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Diplomatic Reception Rooms

Great American Rail-Trail

Architecture Politics, Policy & Justice

The Thomas Jefferson State Reception Room located in the Harry S. Truman Federal Building. The room embodies the perfect 1900 neoclassical style from the furniture to the paintings depicting American history.

In these 42 rooms, members of the U.S. Department of State meet with diplomats, entertain foreign leaders and engage in other activities of diplomacy—while sitting among 5,000 museum-caliber pieces of American furniture, decoration and fine art made between 1750 and 1825. [1] Although the rooms look like relics from that period, they were actually built and furnished in the mid-20th century! The Harry S. Truman State Department Building was originally constructed in 1940–41 for the War Department, but the United States’ entry into World War II meant that the War Department immediately outgrew it. The Pentagon was built instead, and the building was turned over to the State Department. However, WWII also required the State Department to rapidly expand, and in 1955, Congress approved funding to construct an addition to the building. [2] The extension was completed in 1960, and the new Diplomatic Rooms in the seventh and eighth floors were furnished in the mid-century modern style that was popular at the time. Clement E. Conger, who became the curator of the Diplomatic Rooms in 1961, acerbically recalled the situation that he had to fix:

"[T]he 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. … [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 moll.” [3]

For the next 25 years, Conger oversaw the conversion of these underwhelming spaces into one of the foremost collections of early American art and antiques. [4] The rooms were renovated with period details like Palladian windows and mahogany floors until these innards no longer bore any resemblance to the building’s exterior. Because Congress does not appropriate taxpayer money for decorative objects, Conger hustled to raise funds to pay for the project. In 1977, The New York Times reported that "Mr. Conger spends much of his time scouring the country for donors and contributors, or, failing that, for collectors offering good buys.” “It takes hunting,” he told the Times. "If I just sat here on my derriere, nothing would happen.” [5]

As a result of his hard work, visitors to the Diplomatic Reception Rooms can now get a sense of what luxury looked like during the 19th century.

 

  • [1] Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State, accessed February 4, 2020,
    https://diplomaticrooms.state.gov.
  • [2] NRHP.
  • [2] “Building History,” Harry S. Truman Federal Building, U.S. General Services Administration, last modified August 13, 2017, https://www.gsa.gov/historic-buildings/harry-s-truman-federal-building-washington-dc#overview.
  • [3] Conger, Clement E. “The Story of the Collection: Gifts to the Nation,”In Treasures of State: Fine and Decorative Arts in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms of the U.S. Department of State, edited by Clement E. Conger and Mary K. Itsell, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1991.
  • [4] John Files, “Clement Conger, 91, Curator Who Beautified Federal Halls,”New York Times, January 13, 2004.
  • [5] Laura Foreman, “White House Acquisitor,” New York Times, March 17,1977, 65.
References

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