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Take a Sneak Peek at the British Embassy Before EU Open House Day

We got a special tour before Saturday's event.

Take a Sneak Peek at the British Embassy Before EU Open House Day
The exterior of the British Ambassador's Residence, which Washingtonians will be able to tour during this weekend's EU Open House. The residence was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens and has housed top diplomats since 1930.

The British Embassy will open its gates this Saturday as part of the EU Embassies’ Open House Day, which means Anglophiles can tour the historic Embassy Residence, sample British whiskey, and send congratulatory cards to Meghan Markle and Prince Harry.

For Deputy Ambassador Michael Tatham, the open house, which is the one day a year the embassy is open to the public, represents “a chance for us to engage with the public in a much more open way” than security usually permits. That means opening the doors to the stately mansion, which has chandeliers aplenty, carefully tended gardens, and a ballroom that’s hosted state dinners for Queen Elizabeth II. (In true British fashion, the Embassy Residence is overseen by a uniformed butler and a team of underbutlers.)

Michael Tatham, Britain’s deputy ambassador to the USA, poses in the drawing room. His second-favorite embassy, architecturally speaking? Tatham recommends stopping by the “striking” Italian Embassy, where, he says, “They serve a mean cappuccino.”

So, what should embassygoers expect when they visit the Massachusetts Avenue compound, which neighbors Vice President Mike Pence‘s official residence? Duke’s Grocery will be selling British bites like “banger dogs” and veggie paneer wraps, and visitors can also sample whiskey, British wine, and Scottish ginger beer. In addition to food and drink, you can admire British luxury cars, try to match the speed of tennis star Andy Murray‘s serve, and watch the DC-based Shakespeare Theatre Company perform.

A few aspects of the open house won’t be 100 percent British. The Philadelphia Eagles cheerleaders, drum line, and mascot will all be in attendance, ostensibly to promote an upcoming game they’ll play in Wembley Stadium. (British football—soccer—teams have mascots, but not cheerleaders, explained Tatham.) And if you’re inclined to celebrate the upcoming royal wedding, the embassy will have a card-writing station set up near the exit gate (on your way out, check out the statues atop the gate: they’re unicorns, which appear on the royal coat of arms).

Embassy tourists will get to explore the residence itself. Usually, social secretary Amanda Downes gives visitors the official tour of the historic building, which has housed top British diplomats since 1930, but for the open house, she’ll be greeting guests near the entrance gate. After nearly 30 years orchestrating the endless stream of embassy events (last May through November, she oversaw around 600 events), Downes will be returning home to the Cotswolds this summer.

But will this be the last time the British Embassy participates in the EU open houses? The Brexit vote means that by the end of March 2019, the United Kingdom will no longer be part of the European Union. Deputy Ambassador Tatham wasn’t sure whether his embassy will still be allowed to participate the same weekend as other European countries, but he was certain of one thing: “In whatever capacity, I confidently predict we’ll be doing an open house in 2019.”

Although Downes won’t be available to you give you the official tour during the open house, for which the embassy is expecting 7,000 to 10,000 visitors, Washingtonian was invited in for a sneak peek.

Head butler Laurence Dennis holds open the garden doors. Dennis’s vest, decorated with golden bees, was woven in Suffolk; the underbutlers wear Black Watch tartan vests. When Washingtonian visited, Dennis was preparing for a reception to honor the Fulbright program’s 70th anniversary by doing a mic check across the patio.
The ballroom has hosted state dinners and performances by the Joffrey Ballet alike. For the open house, it’ll be decked out as if it were hosting a formal state dinner for Queen Elizabeth II. That portrait of the queen is an Andy Warhol screen print.
A double staircase leads into the “Print Hall,” which features 118 framed prints and large portraits of King George III and Queen Charlotte—America’s last monarchs.
The library won’t be open to the public on the tour, but it once served as the ambassador’s office.
Like George W. Bush, President Dwight Eisenhower enjoyed painting. He painted this portrait of Viscount Montgomery of Alamein, who worked with Eisenhower during World War II; the artwork is on display in the embassy library.
The main corridor of the Embassy Residence. The building, said Downes, “has witnessed so many amazing events.”
Foreign Minister Boris Johnson, who you may remember as a leading proponent of Brexit, sat on one of these couches during his visit to the States earlier this week.
One of the embassy’s two feline diplomats, Piquette.

Editorial Fellow