The previous entry in this website surveyed the District’s Gilded Age landscape with its Beaux-Arts architecture existing on Massachusetts Avenue before the British Chancery and Ambassador’s Residence arrived in the neighborhood. This was to address misinformation about and the perplexing view that the architect, Sir Edwin Lutyens, designed the United Kingdom complex in rural land that remained remote for years. This post looks at what was being built nearby contemporaneously with the British Embassy.
The area was rich with architecture by prominent professionals, working for a wealthy clientele who were newly attracted to the capital for the power the city had recently come to represent and its relatively open society. Lutyens, with the constraints imposed on him, fitted his design to what already was established. The Residence even had the same orientation as an earlier, classically inspired mansion in the triangular “Square 2147”, the Embassy’s city block. Looking at what was before, what was during and what soon came after Lutyens work in Washington (1925-1930) reveals much in the story of the British Embassy; it is a fuller, more complete picture. As the cultural historian Mac Griswold has said: “The landscape doesn’t lie.”
Lutyens labored under a tight budget for the British Embassy and construction proceeded under the effects of the Depression. Land speculators and owners of homes nearby were not immune from the world-wide economic collapse, despite being somewhat insulated in a capital where the main industry is the government and filled with those who influence and profit from it. Although the area was already zoned for single, residential use and protected from the high-density office and apartment buildings that had engulfed Dupont Circle, the reverberations from the Stock Market crash of 1929 had the effect of further preserving the suburban, pastoral setting by slowing new construction. During the 1930s, the established architecture, created for the demands of the upper class, was just right for foreign governments to take over and turn into embassies and residences for their ambassadors. Other countries, as had the United Kingdom, created new “statement” embassies.
After what must have been long and careful negotiations given that the transaction remained quiet and out of the newspapers, Mary Roberts Rinehart completed the transfer of deeds on 17 November 1930 (not 1931 as recently reported elsewhere) of her investment of lots 38 and 39 to The Commissioners of His Majesty’s Works and Public Buildings. Both the Chancery and Residence had come to be occupied during that year, but the grounds were still in an unfinished state. Deeds to the property had been transferred from a dissolved corporation to Rinehart only two days prior. The deal added almost an acre fronting Massachusetts Avenue alongside the length of the Embassy garden, protecting the privacy of the Residence.
Had the land been acquired previously, filling out the odd-shaped lot, Lutyens’s plan for the British Embassy could of course have been quite different. The architect’s orientation of the Ambassador’s Residence would probably have been much the same, aligning with Pope’s McCormick House – with its (then presiding) view, taking in the sweep of the city from its high vantage as well as providing most of the grounds with a southern and eastern exposure. The mystery is why the extra land was not incorporated into the garden until a decade later although cleared and maintained to a lesser extent. Lady Lindsay likely planted oaks there that still stand.
Rinehart was a hugely successful mystery writer, according to her obituary in the New York Times, averaging a book a year over a forty-year period, and had homes in New York City (an antique-filled eighteen-room apartment on Park Avenue), Florida and Bar Harbor, Maine. Rinehart appears to have been careful with money but liked to spend it. Her first book was written and published in 1908 after a stock market downturn put her family of three sons and struggling physician husband in debt for $12,000. Their own home was south of the British Embassy at 2419 Massachusetts Avenue when Dr. Rinehart came to work for the Veterans Administration (he died in 1932). This mansion was first leased then sold to the Swiss for their Legation after the novelist moved to New York in 1935 (two of her sons established the New York publishing house, Rinehart & Company). Mary Roberts Rinehart was friends with not only Lady Lindsay but also the “onsite architect” for the British Embassy, Frederick H. Brooke, and his wife, which may have helped facilitate the transaction and keep it diplomatically quiet.
While the British Embassy complex was still in the planning stage, private homes began to fill in the surrounding landscape. Building permits (#1047 and 1048) for 19 and 27 Observatory Circle by F.H. Brooke, Architect, and Wardman Construction Company, Owner, were applied for on 19 July 1926. From the appearance of these originally private homes, it looks like a crescent facing the Observatory complex was envisioned before Wardman suffered catastrophic losses with the stock market crash (he was forced to move out of Number 19). Number 27 became the first New Zealand legation in Washington in 1941. In 1927, the busy Brooke was also designing a home for Mrs. Sherman Flint (permit #4380, 5 November 1926) at 3041 Whitehaven (formerly W) Street; presently the Polish Ambassador’s residence.
The mansion next to the Flint house (both once owned by art collector and philanthropist Paul Mellon) was by the architect Nathan C. Wyeth, who had studied in Paris for ten years before joining the Washington office of Carrère and Hastings. He became known for his wealthy clientele and for the addition of the West Wing at the White House. The stately home at 3055 Whitehaven Street—in place by the time of the opening of the British Embassy in 1930—is part of the group of houses that have gardens bordering the Embassy’s own. Wyeth at this time was working with the similarly socially prominent Brooke on the District’s memorial to the fallen of the Great War.
Another mystery is the house at 3012 Massachusetts Avenue, bordering south and east of the British Embassy grounds and right next to the Rinehart property. Little has been written about the huge Spanish Colonial-inspired mansion, now the Embassy of Bolivia. It was owned by James J. Davis, Republican Senator from Pennsylvania who had previously served as Secretary of Labor. According to contemporary newspaper stories and property assessments, it was designed by Clarence F. Busch and constructed by 1924 (a year before Lutyens first visited the area) for Senator James Couzens, who never actually lived there. There is an artist of that name (1887-1946), known for his paintings of nudes, ballet dancers and portraits, who may or may not be the architect here. From society reports, there was extensive landscaping, with a large rose garden that served, as with the British Embassy, as the venue for parties and charity events. In 1942, Davis, then a widower, sold his sixteen-room home to the country of Bolivia.
Continuing the trend of United States envoys settling in retirement in the neighborhood, begun by Robert McCormick in 1907, was Alanson B. Houghton, former Ambassador to the Court of St. James (1925-1929). He was already friends with Sir Ronald Lindsay and his wife from his time in London before the couple settled in as first residents of Lutyens’s embassy. The Houghton House, 3003 Massachusetts Avenue, was also designed by Frederick Brooke, another neo-Georgian structure but built with old bricks taken from the eighteenth-century Clouds Mill, in Alexandria, Virginia. The home was the Iranian Ambassador’s Residence and technically still belongs to that country; by international protocol it is maintained by the State Department but sits unoccupied, a ghost from decidedly different times of lavish parties.
The Houghton gardens were created in 1934 by the landscape architect, Rose Greely, one of the few professionals working in the area I have been able to identify thus far. Accomplished in many different ways, Greely graduated from the Cambridge School for Domestic Architecture and Landscape Architecture for Women in 1920. This program in Massachusetts began granting certificates in formal training 1916-17, and later (in 1934) became the Smith College Graduate School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture. This is not where Elizabeth Hoyt (later, Lady Lindsay and the British Embassy’s gardener) studied (nor did she at Radcliffe College, as has also erroneously been written). After employment with Fletcher Steele in Boston, Greely returned to her native Washington where she had an exceptionally long and productive gardening career.
Next to the Houghton House and closer to the British Embassy was a residence designed by John J. Whelan in 1936 for the South Africa Legation. It echoes the 18th-century architecture of the Cape of Good Hope but in limestone rather than whitewashed plaster. Whelan had also created for Norway’s legation, in 1930 to 1931, a building of ornamental limestone of English Georgian inspiration. It is further up Massachusetts Avenue, across from what is now the United States Vice-President’s House at the Naval Observatory.
Between South Africa’s and Norway’s current embassies is an appropriate Italian Renaissance palazzo, the Apostolic Nunciature of the Holy See, at 3339 Massachusetts Avenue, constructed in 1938-1939 (the lot had been purchased in 1931 although the Vatican was officially recognized with diplomatic status by the U.S. Government only in 1983). The architect was also an American, Frederick Vernon Murphy, founder and head of the architecture department at Washington’s Catholic University. In the formal, terraced Italian gardens is a marble replica of the Pigna Fountain, from the Vatican Museum in Rome.
The prominent firm of Delano & Aldrich planned the Japanese Embassy at 2520 Massachusetts Avenue (the Georgian Revival design rumored to have been approved personally by Emperor Hirohito), which opened in September 1930. William A. Delano was the New York architect in whose office the Fine Arts Commission of the District met in to approve the British Embassy project. Here there are definite references to Lutyens’s embassy: imposing residence, combined with chancery, courtyard with parterre, recreational elements, landscaping complementing the setting on Rock Creek Park. But the Japanese Embassy can be seen as marking the end of an era: grand, purpose-built, statement embassies were to be revived in later decades, but the Great Depression followed by another world war slowed that trend for some time. However, Washington’s “Embassy Row” with its diplomatic missions clustered on and around “aristocratic” Massachusetts Avenue from Dupont Circle to near the National Cathedral, was now firmly in place. To believe that this part of Washington remained wild and remote in 1939 is confounding. The landscape does not lie if one at least looks.