Within the intersecting circles of the story of the British Embassy, Henry Adams is the center point in its early history. His beloved home across from the White House brings together several elements of this Landscape of a Washington Place: the Embassy’s first landscape gardener (Elizabeth Sherman Hoyt, later Lady Lindsay); Beatrix Jones (later Farrand and designer of Dumbarton Oaks); the diplomatic corps; the development of the Woodland-Normanstone neighborhood; and the construction magnate Harry Wardman. Before coming to live in the British Ambassador’s Residence, Hoyt stayed in Adam’s home when in Washington, and it is here that she may have first met the man who was to become her husband, career British diplomat Ronald Lindsay, a frequent visitor.
The capital, provincial in its infrastructure at the time, was actually a thriving intellectual center. The city attracted and provided an escape for Adams (1838-1918), then a Harvard professor, and his intelligent wife, Marian Hooper (“Clover”) from a more stifled existence in Cambridge and with his severe Boston Brahmin family. He may have been expecting a prestigious government appointment that never came: the grandson and great grandson of presidents, Adams was no stranger to Washington’s political world. Before his marriage he worked as a secretary to his father while he was in Congress, and later as a journalist. In 1877, upon his return from Massachusetts, he worked as editor of the papers of Thomas Jefferson’s treasury secretary, Albert Gallatin, later published novels anonymously and penned his great autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams (privately printed in 1907, then posthumously in September 1918). His home on Lafayette Square was the salon in the city, where diplomatic representatives, including British Ambassador Lord Bryce, frequently gathered.
When Henry and Clover Adams first arrived in Washington, they rented a home from banker, art collector and philanthropist William Wilson Corcoran, “The Yellow House,” at 1501 H Street, a block from what was then known as President’s Square. After a long European stay, they moved to another Corcoran property in 1880, a larger residence at 1607 H Street with a garden and stables, their “White House.” Then in 1883 they heard their landlord had sold the empty lot to their east to builder Fred Paine, who planned to put up an apartment house. Partnering with a friend, they were able to buy out the developer and finally plan a residence of their own.
Adams and John Hay (1838-1905), Lincoln’s personal secretary and Secretary of State in two administrations, came to be inseparable both in their living space, friendships and society. Adams commissioned his old friend and Harvard classmate, Henry Hobson Richardson, to design adjoining houses with a continuous façade of massive walls on Lafayette Square, at right angles at Sixteenth and H Streets, in 1884.
Clover, succumbing to familial mental illnesses, committed suicide in December 1885, never occupying 1603 H Street. But before slipping into depression from her father’s death, she had expressed eagerness to him about the architectural project: “We shall build a square brick box.” She approved of Richardson’s Romanesque Revival design, deeming it “Neo-Agnostic.” But Clover had apparently instructed the architect to add between the two arches of the forty-four-foot front a carved Assyrian winged lion backed by a cross, a decoration Henry Adams detested but never had removed.
Hay, later United States Ambassador to the Court of St. James, occupied the larger and more opulent of the two red-brick homes, accented with Ohio sandstone. Although Hay put up more than two-thirds of the purchase price, he got just slightly more than half of the lot, with the corner and entrance facing St. John’s Church. Adams would later joust Hay in company: “he persuaded me to go into this housebuilding enterprise and then so conspired with the architect that my front door should be given the appearance of being his back door.” Clover, an accomplished photographer, took pictures of the unfinished work with the intention of sending Hay the record.
Elizabeth Sherman Hoyt Lindsay’s aunt, the beautiful Elizabeth Sherman Cameron, married unhappily to James Donald Cameron, Senator from Pennsylvania and Secretary of War under President Ulysses S. Grant, lived for a time on the east side of the Square, at 21 (now known as Madison Place), in the old Benjamin Ogle Tayloe house. Cameron returned to Pennsylvania in 1896 while his wife roamed the world, staying occasionally at Lafayette Square or at a rented house on 19th Street. The Ogle-Tayloe-Cameron house was leased until 1917 by the Cosmos Club (Adams was a founding member).
The Cameron’s only child was Martha, who married British diplomat Ronald Lindsay in 1909. There is thirty-seven years of correspondence between Elizabeth Cameron (“Lizzie”) and Henry Adams which provides glimpses of Hoyt’s activities and work, along with important figures in her life such as Dumbarton Oaks’ Robert Woods and Mildred Bliss, Henry James, Edith Wharton and her niece Beatrix Jones. Whatever the nature of the relationship between Adams and Lizzie, it scandalized the prim Bostonian Adamses who opposed her visiting Henry in 1912 as he recuperated from a stroke at his brother’s estate in South Lincoln, Massachusetts. She came anyway, rushing over from Europe.
Adam’s home was Elizabeth Hoyt’s first residence when in Washington during her relatively brief landscaping and Red Cross careers, before she married Sir Ronald and became Lady Lindsay. Adams’s letters mention Hoyt and Beatrix Jones, visiting, talking of gardening work (11 April 1912 and 10 March 1913). Later, when Hoyt was a Red Cross executive, also staying at 1603 H Street was her close friend Aileen Tone, a secretary-companion to Adams. These “adopted nieces” were accompanied by an actual relative, niece Elsie Adams.
Elizabeth Hoyt spent the evening of 26 March 1918 reading Adams the war news. He had been worried about the fate of Cameron and her ailing daughter Martha in England. It is usually recorded that Adams died in his sleep that night. But Hoyt’s letter of 28 March reports that they had heard him moving about the day [March 27] before to get dressed for his regular morning walk but likely returned to bed, feeling ill. Aileen Tone checked on him and found him unconscious but it was Hoyt who determined he was “dead as a matter of fact.”
That day, as related by Hoyt, Aileen, looking for funeral instructions, found in his desk a sign made for Martha Cameron thirty years prior as well the vial of the photographic chemical potassium cyanide that Clover took to end her life. Hoyt also wrote of sitting with the body, reading Adams’s letters. One, written a month after Clover’s death: “’The world may come and the world may go but no power yet known on earth or in heaven can annihilate the happiness that is past.’ There’s something very, very comforting in that, darling, especially when one has a chance to build up a new happiness—on the old.”
Adams’s coffin was placed in the library (as well as the dining room, the principal rooms of the home) surrounded by vases of lilac and forsythia, where the service was performed by the rector of St. John’s. Only a few attended—some of his family, the “nieces,” Alice Roosevelt, and the French ambassador Jules Jusserand. Adams was buried beside Clover in Rock Creek Cemetery, under Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s sculpture. The architectural setting was by Stanford White; earlier, Jones had helped with its landscaping which had been a problem for years. The rector of the cemetery’s church hated the monument—“the unchristian abomination”—and attempted to obscure it with plantings while the artist and architect wanted nothing near its steps in order not to spoil the approach.
Elizabeth Hoyt was in Washington a month later when she received the cable that her cousin Martha had died. To be nearer her despairing aunt, Hoyt got a reassignment in Paris with her employer, the American Red Cross, whose headquarters were located a couple of blocks away. Aileen Tone also went to work for the relief organization and, fluent in French, acted as Hoyt’s receptionist and secretary in Paris.
The current near-neighbor of the Lutyens-designed structure on Massachusetts Avenue, the Embassy of Brazil, came to occupy Adams’s house before being forced to move by none other than Harry Wardman, the builder of the British Embassy. Hay, born in the same year as Adams, died much earlier, having never recovered, as he wrote in 1904 to Elizabeth Cameron, from his son’s death: “the death of our boy made my wife and me old.” After Clara Hay passed away in 1914, the home was occupied by their daughter Alice and her husband Senator James Wadsworth, who also purchased Adams’s house, leasing it to the Brazilian Government. Mrs. Hay Wadsworth lived there until May 1925.
After a deal with the Republican Club to convert the homes into a club fell through, Wardman swooped in and demolished the homes in 1927 just before the building of the British Embassy was about to get underway. Mrs. Hay Wadsworth had approval over how the razing was carried out (and, presumably, the name of the hotel that took its place: the Hay-Adams), saving some of the architectural elements. The designer of the hotel was Wardman’s chief architect, Mihran Mesrobian, who employed the Richardsonian rustication of the joined homes bases, a reflection of what once was and an evocation of Italian palazzos. As announced in the press, the “apartment hotel” of 200 rooms on eight floors was to have “a Hay memorial room, arranged as a lounge.” This destruction of the Adams and Hay homes and other historic residences in and around Lafayette Square met with protests, including by the American Institute of Architects. This argument lasted into the Kennedy Administration.
Remnants of the Romanesque Revival architecture of Richardson, as fate would have it, reappear in private houses near to the United Kingdom’s complex on Massachusetts Avenue. The intricate foliate carvings are seen today in two homes in one of the most desirable areas in the city at the turn of the 20th century, the Woodland-Normanstone neighborhood. At 2618 31st Street is the Dr. W. Calhoun Sterling House of 1927, designed by Horace Peaslee (attributed to architect Arthur B. Heaton in some sources). The deep entrance arch of the Adams home was reworked for the garage there while the original kitchen window frame now surrounds the main door. The Hay entrance with a sandstone lintel supported by half columns with capitals is found at 3014 Woodland Drive, built in 1928 as another suburban-style home. Peaslee was to later work with the similarly preservation-minded Frederick Brooke, on-site architect of the British Embassy, on the District War Memorial on the National Mall.
Other salvaged pieces were dispersed, with probably no overall record of their fates. Two stain glass windows from the Hay home were preserved, created by yet another old friend of Adams’s, the painter John La Farge. One is now in the Smithsonian American Art Museum and another in the Museum Stuck-Villa in Munich. Some of the wood paneling was used in the hotel as well as in a Wadsworth family home, Hartford House, in Genesee, New York. The iron grill work, augmented with replicas, was used for The Hay-Adams Hotel’s entrance.
When Elizabeth Hoyt returned to Washington, it was as Lady Lindsay, having married Sir Ronald in 1924. One can’t help but wonder if she, staying first with the Bayard Cuttings on 30th Street (around the corner from the Embassy), then at the Mayflower Hotel (not a Wardman hotel) and finally moving into the unfinished Lutyens-designed Ambassador Residence, was startled to see pieces from the home of her mentor in life, where so many significant events in her own life transpired, as she was about the area. With her keen eye and study of architecture, Lindsay no doubt would have recognized immediately the structural elements.
Notes and Bibliography
The Parish House of St. John’s Church, 1525 H Street, was built in 1836 and housed the British Legation for a time.
Front page news of Washington Post of 26 August 1930 was that “Wardman releases helm of properties valued at $30,000,000.” His holdings were turned over to the Hotels Management and Security Corporation. The Post reported: “In the last decade he constructed a number of hotels, including the Wardman Park Hotel, the Carlton and the Hay-Adams House. His final large job was the British Embassy, only recently completed. He made particular efforts to get the contract, inasmuch as he was a native of Great Britain.”
“Adams’s brilliant salon now but a memory,” The New York Times, 1 February 1925, p. SM10.
The Commission of Fine Arts. Sixteenth street architecture. Vol. 2. Prepared by Sue A. Kohler & Jeffrey R. Carson. Washington, D.C., 1978.
Friedrich, Otto. Clover. New York, 1979.
Goode, James M. Capital losses: a cultural history of Washington’s destroyed buildings. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1979.
Keck, Andrew S. “’Uncle Henry’s mind’: Henry Adams and the ‘Bronze Figure,” Records of the Columbia Historical Society, v. 52, 1989, p. 183-205.
Krinsley, Daniel B. “An unexpected rendezvous at the Cosmos Club on Lafayette Square [link here].
O’Toole, Patricia. The five of hears: an intimate portrait of Henry Adams and his friends 1880-1918. New York, 1990.
Scott, Pamela and Antoinette J. Lee. Buildings of the District of Columbia. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
Scott, Pamela. Residential architecture of Washington, D.C., and its suburbs [link].
“Skyscraper plans mar White House,” The New York Times, 6 February 1927, p. 25.
Tehan, Arline Boucher. Henry Adams in love: the pursuit of Elizabeth Sherman Cameron. New York, 1983.
Winner, Viola Hopkins. Henry Adams and Lafayette Square 1877-1885. VQR Online, Summer 1986.
“You too can sleep like a President, at the Hay Adams hotel. Thetenmilessquare.blogspot [link].