The Benjamin Franklin State Dining Room is used for both dining and diplomacy and, at almost 100 feet long, can accommodate 375 guests. Here American ambassadors and diplomats are sworn into service, and both presidents and secretaries of state give speeches, conduct meetings with world leaders, and host receptions for foreign and American guests. Because of its size, no room in colonial or Federal America could serve as a model, so its architect, John Blatteau, looked toward Europe.
Blatteau found his inspiration in Kedleston Hall, built for the Curzon family in Derbyshire in 1765 as a showplace for exhibitions and grand entertainments. Franklin himself would have known Kedleston from his travels around England when he was a diplomatic representative of the American colonies in London during the 1760s and early 1770s.
A Setting for Diplomacy
Of all the spaces in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms, this State Room evokes the most grandeur. Like Kedleston Hall, the design emphasizes the balance and geometric proportion of Greek and Roman architecture. Freestanding columns line the long walls, and pilasters line the short walls. Twenty-four karat oil gilding highlights the Corinthian capitals and the coffered ceiling. In the center of the ceiling, carved in plaster and similarly gilded, is the Great Seal of the United States. Central to the Great Seal is the image of a bald eagle, whose talons hold arrows, symbolizing war, and an olive branch, symbolizing peace. In its beak is a banner with the motto “E pluribus unum,” meaning “Out of many, one.” This seal was designed by Congress not long after independence was declared in 1776, and since 1789 the secretary of state has been its official keeper. Elements of the seal are repeated in the rug below, which was designed by the architect and specially made for this room. Woven into its patterns are stars for the fifty states and emblems celebrating American agriculture and natural abundance.
Eight cut-glass chandeliers and sconces along the walls of the room provide dramatic lighting. The room is furnished with four American Federal sideboards made in New York, one by the renowned cabinetmaker Duncan Phyfe. Paintings on the walls include a still life of fruits and flowers by Severin Roesen, and a landscape by the famous painter of the American West, Thomas Moran. Works by George Caleb Bingham and John Singer Sargent are also featured. Hanging in a place of honor is a portrait of Benjamin Franklin, a copy of a portrait made in 1767, when Franklin was in London. It shows not the public diplomat but the private man of science, wearing spectacles—perhaps the bifocals of his own invention—as he studies legal documents under a bust of Isaac Newton.
- The focal point of this room is a portrait of Benjamin Franklin by Bradley Stevens (b. 1954) – a copy of that painted by the Scottish artist David Martin in 1767.
- The room’s centerpiece is the Great Seal of the United States, rendered on the ceiling in detailed plasterwork and 24-carat oil gilding.
- A view of the Benjamin Franklin Room State Dining Room as it appeared in 1961.