black-polished floors and regal portraits belong to the prewar era of elegance. Formal gardens filled with tall roses flank a park-like lawn, and spring finds pink dogwood peeking in at the ballroom windows.”

Another Royal Visit

The ambassadorship of Oliver Franks (1948–52) occurred during the implementation of the Marshall Plan, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the Korean War. Ambassador Franks, perhaps more than any predecessor, aggressively recruited American politicians and journalists and the Embassy and its gardens were once again regularly featured in the society pages as invitations to events held there were highly sought after. Thus began a different period, when the gardens were evolving from the war years, and new stewards came into the scene. Although at times still very much a showcase, it seems as though the landscape, perhaps reflecting the change in American gardens in the 1950s, was used more for entertaining on a smaller scale, privacy, relaxing, and a place for children to play.

The return of glamor was heralded at the Washington Embassy by the November 1951 arrival of Princess Elizabeth and Philip, Duke of Edinburgh—in the words of the Chicago Daily Tribune, Washington’s “biggest social clambake since the visit of the British king and queen in 1939” (30 October). There was of course clamor for invitations to attend the Royal party, and subsequent hurt feelings, but to avoid the previous furor both houses of Congress (fortunately in recess, so not all attended) and those “representative of all phases of American life” were on the initial list. To accommodate the 2,000 guests, tents had to be rented from a firm in Philadelphia as no local business could provide what was needed. One was 102 x 50 feet (5100 square feet), the secondary tent 40 x 20. Two more for catering and one for a cloakroom, were also put up. But to show that they weren’t going overboard, the Minister of Works stated to the press that “embellishments” were being kept to a minimum: decorations were flowers from the gardens. The following June was another celebration for Elizabeth: the first birthday anniversary of the new Queen, after the mourning period for the late King.

More Royals and Henri Blanluet, Head Gardener

Ambassador Roger Makins (1953–56) initiated the building of the new Chancery, as well as the installation of air conditioning in the Residence. Parties returned on a grand scale (a garden party for 2,000 for the Queen Mother on 9 November 1954, with champagne replacing the tea) while charity stagings were continued from the war years as established Embassy events (the Salvation Army gave their Annual Spring Garden party on 8 May 1954). Makins’s wife, Alice Davis, was the daughter of Dwight F. Davis, former U.S. Secretary of War and donor of the Davis Cup for International Tennis, and tournaments were held on the Embassy’s court. The Christian Science Monitor began a 1956 article:

One of the most coveted of invitations in the nation’s capital is the engraved card which reads: “In celebration of the birthday of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, her Britannic Majesty’s Ambassador and Lady Makins request the pleasure of the company of … at a garden party on … from 5 to 7:30 o’clock …” (Josephine Ripley, “Come rain or come shine,” 7 June 1956).

A staff gardener at the British Embassy was featured in the press for the first time: Henri Blanluet (although his last name was not provided in the article): “’It’s a nice garden for Washington’: a Frenchman at the British Embassy.” Born in Orleans, Blanluet’s gardening background included working at Versailles, and after a stint in the French army he came to the American Field service. After employment on the estate of Col. Elisha F. Riggs (who was killed by Puerto Rican nationalists), Blanluet met Lady Lindsay at the National Capital Parks which he described to the reporter:

One day I was working in the rose garden. So Lady Lindsay came up and asked me some questions about roses. She noticed I had an accent. So we speak French. I tell her I’m only temporary at National Capital Parks. She said ‘why don’t you come to the Embassy?’ So that’s how I land here.

This was probably late 1938 or the following year, as Elizabeth Lindsay was preparing her departure from the Residence. In the article, Blanluet talked of an abundance of dogwood and irises from about twelve different states that had been donated by the American Iris Society. The gardener pointed out to the reporter a children’s garden (a flower bed with no vegetation) and two trees: “Crab apple,” he said. “They are brothers. I planted them at the same time, but one always blooms before the other.” And “we’ve got plenty of roses. Those are my favorites.” In 1954 he had been working at the Embassy for 15 years. “‘I’ve had six ambassadors so far,’ Henri said. “This is my sixth. And it’s very nice. They leave everything up to me.”

The White House Garden. Perry Wheeler on left with unidentified man. c. 1960s. Photographer unknown (Archives of American Gardens, Perry Wheeler Collection, Smithsonian Gardens)

The White House Rose Garden. Perry Wheeler on left with unidentified man. c. 1960s. Photographer unknown (Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Gardens, Perry Wheeler Collection)

Perry Wheeler at the British Embassy

Blanluet however was soon overshadowed with the end of the Makins’ ambassadorship and the beginning of Harold Caccia’s (1956-61) and by a consultant, the cultivated, Harvard-educated landscape architect, Perry Wheeler (1913–1989). A native of Georgia, he was known for his formal gardens with southern and classical accents that still managed to incorporate modernism and the more relaxed lifestyle of post-war America. At ease and adaptive with his society clients, he became a prominent designer in Washington, where he spent most of his career, from 1948 to 1979.

Wheeler’s reputation was established with low-maintenance gardens for the well-to-do in Georgetown, featuring evergreens, ornamental trees and ground covers. He came to have an office with well-known landscape architect Rose Greely and later Gertrude Sawyer. High-profile work included contributing to the White House Rose Garden, National Arboretum’s Asian Garden, Hillwood Estate, Cambodian Embassy, and National Cathedral Bishop’s Garden. He received an appointment to the Garden Advisory Committee at Dumbarton Oaks.

Following Wheeler’s death, the Archives of American Gardens of the Smithsonian Institution acquired his professional papers, including client correspondence, plant lists, business invoices, plans, and photographs that cover a period when he worked on the British Embassy. This collection reveals that Wheeler had a hand in the decorations, furniture and arrangements for parties at the Ambassador’s Residence. There is a drawing of a tented extension for a reception area from the Residence’s portico, dated 1954 (no doubt to replace the criticized “circus tent” previously used for large parties), and various letters and nursery and garden furniture bills from 1957 to 1961.

Lady Caccia was very much involved in the details of the garden work, receiving estimates, suggesting plantings, and critiquing work, sometimes strongly. Lady Lindsay’s original plantings in the gardens had become quite overgrown by then: yews were removed and other shrubs transplanted and pruned. Still in the gardens were dogwoods, apples, cherry (in the rose parterres), magnolias (at the foot of the Portico steps), as well as birch for shrubs: euonymus, hydrangeas, lilacs, mock orange, forsythia, azaleas. Along the lawn area bordering the backyard gardens of Whitehaven Street houses and Massachusetts Avenue were groups of Japanese maples, white birch, thirteen large oaks, magnolias, black locusts, and tulip, among other individual trees.

There was a plan for a brick wall (Wheeler was accomplished in such hardscaping) along the 200 feet of Massachusetts Avenue that had been acquired in 1930 in order to provide more privacy and protection for the gardens from the heavy traffic. At the beginning of 1960 that idea was abandoned in favor of a wrought-iron fence with plantings of tall evergreen trees and shrubs: these included magnolia grandiflora; English, Burford and American hollies; viburnum, aucuba, cherry laurel, blue spruce.

1957 aerial view of the embassy showing tents for Queen Elizabeth reception. In the upper right is the land soon to be remade for the new Chancery (Jules Schick photo)  (Washingtoniana Division, MLK DC Public Library)

1957 aerial view of the Embassy showing all the tents for the Queen Elizabeth reception. In the upper right is the land soon to be remade for the new Chancery. The Second World War temporary offices are still standing: at the top center, in the courtyard fronting Massachusetts Avenue and the extra floor on the old Chancery (Jules Schick photo; Washingtoniana Division, MLK DC Public Library)

Perry Wheeler and Lady Caccia worked to revitalize the country estate grounds of the Embassy, neglected with the demands of the war years, as maintenance is everything in a garden. But the landscape of the British Embassy was also changing in a more dramatic way to the immediate northwest, where all the remaining land fronting Massachusetts Avenue to Observatory Circle was finally acquired. Here ground was broken for the huge and never-popular (but much needed) Chancery offices, designed by Eric Bedford. Queen Elizabeth laid the foundation stone on 19 October 1957, using the gavel and trowel that George Washington employed for the U.S. Capitol building in 1793. For this occasion, there was another large Royal garden reception and then a state dinner the following night with President and Mrs. Eisenhower. Incredibly, in preparation, all the rose bushes were removed from the parterres for the erection of the huge tent (the one designed by Wheeler), with steel supports, the poles twined with magnolias, and blue carpeting. The head gardener, Blanleut, with his assistant Arthur Thomas, appear in a news wire photograph, uprooting his beloved roses.

 British Embassy prepares for Queen's party. Washington: British Embassey [sic] officials inspect the progress that has been made in the erection of the huge tent. United Press Photo (10/5/57) (Washingtoniana Division, MLK DC Public Library)

British Embassy prepares for Queen’s party. “Washington: British Embassey [sic] officials inspect the progress that has been made in the erection of the huge tent.” United Press Photo (10/5/57) (Washingtoniana Division, MLK DC Public Library)

Notes & Bibliography
Higgins, Adrian. Secret gardens of Georgetown: behind the walls of Washington’s most historic neighborhood. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1994.
Hopkins, Michael F., Saul Kelly and John W. Young, editors. The Washington Embassy: British ambassadors to the United States, 1939-77. London: Palgrave, Macmillan, 2009.
Lawrence, W. H. “Old master of the new diplomacy,” New York Times, 23 June 1946, p. SM8.
“Lord Inverchapel, new envoy from Britain, to arrive today.” Daily Boston Globe, 28 May 1946, p. 2. “The fact that he is a Scotsman explains his hobby, gardening.”  That is doubtful but he did have extensive rose beds, of which he was very fond of, in his home in Western Scotland.
McNair, Marie, “Party marks ‘birthday’ of King George,” The Washington Post, 13 June 1947. Robert and Mildred Bliss attended the party.
Nichol, David. Boston Globe, 11 May 1946, p. 11.
Perry Wheeler Collection. Archives of American Gardens, Smithsonian Institution.
Ruffin, Cordelia. “’It’s a nice garden for Washington’:  a Frenchman at the British Embassy,” Washington Daily News, 15 April 1954.
Tent for the Queen's Visit, UP photograph 10/8/57 (Washingtoniana Division, MLK DC Public Library)

Tent for the Queen’s Visit, UP photograph 10/8/57 (Washingtoniana Division, MLK DC Public Library)


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