A map of Regent’s Park shows Winfield House – the residence of the Ambassador of the United States of America to the Court of St. James’s – occupying twelve and a half acres on the northwest side.
The house stands behind fifteen-foot high iron gates on land that was once part of a “great forest, with wooded glades and lairs of wild beasts, deer both red and fallow, wild bulls and boars”. Half a century before the Norman Conquest the land belonged to the Abbey of Barking. Over the years, King Henry Vlll hunted there, Queen Elizabeth I used it for entertaining dignitaries and King James I offered it as collateral to raise money to go to war. King Charles II had the whole area “disparked” and toward the end of the 17th century Lord Arlington was given one of the first private leases.
The land remained rural countryside until the 19th century when John Nash was Architect to the Woods and Forests Department, and friend of the Prince of Wales, the future King George IV. With the draftsman James Morgan, Nash began an elaborate plan for the development of the whole area. It consisted of fifty-six villas and a zoo – which is still there – but by the time George IV became King costs had skyrocketed and only eight villas were built. The largest was St. Dunstan’s, originally called Hertford Villa, commissioned by the Third Marquess of Hertford and designed by the 25-year-old architect Decimus Burton. His building, “Italianate in style and deriving a certain grandeur from its hexastyle portico of Corinthian orders” was on the site where the U.S. Ambassador’s residence now stands.
It was actually two buildings connected by a single-storied hall, “the tent room” spacious enough for “magnificent receptions” On the wall adjacent to the tent room the Marquess installed a huge clock with the life-size figures Gog and Magog striking the hours. Burton had rescued it from the demolished St. Dunstan’s Church in Fleet Street and he now gave this name to the house in Regent’s Park. (The clock with Gog and Magog striking the hours has since been returned to a completely rebuilt St. Dunstan’s.)
In 1920 many of the villas, including St. Dunstan’s, were abandoned and neglected; the leases on offer were short and expensive. Lord Rothermere, the newspaper magnate, was the last owner of St. Dunstan’s when all that remained of the original interior was the “handsome elliptical entrance hall”. In 1936 the house was partly destroyed by fire and it was bought by Barbara Hutton.
The world-famous heiress was then twenty-four years old and married to Count Haugwitz-Reventlow. Concerned about threats to kidnap their son Lance, they decided to give up their house near Marble Arch in London and look for something bigger and more secure. Three years earlier she had inherited some $40 million from her grandfather, Frank Winfield Woolworth, founder of the Woolworth store chain.
Friends suggested that St Dunstan’s Villa might be an excellent site for the kind of home Barbara Hutton was seeking. Impressed by the peace and security of the grounds, she decided to buy and on August 10, 1936 the Crown Estate Commission gave permission for the old white stucco Regency villa to be pulled down and a red brick Georgian style house built in its place.
Leonard Rome Guthrie, a partner in the firm Wimperis, Simpson and Guthrie, was commissioned to design the new house. The spacious, well-conceived ground floor plans are Guthrie’s original design, although the front entrance was added in 1954. The large reception hall runs nearly the depth of the house to the French doors that open to the terrace. The drawing rooms are to the right, the family dining room, the state dining room, the kitchen and staff offices to the left.
Barbara Hutton engaged two decorators: “Johnny” Sieben, an expert on carpets and French furniture, who had renovated the Woolworth town houses in New York, and Sheila Lady Milbank, who had consulted on furnishing, colors and fabrics for the previous Reventlow London house. Oak parquet floors were laid, 18th century French paneling installed and marble bathrooms fitted. Several thousand trees and hedges were planted, a ten-foot high steel fence erected and a modern security system installed to protect the property.
In 1937 Count and Countess Reventlow moved into Winfield House, named after her grandfather. The splendid mansion sheltered a treasury of paintings (two Canalettos were later given to the National Gallery in Washington), Louis XV furniture, Persian carpets, and Chinese objets d’art. It may have given its chatelaine some of the happiness and security she longed for – but it was short lived.
In 1939, with World War II about to erupt and her marriage to Count Reventlow ending, Barbara Hutton returned to America.
World War II
Winfield House was commandeered and used by an RAF barrage balloon unit. The windows were boarded up and balloons festooned the gardens where officers played football on a team jocularly called “Barbara’s Own”. Actor Cary Grant, who married Miss Hutton in 1942, visited the house during this period and afterwards heard an Edward R. Murrow broadcast that criticized her for abandoning her home. Mr. Grant called the journalist and asked him to go and see for himself what was happening in the house. On the next day’s broadcast, Murrow apologized to Miss Hutton. Cary Grant always felt that she was never given proper credit for her generosity.
Winfield House was also used as an Air Crew Reception Center, along with another in Abbey Lodge, for recruits being screened as prospective RAF pilots. Near misses from German bombs damaged the roof and moisture ruined the parquet floors and in 1944 a flying bomb exploded forty yards from the house, killing one cadet and injuring twenty others. Six weeks later Winfield House ceased to host the RAF unit – although it was later used as an American Officers’ Club.
A year after the war, Barbara Hutton came back to visit Winfield House. She found buckled floorboards, peeling walls, broken windows and dangling wires. The next day she telephoned her New York lawyer and told him she wanted to give the house to the U.S. Government to be repaired and used as the official residence of the American Ambassador to the Court of St. James’s. Her “most generous and patriotic offer” was accepted in a personal letter from President Harry Truman.
For the token price of an American dollar, Winfield House passed into official American ownership.
Winfield House is unique among American residences in that not only was it originally a gift to U.S. Government but it has since been showered with riches in the form of antique furniture, paintings, porcelain, china, glass, chandeliers, objets d’art – all the things that make it the beautiful house visitors see today.
The first to use the house as the ambassadorial residence was Winthrop Aldrich. Ambassador and Mrs. Aldrich moved in on January 18, 1955 after significant restoration had taken place: an extension was added to the front of the house to hold cloakrooms and enlarge the reception hall, the kitchens were modernized, floors replaced, electrical wiring updated and guest bedrooms improved.
Ambassador and Mrs. John Hay Whitney arrived in 1957. They rebuilt the greenhouse and added two extensions. They also left some seventy paintings by artists such as Colburn, Hill, Beck and Hall, all mounted in gold colored frames. For their first ball Mrs. Whitney ordered 5,000 artificial tulips to fill the bare flower beds and the Fourth of July was celebrated in grand style with 500 guests entertained on the terrace and lawns.
In the 1960s, when Ambassador and Mrs. David Bruce were in residence, parties at Winfield House were described by frequent guest, Peter Coats, as legendary “with the exquisite Evangeline entertaining as no one else could, in an indoor garden of tree fuchsias; their friends marvelously mixed and their parties sublime”
Ambassador and Mrs. Walter H. Annenberg made a tremendous contribution to the house during their tenure from 1969 to 1974. They not only refurbished the house from top to bottom, modernizing the whole infrastructure and adding a new roof, but also furnished it with the most carefully chosen and valuable pieces of furniture, beautiful paintings and precious objets d’art. A chandelier from an Indian palace was bought for the reception hall. Bedrooms and reception rooms were redecorated by William Haines, Ted Graber and Dudley Poplak. The tennis court was resurfaced and the indoor swimming pool repainted. In the gardens old and ailing trees were replaced with fully-grown conifers brought from Scotland. Then a box garden and new trelliswork were added.
When Ambassador Elliot Richardson arrived in 1975 his wife said, “the house was absolutely wonderful. . . a joy to move into” and when the Armstrongs moved in a year later, Ambassador Anne Armstrong said, “I ran through the house like a kid, I’d never seen anything so beautiful. It was like fairyland and in such beautiful shape.”
Not only the Ambassadors, but other generous Americans contributed to the house, among them Mr. Rionda Braga, a business man, donated a bronze sculpture, “The Creation of Adam” which stands in the garden to the right of the terrace. Mr. Braga felt that the statue’s motif, two hands inside a globe, signified British and American friendship.
Ambassador and Mrs. John Louis brought a platform tennis court. The game was started in the 1930s and there are similar courts in the American residences in Warsaw, Tokyo and Moscow. While the Louises were at Winfield House – from 1981 to 1983- Cary Grant visited it for the first time since World War ll. Tears streamed down his face as he looked across the lawns from the Garden Room and said, “Forgive me for being so sentimental. I just remember a beautiful young girl who never saw a day of happiness.”
As Ambassadors changed, so did the style of entertaining and the arrangement of furniture. In 1983 Ambassador and Mrs. Charles H. Price ll restored the original decorations that Haines, Graber and Poplak had done for the Annenbergs. They also returned to the reception areas the most impressive pieces of furniture.
From 1997 through to 1999, Winfield House underwent essential renovation work to address structural and operational problems. Wiring, heating, and plumbing systems were modernized. A major problem was asbestos – now a known health hazard, but in Hutton’s day standard insulation – which required six months of work to remove.
The changes to the house in the recent work are largely invisible. Enormous care was taken with furnishings, paneling, wallpaper and other features. For example, the 18th century oak paneling in the drawing room was removed and stored while the asbestos was taken out. Similarly, the two hundred years old Chinese wallpaper in the garden room was expertly removed, stored, and then reinstalled.
Every effort was made to restore the house to the Annenbergs’ widely respected taste in furnishings and to ensure that the house will be suitable for future Ambassadors and their families.
Winfield House Today
Today Winfield House continues the tradition of receiving a host of distinguished guests. Over the years these have included Queen Elizabeth and other members of the royal family, and many other prominent figures in business, politics, diplomacy, banking, the armed services, education and the arts. The late Princess Diana once brought Princes William and Harry to see the presidential helicopter Marine One parked on the lawn.
Visiting U.S. Presidents regularly stay at the residence watched over by portraits of their predecessors, some of whom served as both President of the United States and U.S. envoys to London. President George Bush met there with President Mikhail Gorbachev during the 1991 G-7 Summit. President Reagan was a frequent visitor. More recently, Senator George Mitchell hosted participants in the Northern Ireland Peace Process at Winfield House during his review of the Good Friday agreement in November 1999. Other American visitors have included astronauts, bankers, industrialists, students, congressmen, state governors and trade delegations, Supreme Court judges and U.S. government officials.
Ambassadors’ families consider it a privilege and also a great responsibility to act as temporary custodians of this fine house.