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Clem CongerClement E. Conger

The Diplomatic Reception Rooms: A Tribute to the Generosity of the American People

In 1961, we never dreamt of the architectural transformations to 42 rooms on two floors.  From modern marble, glass, steel, and concrete into magnificent period style American interiors, these transformations took place from 1965 through 1989 at a cost of $18,000,000 in privately contributed funds. The architectural improvements give the Diplomatic Reception Rooms not only a national but an international reputation.  The art which furnishes these rooms is reputed to be one of the top ten collections of American 18th and early 19th century art in the United States.  It is said that there is no comparable project in the Western Hemisphere.

This is a dream that evolved slowly over thirty years.  When the building was being planned in the 1950s, I recommended that an area be devoted to diplomatic reception.  As Deputy Chief of Protocol, I knew how desperately Washington needed such a space. While the President had the White House, other top officials used hotels and clubs for their entertaining -- an overwhelming burden when you consider that the Secretary of State entertains more foreigners than the President.

Fortunately, Congress ruled that if they were going to give millions of dollars to build the new State Department building, it should include space for official government entertainment. The President, the Vice President, the Secretary of State, senior officials of the State Department, and all the members of the President's Cabinet are given access to the Diplomatic Reception Rooms but, the ruling continued, if the occasion was social, funds had to be raised from private contributions.  Since its inception, the project's only expenditure of taxes has been for salaries.  Everything else in the rooms, from furniture to drapes, insurance to upkeep, and research to light fixtures, has been paid for by patriotic individuals and institutions committed to the project.

Unfortunately, I was not on the planning committee for the layout, design, and furnishing of what were designated to be the Diplomatic Reception Rooms.  Located on the top floor of the three block square building, the sixteen rooms were opened at long last in the winter of 1960.

By law, government contracts for architects, construction, and furnishings are given by law by the General Services Administration of the United States Government to the lowest bidders.  This system often produces poor results, and there was no exception in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms.  When completed, the rooms looked like a 1950s motel: floor-to-ceiling plate glass, exposed steel beams, openings but no doors, support beams encased in fire proofing in the middle of rooms, wall-to-wall carpeting, and acoustical tile ceilings.  It was a disaster by any standards for elegant entertaining and international diplomacy.

The first official function was a state dinner in January 1961 in honor of Queen Frederika of Greece.  The Secretary of State and former Governor of Massachusetts, Christian Herter and his wife, Mary Caroline Pratt Herter, were anxious that the rooms present a proper face to their guests.  Mrs. Herter came in during the afternoon to see the rooms and was mortified to discover that they were not at all proper.  After a tearful compromise, we held the dinner in the spaces just as they were, and I volunteered to run a public campaign to furnish the rooms. Little did I know that thirty years later, I would still be at it!  Volunteering for something of this magnitude was unthinkable.  Only later would I know that. 

In 1961, Secretary of State Dean Rusk named the main Diplomatic Reception Rooms for early secretaries of state who had become presidents (the original route to the presidency).  Rusk's decision put us happily into the golden age of American design and craftsmanship which ran from 1725 to 1825, thereby covering Queen Anne, Chippendale and federal style furnishings.  The painting collection continues to about 1900, ending with American impressionism.  The decision to furnish the Diplomatic Reception Rooms with American art came inherently with the nature of the Diplomatic Reception Rooms.  We strived for simple elegance, form and proportion in all things.

The first Fine Arts Committee meeting was held March 22, 1961 and shortly thereafter, we received our first objects. Ginsburg and Levy and Israel Sack lent a pair of mirrors; and Ginsburg and Levy lent two highboy bases.  The principles of these firms had enough confidence, vision, and patriotism to think the whole thing more than a lark.  Other lenders followed -- Joe Hennage, Martin Wunsch, Richard Dietrich. These people were interested in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms for what they could be, but they were intrigued with the idea of getting the public, international and national, to recognize the importance of American decorative and fine arts. 

Clem CongerIn the 1960s, dealers and collectors all over the country came to lend a hand and teach what they knew.  People like Benjamin Ginsburg of Ginsburg and Levy of New York City -- the only antiques dealer willing to lend an entire roomful of American antiques -- introduced me to Edward Vason Jones, who is responsible for so many of the architectural changes.  Collector par excellence, Henry Francis duPont (1880 -1969), introduced me to the firm of Israel Sack, and my friend, Harold Sack (b. 1911).  Both men are legends; Harold continues to guide all of my furniture acquisitions.  Florene Maine, David Stockwell, Bernard Levy and Robert Trump, Joseph Kindig, Jr., all dealers and now friends, played active roles in my education and in the success of the Diplomatic Reception Rooms.  Auction houses like Sotheby's under the tutelage of John Marion, and Christies under that of Ralph Carpenter, provided substantial advice over the years.  Wendell Garrett and Alice Wincester, formerly of The Magazine Antiques and Gray Boone of Antiques Monthly have been fine teachers and supporters.  Museums and collections have graciously opened their doors and their storerooms for study.

I was blunt in wooing donors.  Patriotism continues to turn indecision into action and most of the gifts of art came as a direct or indirect result of that feeling of pride in one's country and one's role in making it as great as it is.  Early on, I learned that collectors over-collect and that the Diplomatic Reception Rooms were terrific areas for these objects.  One of my best ploys for acquiring a piece of art was to ask for it on loan, or to put a down payment on it and pay over time.  Once people saw pieces in place, they wanted to demonstrate their commitment to the nation and international diplomacy by giving the funds to pay for those pieces on display.  At one point in the 1960s, efforts to acquire reached the point where we were criticized as being a showplace for dealers, since we took things on consignment.

Loans, of course, often turned into gifts.  But it was hard to convince people to give money or art in the early days, when the rooms were sterile and ultra-modern.  As fast as the funds were raised to redesign and reconstruct the rooms, noted architects and their crews were hired to do the work.  Four gifted and dedicated architects played key roles in this twenty year endeavor: Edward Vason Jones, Walter Macomber, John Blatteau, and Allan Greenberg, who has completed the task Edward Jones began.  Rooms were designed to reflect specific periods --the Adams Room for the period of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, the Jefferson Room for the period when Jefferson was President and neoclassicism was taking Europe by storm, the Monroe Room for the period when Monroe was President, the Franklin Room for the period when Franklin was being entertained in similar rooms in Europe as our first (actually acting) secretary of state.

RenovationBuilding the collection was a tremendous challenge.  Prices were escalating all the time.  With both the State Department and the White House actively collecting, the growth in the number and size of foundations with art collections, the bi-centennial celebration and the recognition and knowledge that it brought, and endless hype from the auction houses with the improvement of television and other communications, the possibility of finding and affording great art declined with each major sale.  By 1971, great pieces of American decorative arts could cost more than $100,000.  (We seem to have come full circle, since today gifts of art and money have dwindled to almost nothing with the change in the tax laws.)  Today, it would not be possible to assemble such a collection, regardless of how many millions of dollars were raised.

By the fall of 1969, the project was moving along smoothly. The President and Mrs. Nixon visited the rooms during a conference, and subsequently had me transfer my office to the White House where I was the Curator in the afternoon for sixteen years, after being Curator at the State Department in the morning.  This ended my career as Deputy Chief of Protocol.

The White House furnishings include objects from the early 19th century through the Victorian era, during which period the building was constructed.  This complements the State Department collection, with objects dating earlier on in our history.  The two buildings are usually the only ones which the parade of Kings, Prime Ministers, Foreign Ministers and other international notables see during their visits.  Consequently, they act as the mirror of our American cultural accomplishments, and for this, only the finest examples of American cabinetmaking and American art should ornament the official rooms.

There can be no finer tribute to our 18th and early 19th century craftsmen and artists -- or to those craftsmen who created the rooms in the 20th century -- than to have their finest efforts displayed as national treasures in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms for the whole world to see and appreciate.

All of the guests and visitors recognize instantly that the rooms and the collection are very special and that the furnishings must be treated with care and pride.  We make sure that our placement of the art allows for the least wear and tear, taking care that fragile objects are tucked out of harm's way and that reproductions are used for sitting and writing.  As of December 1989, all of the architectural reconstruction was completed, including the reception areas and dining rooms on the eighth floor and the reception areas, treaty rooms, and office suites for the Secretary and Deputy Secretary on the seventh floor.

Our country has a distinguished and diverse cultural and artistic heritage.  Special pride can be seen in the dedication and extraordinary efforts it required the thousands of donors, workmen, scholars, diplomats and others to make this project the greatest of its kind.  From the ten year old boy who gave $15.00 in 1961, to the Fortune 500 company which gave a million dollars and from the ancestor who gave her family's portrait of John Quincy Adams to the donor who bid far beyond expectations to return the John Jay portrait to the walls where it hung for so many years, every person involved in the project has made an impact.  These Diplomatic Reception Rooms, the first in the history of the Nation, have been made possible, and will continue to exist, through the generosity and patriotism of individuals. As of this year, it will take an act of Congress to disperse the Collection, thereby assuring its continuing role in diplomacy.

With this publication, the first scholarly book on the Diplomatic Reception Rooms, our efforts are turned to maintaining the rooms, their fittings and furnishings and the art housed within.  This is no small task, since every expense is paid for with donations.  But the honor of participating in the making of strong international relations -- of being a part of the making of our history -- has kept the project afloat in the past, and with the American people and their patriotism hard at our backs, these Diplomatic Reception Rooms will continue to flourish, to fine tune, to be central to American diplomacy.

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