Enjoying an Easter-time party, the children of embassy staff and their parents cavort on the great lawn of Winfield House.[more]

Winfield House's reception Hall leads to the family dining room.

NOVEMBER 2008 » book review

An American House

Winfield House
by Maria Tuttle and Marcus Binney, photographs by James Mortimer
Thames & Hudson, Inc., New York, NY; 2008
172 pages; hardcover; 175 illustrations, 158 in color; $60.00
ISBN 978-0-500-97678

Reviewed by Nicole V. Gagné

"Dear Mr. President:

Please forgive me for writing you directly for I am fully aware of the great and urgent demands upon your time, but unfortunately I know of no other way to present what I have in mind.

Briefly, I am writing to ask if the American Government would care to accept, as a gift, my house in London. It would make a magnificent embassy - I do not exaggerate by saying, undoubtedly, it is the most beau tiful house in the city. It is a red brick Georgian house, situated in four teen acres of ground, built in 1937, with every modern convenience, exquisite old French panelling and parquet floors throughout. [...]

Naturally I have had, and continue to have, offers from prospective pur chasers for my house, but I would be much happier not to sell it if you could use it as an embassy, as it is an American house, having been built with American money. [...]

If this offer appeals to you in any way, Mr. President, I shall be very grate ful to hear from you.

Thanking you for the courtesy of reading this letter,
I am,
Most respectfully yours,
Barbara Woolworth Hutton"

President Harry Truman recognized a good deal when he saw one. Winfield House was purchased for the sum of one dollar, and in August of 1946 it became the official residence of the American Ambassador to Britain, a function it fulfills to the present day.

On November 14, 1933, Barbara Woolworth Hutton celebrated her 21st birthday by becoming one of the wealthiest women on the planet. On that day she inherited the estate of her grandfather Frank Winfield Woolworth, who'd founded the vast Woolworth fortune. Notable acts of generosity came easily to Hutton – she'd make hundreds of important contributions in her lifetime – but Winfield House (named in honor of her grandfather) may be the most remarkable of them all, in light of the active role it has played in American foreign relations for over 60 years.

The considerable importance of Winfield House, both historical and architectural, more than merits the lavish examination given it in this new publication from Thames & Hudson. Maria Tuttle, wife of the current American Ambassador to Britain, has co-authored this study with the respected architectural historian Marcus Binney, and the result is a superb coffee-table volume that combines technical and historical commentary with the experienced insights and genuine affection of a homeowner (or more precisely, home occupant). Of course, a book of this type is only as good as its photographs, and what will keep Winfield House off the coffee table and in your lap is its superb images by photographer James Mortimer. From shots of furnishings and architectural detail to gatefold interior and exterior panoramas, Mortimer's pictures will take readers on a house tour more intimate and thorough than any visiting ambassador could ever receive.

Hutton selected Glasgow-born architect Leonard Rome Guthrie to design the estate, sited in a pastoral section of London's Regent's Park. Guthrie devised a neo-Georgian estate, grand but unostentatious in the then-popular "George VI" style: "a selective form of classicism [...] using largely unornamented surfaces, with small incidents of ornament." Crown Estate officials initially were worried about how the house's proposed red-brick facade would look alongside the mostly stuccoed buildings in Regent's Park, and they urged Guthrie to substitute a color that was "decently subdued," suggesting "a silver grey brick [...] with an undertone of red." When told by the architects that their clients would "abandon the whole of the negotiations and dispose of their interest in the property" rather than use a grey facing brick, the officials suddenly decided that red brick wasn't so bad after all. In fact, when Winfield House was completed in January of 1938 and London's respected Architectural Review sniffed at its "bright red brick, pinkly glowing like an open sore amidst the masterpieces of stucco cream," Crown Commissioners began extolling Winfield House's "quiet browny sand-faced brick."

The reality is that Winfield House was and has remained a masterpiece of "selective classicism," outside and in. For this reason, Tuttle and Binney's book will enjoy a readership well beyond architectural (or political) historians; architects, interior designers, and all neo-Georgian homeowners will find in Winfield House a treasure trove of decorating ideas. To its credit, the book also includes a substantial section on the garden and landscaping, providing additional inspiration for landscape architects, groundskeepers and even humble gardeners.

Sadly, Winfield House became one more mixed blessing in the troubled life of America's famed "Poor Little Rich Girl": less then two years after its completion, Barbara Hutton and her family left Winfield House ahead of the imminent conflagration of World War II. (During the Blitz, Regent's Park alone was struck by "121 high-explosive bombs, 31 delayed-action bombs, 14 oil bombs, five mines, 12 V-1s and one V-2 rocket" – although Winfield House itself, ironically, would suffer no significant damage at all.) Returning to London in 1945, after Winfield House had been a center for the RAF, Barbara Woolworth Hutton made her decision to give the building to the U.S. government rather than sell it. Her decision was as wise as it was generous – after all, Winfield House had always been "an American house."  

 

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