The current British Ambassador to the United States, Peter Westmacott, says he’s fond of Americans, but apparently it wasn’t always that way. According to Anthony Seldon, co-author of a sumptuous new book about the British Embassy, the country’s World War II-era ambassador, Lord Halifax, was not much of a fan. “Halifax didn’t much like Americans—except for the odd ones,” Seldon told the guests at a book party at the embassy on Tuesday evening.
Halifax was just one of 22 ambassadors to take up residence at the stunning home on Massachusetts Avenue, designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, completed in 1930, and now richly documented in The Architecture of Diplomacy: The British Ambassador’s Residence in Washington. Ambassador Westmacott, who arrived in 2012, still seems quite giddy about the job, the house, and his neighbors, who include former First Lady and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whose property is adjacent to the embassy’s tennis courts. “She likes to say she enjoys throwing back the tennis balls,” he said, “but I haven’t seen much evidence of that, which kind of brings a new sense to the idea of waiting for Hillary” (a reference to the rumors that Clinton is eyeing a 2016 bid for the White House).
Westmacott and his wife, Susie, threw a party that was full-on British, with a crystal punch bowl of Pimm’s Cup and canapés that included sausages and smoked salmon on toast, as well as a dessert of strawberries and clotted cream. The ambassador embraces his home’s history and relevance.
“This house was a bold statement of the importance of the relationship between the United Kingdom and the United States,” he said at the party. “It wasn’t every day the British government commissioned the guy who was in fact the most renowned architect of the day. This is the only house in the entire Western Hemisphere built by Sir Edwin Lutyens.”
“Much of the most important history in the Western world has flowed from this building in the last 85 years,” Seldon added. Of the design, he was equally enthusiastic. “I would ask you to consider the proposition there is no finer [residence] anywhere in the country. This is my personal judgment.”
Seldon called the year he and co-author Daniel Collings spent writing the book an “extraordinary” journey. Full of photos, illustrations, and plenty of details about distinguished visitors over the years, ranging from almost every member of the royal family to the Beatles and Bono, the book tells the embassy’s story from multiple angles. “It brings together everything I most love about life: buildings, people, politics, history, and you throw gardens in and architecture, and writing, and this is it,” Seldon said.
There was no mention, though, of that other Architecture of Diplomacy, written by historian and Washingtonian Jane Loeffler in 1998 and republished in 2010. It’s about America’s embassies abroad, including the US Embassy in London. According to the Washington Post, Loeffler asked for a title change on the British book and Westmacott declined, saying neither the authors nor the publisher were aware of her earlier work. Ah, diplomacy.