When architect Sir Edwin Landseer Lutyens designed the British Embassy in Washington, he could see the Washington Monument from its site on a then-rural stretch of Massachusetts Avenue. Eighty-five years later, the neighborhood has changed but Lutyens’s residence remains an elegant architectural gem that has witnessed a fair share of history since its completion in 1930.
The home is set on four acres with a narrow street presence expanding into wider gardens. As a symbol of the relationship between the U.S. and Britain, Lutyens married elements of a Queen Anne country house with those of the Williamsburg vernacular. The building originally housed both the residence and embassy, which was located in a U-shaped wing facing the street. However, growing pains forced the embassy to move to its current, less elegant quarters in 1960, built on additional land the U.K. had purchased next door.
Over the years, the residence has welcomed a steady stream of luminaries, from presidents, prime ministers and royalty to movie stars and rock legends. There have been solemn wartime tête-à-têtes, lavish state dinners and garden parties literally fit for a queen. The Beatles stopped in after their first U.S. gig at the Washington Coliseum and, recently, the home was abuzz with heartthrobs of another kind: the cast of “Downton Abbey.”
Every year, 12,000 guests visit the residence, where they may find a great hall with a checkered marble floor, a ballroom displaying Andy Warhol’s portrait of Queen Elizabeth and manicured English gardens inspired by the work of Gertrude Jekyll, a close friend of Lutyens. The residence itself was cause for celebration earlier this year when today’s Ambassador Sir Peter Westmacott and his wife, Lady Westmacott, held receptions to mark the publication of The Architecture of Diplomacy: The British Ambassador’s Residence in Washington. Written by historian Anthony Seldon and Daniel Collings with photographs by Eric Sander, the book offers a fascinating history of the home and an in-depth look at how Lutyens’s plan took shape. Lady Westmacott, who noticed a dearth of material written about the residence upon their arrival in 2012, spearheaded the project.
When they are not entertaining, Lady Westmacott spends time in the sunny drawing room while the Ambassador enjoys quiet moments in his paneled library.
“It’s fun when we have family and grandchildren running around here, but you don’t live in a house like this—or you shouldn’t—if you don’t get pleasure from sharing it with other people,” the Ambassador says during an interview on the terrace. “This house earns its keep by doing a lot of things for the United Kingdom’s interests and to promote relations between Britain and the United States.”
He found one particular encounter in the residence most rewarding. “When the new president of France first met the British prime minister, they were in the drawing room in this house,” recalls Westmacott, who was formerly Britain’s ambassador to France. “The beginning of a new relationship—not between the U.S. and Great Britain but between Britain and France—took place here.”
No doubt, Lutyens would approve of the myriad ways in which the house is used today. “To design something 85 years ago for a pre-electronic age, where the beauty and elegance and sense of proportion still enchant us today is, I think, a supreme achievement,” concludes author Anthony Seldon. “To me, this is simply the greatest ambassadorial residence of any country in any capital. It just works to perfection.”
Photographer Eric Sander is based in Paris. All images copyright of The Architecture of Diplomacy: The British Ambassador’s Residence in Washington; Flammarion, Paris; 2014. $65.