Diplomatic Reception Rooms

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Mr. Conger’s Vision

In 1960, the U.S. Department of State’s Harry S. Truman Building was completed — a stark, stone International-Style federal building in Washington DC.

At the time of its opening, the new home of the Department designated spaces for high-level meetings and official events, but these were little more than empty rooms with low acoustic ceilings, thin wood paneling, wall-to-wall carpeting, and standard government-issue furnishings. 

By January of 1961, preparations were underway for the first official state dinner to honor Queen Frederika of Greece. On the afternoon of the dinner, Deputy Chief of Protocol Clement Conger gave a tour of the reception rooms to the hostess of the event, Mary Caroline Pratt Herter. He later recounted this meeting:

“The longer we spent in the very modern spaces, the farther her face fell. Our tour ended in the ladies’ lounge. The upholstery and draperies were in the electric colors then popular. The lounge looked like Hollywood’s idea of the powder room of a gangster’s moll. Mrs. Herter exclaimed that as an American she had never been so mortified. Although I should have known better than to volunteer, having spent four years in the U.S. Army, I offered then to run a public campaign to furnish the rooms in a manner befitting America’s heritage.”
Clem Conger — Founding Curator

The idea for the Americana Project was born, and Clem Conger immediately began building the unparalleled collection of fine and decorative arts that today make their home in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms. Mr. Conger’s goal was simple, but profound: to showcase the best of America, and in so doing to provide spaces that facilitate American diplomacy. He recognized the need for America to present itself to the world in a way that appropriately honors its international friends and counterparts, and that uses our nation’s artistic achievements as a way to share our history and cultural heritage.

As the collection of American art grew, it became apparent that the extraordinary acquisitions from the colonial and Federal periods looked out of place in their modern, sterile settings. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the Americana Project expanded to the spaces themselves as Clem Conger executed his plan to transform the Rooms into architectural masterpieces reflective of the time of our nation’s founding.

The John Jay Room as it appeared in the 1960s and as it appears today.

Today, these State Rooms overflow with the collective stories of the countless patriots, visionaries, wordsmiths and craftsmen who defined the vision for our nation, and the architecture of this forty-two-room suite is an important extension of this: a celebration of the values that were at the heart of 18th-century America.

Most remarkably, the Americana Project was accomplished entirely through gifts by philanthropic individuals who were moved by the patriotism of what Mr. Conger sought to create. Every object and artwork contributed to this specular vision — including the renovation of the Rooms into period-style spaces — was donated. These, then, are truly America’s Rooms: reflections of our citizens and national spirit, and our gift to the world. 

The Americana Project

Mr. Conger’s Vision
In 1991, Clem Conger chronicled his vision for the Diplomatic Reception Rooms, and the journey to realize this vision that would span three decades.
Read Clem Conger’s Story

The Architects

Masters of Classicism
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the Diplomatic Reception Rooms were transformed into authentic tableaus of American architecture by four visionaries and historians.
Learn More