What became the tumultuous decade of the 1960s at the Washington Embassy began with landscape gardener Perry Wheeler and Lady Caccia working to revitalize the gardens while enclosing them for additional privacy and protection. At the start of 1960, plantings (magnolias, hollies, viburnum, aucuba, cherry laurel, blue spruce) were put in to provide a dense screen and nature barrier along the new wrought-iron fence on the street-side of the garden and other parts of the landscape.
The suburbs of the District of Columbia continued to spread from the wartime boom years, aided by the security and growth of federal jobs during the period. Massachusetts Avenue became more and more of a commuting route for those workers living in the northwest part of the city and towns in Maryland. “White flight” to the suburbs was already well underway in the early 1960s, but residents of all races moving from the capital was accelerated by the 1968 riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., which devastated parts of poorer, inner Washington. This, of course, is in the context of the threats to the security of embassies and other government buildings from the Cold and Vietnam Wars. The capital was becoming the locus of political protests, both large and small, and the British Embassy was not an island apart; lines for one cause or the other were now at their gates. With its new International Style Chancery, first in use in September 1960 but completed in 1962, the Embassy complex was now a secure compound.
With traffic and world events, the Lutyens buildings could not fully escape a fate similar to the old British Embassy below Dupont Circle, encroached upon by the federal city’s growth and commercial development north- and west-ward in the early 20th century. But because of the nature of the wealthy, residential area and the capital’s McMillan Plan and other restrictions, there was protection from overbuilding around Embassy property just as the builder Harry Wardman foresaw. Indeed, in 1965, New Zealand had to seek a special permit to build a chancery on Observatory Circle, by Dumbarton Oaks Park, zoned for single-family structures, as they needed new quarters from the old Wardman-Brooke home adjoining the United Kingdom compound. The British, along with the nearby Bolivian and Brazilian Embassies, supported an exemption for New Zealand to the bill that restricted expansion of foreign missions in low-density neighborhoods.
Following Caccia, Ambassador David Ormsby-Gore (1961-65; later, in 1964, Lord Harlech) was very close to U.S. President John F. Kennedy, a friendship dating from the time his father Joseph Kennedy was Ambassador to the Court of St. James’s (1938-40). He was considered an unofficial member of the Cabinet and, along with his wife, part of the clan, almost weekly visitors to Cape Cod, the Virginia countryside, Camp David, and Palm Beach. Ormsby-Gore was given back-door access to the White House and the Embassy was part of the glamorous Camelot years. But the time of unannounced, intimate dinners at the Embassy with the president did not last long. The Ambassador was alone in the Residence when he was given word that the President had been shot. He met the plane when Air Force One returned to Washington from Dallas.
Lady Ormsby Gore was profiled in a New York Times, which reported that “She loves to garden and undoubtedly will lend a hand with the embassy shrubs and flowers” (15 November 1961), even though there is not much evidence that she did. It was during the Ormsby-Gore tenure, from 1964, that the Office of Works finally provided government funding for the grounds and gardens of foreign missions. Greenhouses, long sought, were built along the original Lutyens wall, by the southeast side of the old Chancery. Cutting and herb gardens appeared. A head horticulturist, John Raymond Harrison, was appointed.
It was the ambassador following Ormsby-Gore, who, other than Lady Lindsay (the founding Embassy gardener) was most personally interested in horticulture. Thus began the period of more personal preferences of the occupants of the Ambassador’s Residence influencing and altering the landscape.
The 35th Ambassador, Sir Patrick Dean (1965–69), began virtually every day while in residence working in the gardens. Following a 6:30 a.m. swim in the pool, he would put in physical work before official duties prevailed. He and his son were known to move trees to improve views in the gardens. For one interview with the Washington Post (10 December 1967), he greeted the reporter with a book of trees in his hands. In this article, which mentions beech, white birch, cherry, magnolias, and ginkgoes, it was stated that “The Ambassador has an interesting tree replacement practice. Whenever a tree dies or is taken down, it is cut up into fireplace wood. The wood is sold and the money used to buy another tree.” The Ambassador proudly pointed out about fifty species of trees, carefully placed to make the park-like setting larger than it seemed. But Dean was particularly fond of roses, and filled in more in the garden wherever he could find space. Barbara Hepworth’s bronze sculpture, Single Form (Eikon) (1937-8, cast in 1963) also landed in the Embassy gardens at this time.
The 1960s began a period of commemorative tree plantings in the gardens, mostly in an area of the south-eastern lawn now known as Memorial Grove. Princess Margaret dug a spade-full of dirt for a copper beech (Fagus sylvatica ‘Asplenifolia’) during her visit on 18 November 1965. During this trip, she dedicated a park just up Massachusetts Avenue in honor of the early 20th-century ambassador, James Bryce. In October 1967, Princess Alexandra planted a sour gum tree (Oxydendrum arboreum), on the side lawn, near the beech. During her stay at the Ambassador’s Residence, the Princess requested an opportunity to watch the staff gardeners cut the lawn with their American-made power mowers.
On 9 April 1966, the bronze statue of Winston Churchill, by William M. McVey of Cleveland, was presented by the English-Speaking Union in honor of his Anglo-American heritage on the third anniversary of his honorary U.S. citizenship. The striding figure stands on both the Embassy grounds and the right-of-way on Massachusetts Avenue, an accessible, public focal point as the Embassy complex became more sealed off with vegetation and closed gates. News photographs of the sculpture’s dedication show forsythia and magnolia blooming behind the wrought-iron garden fence. There is soil beneath the statue from his birthplace at Blenheim Palace, the rose garden of his home at Chartwell and from the Brooklyn New York birthplace of his mother, Jennie Jerome.
Over the years, the gardens came to be a repository, if a crowded one, for commemorations other than trees and statues, and consequently played a growing ceremonial role at the Embassy. From the ‘Hon. Lady Lindsay’ to the ‘Diana, Princess of Wales,’ roses with associations have been planted in this most significant of gardens. There, Sir Dean placed the John F. Kennedy rose in 1965.
Notes & Bibliography
“British Embassy staff, who had to be able to contact the Ambassador in any emergency, calculated that, excluding the President’s overseas trips, there were only three or four weekends when the Ormsby Gores were not with the Kennedys.” Hopkins, Michael F., Saul Kelly and John W. Young, editors. The Washington Embassy: British Ambassadors to the United States, 1939-77 (London: Palgrave, 2009), p. 134.
The Ormsby-Gores hosted a party for the Beatles following their first concert in the United States, at the Washington Coliseum. That event at the Embassy bordered on disastrous.
A profile of Sir Patrick Dean reported that:
The British Ambassador, a gifted amateur horticulturist who had acres of roses blooming for the embassy’s annual garden party last week, won’t get involved in a thorny issue of internal U.S. politics. In one plot he is growing a magnificent specimen of scarlet rose named “The Mark Hatfield.” It was given to him by the Senator from Oregon for whom the rose was named. Hatfield is a Republican. The fact caused one woman guest to sniff in mild disapproval. To demonstrate his complete political impartiality, Sir Patrick pointed out that he has Democratic roses growing in the next bed. Those are named for JFK (The Washington Post, 11 June 1967).
Curtis, Charlotte. “British diplomat’s wife is kept busy,” The New York Times, 15 November 1961.
McCardle, Dorothy. “A little ‘made in USA’ roared in,” The Washington Post, 13 October 1967.
Morris, John D. “Capital unveils Churchill statue, on soil of 2 lands,” The New York Times (10 April 1966), p. 1.
Stevenson, Tom. “In an embassy garden,” The Washington Post, 10 December 1967.
The JFK rose bred by Eugene S. “Gene” Boerner (United States, 1965) and introduced in United States by Jackson & Perkins Co. as ‘John F. Kennedy’.