Britain's grand embassy adds sparkle to Washington House fit for welcoming royalty or seating 120 at a formal dinner

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- The White House is not the only great mansion in the capital.

On a commanding height just the other side of town is an official residence as imposing and exalted in social status and - if less historic - far grander in appointments.


It is the residence of the British ambassador to the United States, a job that almost always comes with a knighthood and so important that the No. 2 or deputy chief of mission at the embassy gets ambassadorial rank, too.

Unlike most ambassadorial residences in Washington, which simply occupy old mansions, this one was specifically designed as an embassy by the renowned British architect Sir Edwin L. Lutyens, famous for his grand English country manor houses and the enormous palace in New Delhi once used by British viceroys and now by Indian presidents.


Completed in 1928, Lutyens' Washington embassy house looks inside and out like the sort of English country manor in which P. G. Wodehouse's Jeeves and Wooster would most feel at home.

Some American touches

But it has some American touches. Lutyens used Indiana limestone and Pennsylvania bricks for the Georgian-style house - intending a statement of solidarity with the United States. But they're of a very small and antique size, giving it a centuries-old air.

The architect was also very much taken with the romantic style of the old Southern plantation houses in the surrounding Virginia countryside.

The neo-Classical pillars of the residence's main facade are patterned on the Southern archetype. So are the unusually high ceilings - an accommodation to Washington's sometimes insufferable heat, which for decades kept the U.S. capital on the list of British foreign service hardship posts.

Air-conditioned in '70s

"Air conditioning wasn't installed until the 1970s," said embassy social secretary Amanda Downes. "I've a picture of the place taken in the 1920s. It shows every window open."

The oddest thing about the house is its situation. Rather than facing Massachusetts Avenue, like every other embassy along the thoroughfare, the British ambassador's house faces sideways, looking out over its sprawling, 9-acre, very British grounds. In the summertime, one feels very much in the country, not in the center of a sprawling metropolitan area.


When it first went up, the embassy was so far from the White House and downtown Washington it might as well have been in New Delhi. There was then no bridge carrying Massachusetts Avenue over the small canyon of Rock Creek Park, and one reached the house only by following a series of winding roads.

"Everyone thought the Brits were mad, but that wouldn't be the first time," said Downes. "This was the sticks. But the idea was to get away from the swamp [the area down by the White House] during the summer heat."

Occupants at home

The present ambassadorial occupants, Sir John and Lady Elizabeth Kerr, seem at home in the place, in part because they did a tour in Washington during the Reagan administration in the 1980s, when Sir John was at a slightly less lofty foreign service level.

"I remember when I was younger here how valuable it was to be included in the entertainment of the great in this house, to sit alongside some senior figure and see what he was like," said Sir John. "We want to do a lot of that."

On the job here for about a year, the Kerrs are predictably a very well-bred couple, but a couple as cozy as the residence's ample chintz. Both are Scots - he the Oxford-educated descendant of a 17th-century pirate and the son of a Glasgow cardiologist.


Sir John won his advancement to "the top of the greasy pole," as Foreign Office types might put it, as former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's main man at the European Common Market in Brussels, Belgium.

For all that, the Kerrs are an unpretentious and friendly pair. They have two sons and three daughters, who are either grown or in college. All joined them at Christmas.

"Our children are pretty thrilled," Sir John said. "Our youngest daughter went to school in Washington and still has a wide circle of school friends, so we had the house filled with 19-year-old American ladies, which is good for my image in the embassy."

"We had 12 in the house," said Lady Elizabeth. "It's a very happy house." It does look a bit forbidding upon entering. The huge, vaultlike, gray-walled foyer is two stories high and would suit an actual castle. To either side of its central flying arch, red-carpeted twin stone staircases ascend to the main floor past full-length portraits of monarchs associated with America - some in happier ways than others.

They include King George III and his Queen Charlotte; King Edward VII, a noted philanderer, is there with his long-suffering Queen Alexandra. King George V and Queen Mary, grandparents of the current English monarch, round things out.

On the main floor, the house brightens considerably. There are five major rooms here, plus a few minor ones, and most overlook the lovely English garden. Furnishings run to splendidly upholstered, well-stuffed armchairs and divans, marble-topped mahogany tables, Persian rugs and Chippendale mirrors.


The main corridor, with its black and white diagonal squares of Pennsylvania slate and Vermont marble, stretches the full 167-foot length of the house. A huge portrait of Queen Elizabeth II dominates a wall near the top of the stairs, but the rest is given to windows and mirrors.

Centerpiece of floor

The centerpiece of this floor - and the house - is the ballroom, separated from the corridor and its garden windows by four faux marble scagliola columns and decorated with historic paintings and mirrored wall sections. The artists represented in the embassy collection include such 18th-century notables as Sir Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough and George Romney.

This is the entertainment center of the residence. Here are held receptions for visiting royals (Prince Charles, Princess Margaret and Princess Anne have been recent guests) as well as such British touring troupes as the Royal Shakespeare Company.

It is used for balls, such as the Christmas ball that the Kerrs threw for 600 embassy staffers, and for elaborate dinners, such as the one held recently for the investiture of composer/conductor Andre Previn with an honorary knighthood.

Adding a homey, informal touch at this black-tie affair, Sir John had a projector rolled out to show one of Previn's appearances on a 20-year-old London TV show.


When the White House holds a state dinner for the queen or a visiting British prime minister, the reciprocal dinner to which the president is invited is held here.

Dinner for 120

"It's very nice to have a house in which you can give a dinner for 120 without turning a hair," said Sir John. "You need a little bit of notice, but not an enormous amount."

The biggest event is the queen's birthday party, which is held outside to accommodate the crowd. Each ambassador throws only one of these grand affairs during his Washington tenure. When the queen arrived on a state visit in 1991, about 1,500 people were invited to her garden party, with guests ranging from Cabinet secretaries to the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson to Ted Turner and Jane Fonda.

"During the time the Renwicks were here [Sir Robin and Lady Anne Renwick, the Kerr's immediate predecessors], we entertained 58,000 people," said Downes, who previously was a professional chef. "I slept very little."

The residence has a staff of 12, including chefs, butler, valet, footman, houseman, maids and three gardeners.


The last major redecoration of the house was done in 1982, but, by custom, one room or area of the 16-room mansion (not counting servants' quarters, offices for service and support staff) is attended to every year.

"The biggest change we're making here is refinishing the ballroom. We haven't got the furniture yet," said Lady Elizabeth, who, with her husband, will select new pieces made available from the collection of Britain's Foreign Ministry.

There are three quite wonderful screens in the room, one Oriental, another depicting Windsor Castle and a third illustrating England's defeat of the Spanish Armada. One caption reads: "The nimble English ships had their more clumsy antagonists at a great disadvantage and harassed them continually, with broadsides."

The furnishings in the elegant dining room are 18th century, including a mahogany table that can extend to seat 34. The two principal dinner services are by Minton and Wedgwood, the latter commemorating Queen Elizabeth II's 1953 coronation. The leather-backed chairs are emblazoned with her royal emblem.

Another smaller dining room, used for family or more intimate entertaining, is just across the hall. Next to it is an example of the British drawing room, with mantelpiece by Lutyens, Chippendale mirrors and marble-top George I tables. Farther down the hall is the less formal morning room, a cheerful favorite of the Kerrs and many of their predecessors.

Much of the ambassador's work and many of his more important meetings take place in the library. A perfect cube, with wood-paneled walls and comfortable chairs, it's large enough to have six doors yet is one of the coziest rooms in the house.


Unlike the White House, which has several, the ambassador's residence has no interior secret passage. But the main service hall and staircases as well as butler's and social secretary's offices are hidden away off the main corridor.

Also unlike the White House, there is no grand staircase. One ascends to the top floor by entering a stone-walled chamber off the main corridor worthy of a Gothic romance and climbing a spiral staircase overlooked by a painting of Queen Victoria when she was 18 years old.

Led by Lady Elizabeth on a tour of the seven upstairs bedrooms, all named for former ambassadors and several of which have their own attached sitting rooms, a guest was unable to determine which of the chambers might be used by a royal, as they are all spacious and, in a comfortable way, lavish. Each room has a card holder for the name of the occupant.

The bedrooms are served by seven bathrooms. Additionally, there are two powder rooms hidden away on the main floor, and two hotel-size restrooms on the entrance floor. The kitchen is worthy of a hotel restaurant.

A walled garden

At one end of the house, outside stairs rise to a walled garden and swimming pool. There is also a rose garden - as famous in social Washington as the president's. The principal terrace, a favored place for clement-weather entertaining, is also used on BTC grand occasions for marching by colorfully uniformed British troops.


The house boasts two much beloved pieces of outdoor sculpture. One is a sleeping horse, nestled in a corner of the garden, by sculptor Dame Elisabeth Frink. The other, hard by the fence on Massachusetts Avenue, is an imposing likeness of Winston Churchill, complete with bronze cigar in his hand (the local English Speaking Union keeps a supply of replacements on hand in case that is stolen or vandalized). Half American, Churchill has one foot in the District of Columbia and the other on embassy grounds.

The residence has had to suit a wide variety of ambassadorial types in its seven decades. Though the principal furnishings don't change too frequently, each ambassador lends a personal touch.

Following British custom, framed, tabletop photographs abound throughout the house - with those of the queen, prime ministers and American presidents de rigeur. The Kerrs have one of their daughter-in-law, Claire, in the morning room and others of their family represented as well.

Throughout Sir John's career, he and his wife have been collectors of fine china, and some of their pieces are arrayed along mantels in the drawing room and dining room.

"These have been with us since we were married," he said. "The thing we've most done is bring a lot of pictures of our own. Along the corridor upstairs, we have our Scottish watercolors, and we have a few Scottish oils lurking around up there, too."

One of the residence's prized possessions is an oil portrait of British World War II leader Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery. The artist? General and later President Dwight D. Eisenhower.


Ambassadorial whim is accommodated, but sometimes the fellows go too far. Ambassador Peter Jay, a one-time newspaperman married to Prime Minister James Callaghan's daughter, Margaret, had the royal portraits in the entrance hall moved aside in favor of what many viewed as ghastly representations of contemporary art.

The kings and queens came back virtually the instant Jay was replaced and are not likely to be disturbed again any time soon.

Pub Date: 10/27/96