Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State

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Web Property of the U.S. Department of State

Gifts to the Nation

In 1961, when I accepted the challenge of building the collection of furnishings for the Diplomatic Reception Rooms, I never dreamed of the extensive acquisitions and architectural transformations that the Department of State building would require.

The Collection quickly became a vision, however, one that has evolved over the last thirty years. When the interior of the new building was being planned in the 1950s, I recommended that a large area be devoted to diplomatic reception rooms. As Assistant Chief of Protocol, I knew how desperately the United States government needed such a space for official entertaining. The President had the White House; no one else could use it for such events. The Vice President and Cabinet members had to use hotels and clubs — an overwhelming burden when you consider that the Secretary of State and top Department of State officials receive more foreign dignitaries than the President does.

Fortunately, Congress ruled that in light of the millions of dollars appropriated to finish the new Department of State 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 were to be allowed to use the Diplomatic Reception Rooms. Unfortunately, Congress did not appropriate funds for furnishings and interior decoration.

I was not on the planning committee for the layout, design, and furnishing of what were then designated the Diplomatic Reception Rooms. Located at the top of the two-block-long, rectangular building, sixteen rooms on the eighth floor were opened in the winter of 1960-1961. By law, government contracts for architects, construction, and furnishings are let by the General Services Administration of the United States government to the lowest bidders. This system often produces poor results. The Diplomatic Reception Rooms were no exception. When completed, the rooms looked like a 1950s motel: exterior walls made of floor-to-ceiling plate glass with exposed steel beams, openings without doors, support beams encased in fire-proofing material set out three feet from the walls, wall-to-wall carpeting on concrete floors, and acoustical-tile ceilings throughout. By any standards of elegant entertaining and international diplomacy, these spaces were a disaster.

The first official event on the eighth floor was a state dinner in January 1961 in honor of Queen Frederika of Greece. The Secretary of State at the time was Christian Herter, former Governor of Massachusetts. His wife, Mary Caroline Pratt Herter, the hostess for the event, came in during the afternoon before the dinner to see the rooms, and I escorted her through them. The longer we spent in the very modern spaces, the farther her face fell.

Our tour ended in the ladies’ lounge. With many rooms completely empty, it now seems strange that a separate and expensive subcontract had been awarded for the interior decoration of the space that was later named the Martha Washington Ladies’ Lounge to a firm that obviously specialized in airport decor. 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 broke into tears and 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. Little did I know that thirty years later I would still be at it.

Since its inception, our project’s only expenditure of tax money has been for salaries and the office expenses of a very small staff. Everything else in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms — from furniture and draperies to insurance and conservation — has been paid for by patriotic individuals, corporations, and foundations committed to the project and persuaded to contribute funds and objects. To oversee the acquisition of furnishings, I formed the Fine Arts Committee, which remains active today. Its members include scholars, collectors, business people, and spouses of former Secretaries of State. The Committee’s first meeting took place on March 22, 1961, and shortly thereafter we received our first objects.

 In 1961, Clem Conger (right) began the work of assembling a world-class collection of American art and furnishings on behalf of our nation.
In 1961, Clem Conger (right) began the work of assembling a world-class collection of American art and furnishings on behalf of our nation.

I immediately began visiting collectors, collections, and antique dealers to try to persuade them to give or lend objects to the Rooms. At first only Benjamin Ginsburg of the firm of Ginsburg & Levy, Inc., had enough confidence in me to lend furniture. It sparsely furnished the John Quincy Adams State Drawing Room in time for a visitation by 1,500 members of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. H. Richard Dietrich, Jr., was the first major collector to lend a large number of American cabinetworks, art objects, silver, China-Trade porcelains, and the like. He was advised by Horace and Elinor Gordon, both of whom have been extremely helpful to me. Similarly, other early collectors of fine Americana, such as Lansdell and Helen Christie, Mark Bortman, Henry and Lois McNeil, Mr. and Mrs. Eric M. Wunsch, Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Hennage, Mrs. Robert R. McCormick, and Mrs. George Maurice Morris, were most generous and have remained so throughout the past three decades. John Walker and J. Carter Brown of the National Gallery of Art gave invaluable advice throughout the thirty years and lent many works of art when particularly needed.

Soon after we received our first loans, other collectors and dealers across the country invited me to visit them. Harold Sack of Israel Sack, Inc., became my principal advisor and a good friend, as did other well-regarded dealers and collectors.  Dealers who have assisted me include Robert Carlen, Joe Kindig III, Bernard Levy, Florene Maine, Albert Sack, Eric Shrubsole, David Stockwell, and Robert Trump.  All played active roles in my education and aided in building an outstanding national collection, and all were interested in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms for what they could be in time. They were also intrigued with the idea of encouraging Americans and foreigners to recognize the importance of American decorative and fine arts.

The collection of American fine and decorative art began to take shape throughout the 1960s.
The collection of American fine and decorative art began to take shape throughout the 1960s.

One learns a great deal by attending auctions. John Marion of Sotheby’s, Ralph Carpenter of Christie’s, and others have provided substantial advice over the years. I consider Wendell Garrett, formerly of The Magazine Antiques, to be one of my closest friends and counselors. Gray Boone of Antiques Monthly has been a staunch supporter.  Museum directors, curators, and private collectors have graciously opened their doors and their storerooms to me for study and sometimes for the selection of objects as loans or gifts.

I do not hesitate to remind all who will listen that they cannot take their treasures or their money with them when they leave this world, and so they should make generous contributions to the nation, thereby receiving a tax deduction and doing a public service at the same time. Nor have I been indirect in wooing donors. Patriotism continues to turn indecision into action, and most of the gifts of art to the Collection have come as a direct or indirect result of a feeling of pride in one’s country and of one’s role in enhancing its appearance to the world. There are three factors in giving: tax deduction, patriotism, and family pride. Sometimes it takes all three. Early on, I learned that collectors overcollect and that the Diplomatic Reception Rooms are attractive homes for a family’s superabundance of objects. One of my best methods for acquiring needed pieces has been to ask for them on loan. Once people see such pieces in place, they want to demonstrate their commitment to the nation and to international diplomacy by donating their possessions or by making a purchase possible at a reasonable price. Others give the funds for such objects. (At one point in the 1960s, acquisitions were so desperately needed to fill empty spaces that we took objects on consignment. As a result I was occasionally criticized for providing a showplace for dealers. This method of acquisition was quickly phased out.) Our criteria in selecting the furnishings have been simple elegance, the finest forms, and proportion in all things.

Clem Conger in his office
Clem Conger — a tenacious, resourceful and tireless advocate for the Americana Project — at work in the early curatorial office.

One day in the fall of 1969, when the Department of State project was really underway, President and Mrs. Nixon visited the Diplomatic Reception Rooms. They were so impressed that President Nixon said, “The State Department rooms look better than the White House,” and asked me if I could come over to the White House and help them out. I accepted, thinking he had a limited project in mind. But between 1970 and 1986 I found myself Curator of the White House in the afternoon and Curator at the Department of State in the morning. I resigned as Deputy Chief of Protocol in early 1970. From 1976 to the present, I have also served as Curator of Blair House, four adjoining houses in Lafayette Square with a total of one hundred and twenty-two rooms. This is the President’s guest house for chiefs of state, heads of government, and foreign ministers.

The White House furnishings include objects from the early 19th century through the Victorian era. This emphasis complements the Department of State’s Collection because the majority of its objects date from the colonial and Federal periods in America’s history. Together these two collections act almost as an official mirror of American cultural accomplishments. I saw at an early moment that they would play this role and decided that only the finest examples of American cabinetmaking and American art would do for both collections.

In the early days, when the Diplomatic Reception Rooms still looked sterile and ultra modern, it was hard to convince people to give money or art. Accordingly, as fast as the funds were raised to redesign and reconstruct the Rooms, noted architects and their crews were hired. Four gifted and devoted architects have played key roles in a twenty-five-year endeavor. Edward Vason Jones (1909-1980) volunteered his services and designed the first eight rooms between 1965 and 1980. Walter Macomber (1894-1987) was responsible for the James Madison State Dining Room and the James Monroe State Reception Room, the Martin Van Buren and Henry Clay Rooms, and three small Rooms. John Blatteau (b. 1943) won the competition to design the Benjamin Franklin State Dining Room. More recently, Allan Greenberg (b. 1938) designed all twenty-four seventh-floor Rooms, completing the task that Edward Vason Jones began in 1965. As of December 1989, all architectural reconstruction was complete.

The work of the four architects on this project has been outstanding, but a special tribute must be given to Edward Vason Jones, who envisioned a classical style for the Department of State, the oldest of the departments of the federal government, dating back to the 1780s. As a student of the architecture of Thomas Jefferson, he knew that Jefferson thought of Washington, D.C., as the new Rome. Jones went to Monticello to study Jefferson’s design books in order to shape the Jefferson State Reception Room as a setting that Jefferson himself would have executed. When it reopened, the New York Times called it the finest Palladian room in North America.

The major Diplomatic Reception Rooms are designed to reflect the dominant styles of the last half of the 18th century and the first quarter of the 19th century. The John Quincy Adams State Drawing Room is intended to resemble a Philadelphia drawing room of the period of the Continental Congress. The Thomas Jefferson State Reception Room contains many features of Jefferson’s buildings in Virginia in the neoclassical or Palladian style. The James Monroe Reception Room and the James Madison Dining Room were designed by Walter Macomber to evoke early 19th-century rooms of eastern Virginia and North Carolina — the period when Madison and Monroe were Secretaries of State and Presidents.

The spectacular Benjamin Franklin State Dining Room was such a large space (102 by 45 feet) that no American room could serve as a model. I suggested to the architects in the competition that they think about great dining rooms or entrance halls in or around London and Paris that Franklin, Jefferson, and Adams would have visited. The result is modeled after Kedleston, a great estate north of London designed by Robert Adam around 1770.

We have tried to put the greatest number of historic objects in the John Quincy Adams State Drawing Room, as this is the reception room where the President, the Vice President, the Secretary of State, and various officials greet foreign presidents, prime ministers, and other guests in receiving lines and where distinguished visitors have the most time to note the impressive furnishings. Some of the objects include the porcelain that belonged to George Washington and portraits of John Quincy Adams and his wife, Louisa Catherine Adams, by Robert Leslie, of George and Martha Washington after Rembrandt Peale, and of John Jay by Gilbert Stuart.

The Thomas Jefferson State Reception Room displays Jefferson’s porcelain, one of his portraits attributed to Charles Willson Peale, and his last portrait from life, by Thomas Sully. In the James Monroe State Reception Room and the James Madison State Dining Room are Monroe’s portrait attributed to Samuel F. B. Morse, Monroe’s porcelain, and many examples of Chinese porcelain made for the American trade ornamented with the outstretched-wings eagle of the Great Seal of the United States. Together, the Madison and Monroe Rooms contain the largest collection in the world of American furnishings ornamented with this eagle. This collection is appropriate here, for the Department of State is the custodian of the Great Seal. In the James Madison Dining Room is the great alabaster bas-relief of Madison by Giuseppe Ceracchi, which some consider one of the finest 19th-century sculptural portraits in the United States.

Building the Collection was a tremendous challenge. Prices were escalating all the time. With both the Department of State and the White House actively acquiring, with the growth in the number and size of institutions and foundations amassing art collections, and with the recognition and knowledge of American art that the Bicentennial celebration brought, the possibility of finding and affording great art declined with each year. Adding to this was the explosion of publicity around auction houses and their major sales. In 1971 great pieces of American decorative arts were fetching more than $100,000 — and in 1990 more than $1 million. Today’s prices are light years higher than they were earlier. Gifts of art and money have dwindled sadly with the changes in tax laws in 1986. It would be impossible to assemble the Collection today, regardless of how many millions of dollars were raised.

America has a distinguished and multifaceted cultural and artistic heritage. Special pride can be seen in the dedication and the extraordinary efforts required of the thousands of donors, scholars, craftspeople, diplomats, and others to make this project the greatest of its kind. From the ten-year-old boy who gave $15 to the Fortune 500 company whose foundation gave over $1 million, and from the descendants who gave their portraits of Mr. and Mrs. John Quincy Adams to the two donors who together bid far beyond expectations to return the John Jay portrait to the wall where it had hung for twelve years on loan, every person involved in the project has made a difference.

The Diplomatic Reception Rooms, the first such rooms in the history of the nation, have been made possible and will continue to exist through the generosity and patriotism of individuals, corporations, and foundations. The integrity of the Rooms and the Collection has been assured by an act of Congress. There can be no finer tribute to America’s 18th- and early 19th-century artisans and artists — or to those who created the Rooms in the 20th century — than to have their finest efforts displayed as national treasures in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms where the whole world can see them.

Now our efforts can turn to replacing loans with objects acquired by purchase or gift, to upgrading the Collection, and to maintaining the Rooms and the furnishings and art housed within them. This is a major undertaking, especially since every expense is paid for only through donations. But the honor and pleasure of participating in the making of strong international relations — in fact, of being a part of the making of diplomatic history — has always been the inspiration for the project. With the patriotism of the American people as high as ever, we trust that contributions of objects and funds will flourish still and that the Rooms will continue to play their strong supporting role in American diplomacy, while delighting and enlightening us with their beauty, inspiration, and sense of history.

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