A stately setting

January 2024

A stately setting
by Myron Magnet

On America’s Collection: The Art & Architecture of the Diplomatic Reception Rooms at the U.S. Department of State by Virginia B. Hart.

Don’t mistake the sumptuously produced, lavishly illustrated America’s Collection: The Art & Architecture of the Diplomatic Reception Rooms at the U.S. Department of State for just one more coffee-table bagatelle.1 It’s an important reminder that architecture is as much about the interior as the exterior of buildings, that its role is to adorn and enhance the activity it houses as well as to present a gracious face to the public world. Chief among the landmarks of architectural history, after all, are Michelangelo’s muscular staircase hall in the Laurentian Library, for instance, or Robert Adam’s neoclassical rooms built into the Elizabethan Syon House, or the interiors of the great cathedrals in Christendom. Like those additions to the Laurentian and Syon, the forty-two splendid, classical State Department rooms are built within an earlier building, a bland, modern behemoth, to which these rooms stand as a corrective, even a mild reproach. We can and should build like this, these interiors seem to whisper.

Just such an impulse brought the rooms into being, as several of this book’s dozen engaging essays, under the direction of the State Department curator Virginia B. Hart, recount. When the Truman Building, the State Department’s limestone-clad headquarters, opened in 1961 in Washington’s Foggy Bottom district, Secretary of State Christian Herter’s wife, Mary, toured her husband’s new domain with dismay. Decorated in late-1950s motel style, writes the contributor Carolyn Vaughan, it had the charm and dignity of an airport—and the Queen of Greece was just about to arrive for a dinner there. Couldn’t something be done?

Yes, replied Clement Conger, State’s visionary deputy protocol chief, who had originally suggested building the reception rooms for diplomatic gatherings on the building’s top two floors. First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, lacking government funds to replace the department-store furniture that then embarrassed the White House, had just formed a committee to solicit donations of antiques, and Conger, following her lead, set up his own fine-arts committee. He proved so effective an advocate that he earned the nickname of “the Grand Acquisitor” and became the rooms’ curator. But the splendor of his newly acquired furniture and decorations only pointed up the banality of the rooms’ architecture, dismally shown with their blank walls, fluorescent lights, and acoustical-tile ceilings pierced by air-conditioning outlets in “before” photos throughout this book.

An introduction to the Georgia architect Edward Vason Jones supplied the abracadabra to complete Conger’s magic spell. Jones, who’d apprenticed with the classical pioneer Philip Trammell Shutze, had taught himself architecture by photographing and measuring some of the nation’s major Colonial and Federal houses, studying them so thoroughly that he could “enter into the mind and almost become the hand of an early American architect,” as Allan Greenberg, his successor as the rooms’ designer, writes in this volume. An architect of distinction, Jones designed houses that eloquently testify, both inside and out, that classical architecture never ceased to be a living American tradition from colonial days through the buildings of Benjamin Henry Latrobe, Charles Follen McKim, and John Russell Pope, up until his own mid-twentieth-century moment. Jones, the hyper-refined connoisseur, nevertheless didn’t hesitate to take off his bow tie and well-tailored suit jacket and dirty his hands, mixing paint to get the precise shade he wanted and assembling a team of craftsmen who could make paneling and carve mantels with the virtuosity of the Georgian masters. He volunteered his services to Conger and set to work in 1965. He kept at it for fifteen years.

As you step off the elevators on the eighth floor of the Truman Building, you pass through a procession of halls and galleries leading to the John Quincy Adams State Drawing Room, all elaborately paneled and modeled on pre-Revolutionary houses. These rooms speak the 2,500-year-old architectural language of classicism with a Colonial American accent. All the traditional balance and harmony are there, the sense of an ordered, comprehensible universe, but instead of the grand size of the old-world palaces that visiting diplomats are accustomed to, the scale here is domestic, as if to ennoble the individual citizen rather than to impress with the overwhelming power of a monarchy. Even so, the decoration is rich indeed, from the marble-looking plaster pilasters of the elevator hall now named in memory of Jones to the entrance hall’s ceiling plasterwork copied from the Philadelphia house of the formidable Elizabeth Powel, who famously asked Benjamin Franklin, as he emerged from the Constitutional Convention, what kind of government the delegates had given America, drawing the more famous reply, “A republic—if you can keep it.”

Edward Vason Jones Memorial Hall. Photo: © 2022 Durston Saylor

After you’ve passed through the architectural virtuosity of the anterooms, the Adams room, a tribute to the sixth president’s service as ambassador and secretary of state, still strikes you as a tour de force. Greenberg, in his chapter on Jones, points out the technical challenges posed by this long, low room. Jones’s solution was to divide it in half visually. He split one long wall with a central fireplace topped by a tall, pedimented overmantel, deftly carved and flanked by Ionic pilasters, and he halved the opposite wall with a fanlight-crowned doorway between matching pilasters. He further emphasized the vertical with pilasters at the room’s corners and six tall windows flanking the fanlit doorway, balanced on the opposite wall by two built-in, pedimented china cupboards stretching up to the elaborate crown molding. It’s hard to stop looking at this volume’s photo of the stone-colored room, spread across two pages. The design, both beautiful and interesting, is like a set of musical variations as you follow the rhythm and harmony of the resemblances played off against the differences.

Nevertheless, Jones thought his Thomas Jefferson State Reception Room topped this. With it, he said, “I tried to do something Jefferson might have done, appreciated, given his approval to.” He achieved this in three ways. As Jefferson, an amateur architect of genius, had done in designing Monticello and the Virginia State Capital, Jones gave the architectural language of classicism not just an American accent but a specifically democratic, republican inflection. As Greenberg contends in his earlier Architecture of Democracy (2006), Jefferson looked to the architecture of republican Rome, democratic Greece, and the independent city-states of the Italian Renaissance as embodiments of the political qualities he cherished. Jones’s Jefferson room strikes all these notes. He copies Monticello’s Greek ox-skull-and-rosette motif on his entablature’s frieze and the frame of his French doors. He echoes its classical pediments and moldings, and he centers the room on an antique marble fireplace carved with Roman scenes. His main doorway, with its fanlight and marbleized plaster columns and pilasters, resembles a Palladian window from Renaissance Italy, and indeed, the whole scheme, in its perfectly balanced classicism and exquisite restraint, is Palladian. (To appreciate this point even more fully than the book shows, look at the virtual tour on the State Department’s website.) And the room’s seven-foot-high doorways, Greenberg emphasizes, are human-scaled to fit the individual citizen, as democratic architecture always is.

The Entrance Hall. Photo: © 2022 Durston Saylor

Second, in adapting some of Monticello’s characteristic decorative motifs, Jones combined them to create something both Jeffersonian and original. The striking pattern of the mahogany and maple floor is a more elaborate variation on Monticello’s parlor parquetry, for instance. The circular niches over the paneled mahogany doors on either side of the fireplace echo the round windows in Monticello’s dome room and its bedroom portholes, and they contain busts on consoles, like Jefferson’s tea room. The triple-hung windows reach down to the floor, as Jefferson’s do, and the clear robin’s-egg blue of the walls matches the paint in Monticello’s South Square Room.

The third homage to Jefferson is explicit—a life-sized statue in a pedimented niche of the man himself, holding a pen in one hand and the Declaration of Independence in the other. It’s a reminder that Jefferson had inscribed on his tomb not that he’d been secretary of state and president but only that he wrote the declaration and the Virginia statute of religious freedom, and founded the University of Virginia. He was a champion of liberty in full—political, religious, and intellectual. And as if embodying American liberty, carved and gilded eagles seem to lift upward the graceful Jones-designed window curtains on either side of him.

The Thomas Jefferson State Reception Room. Photo: © 2022 Durston Saylor

When Jones died in 1980, the curator Conger asked Walter Macomber, the resident architect at Mount Vernon, to complete the unfinished eighth-floor rooms, which he did in what the architect and architectural historian Mark Alan Hewitt, in one of his informative chapters, politely terms a “more academic” style than Jones’s. Conger then staged a competition for the last and biggest project on that floor, the Benjamin Franklin State Dining Room, seating 375. The winner, John Blatteau, produced a classical confection “as beautiful as anything in Washington,” Hewitt writes. With its restrained shades of buff-colored paint, it is composed of few, though opulent, elements: paired rose-colored faux-marble columns with gilded Corinthian capitals framing pedimented French doors out onto the terrace, a coved ceiling with gilded coffers in the cove, a gilded ceiling medallion showing the Great Seal of the United States, eight grand crystal chandeliers, and a fireplace also flanked by paired rose-colored columns. Worked into each Corinthian capital is a great seal, with its eagle and shield. Above the fireplace hangs a copy of David Martin’s portrait showing Franklin, the polymath who served as America’s first diplomat. He negotiated, as the historian Stacy Schiff recounts in her graceful biographical essay, the treaty of alliance with France that was key to the new nation’s victory in the revolution.

Secretary of State George Shultz wanted a hand in choosing the architect for the seventh-floor rooms, where his office was. After all, he’d been the president of the global construction giant Bechtel, and “the banging of hammers and the whine of drills,” he once wrote, “were not noise to me, they were the music of progress.” When Conger introduced him to Greenberg, the two quickly became friends.

Greenberg, as soon as he’d graduated from architecture school in his native South Africa, had fled to Europe out of a hatred of apartheid. He’d hoped to work for the modernist luminary Le Corbusier, whom he idolized, but he worked instead for Denmark’s Jørn Utzon on the celebrated Sydney Opera House and then for two more years in Scandinavia. But there, as he wandered around Stockholm, he felt his first misgivings about the modernist project.

He had come upon a lovely housing development, built around courtyards in 1907 and cherished by its working-class residents, as was clear from the flourishing flower boxes and crisp curtains at the windows. Because it didn’t meet current building codes, the government had decided to tear down the complex and replace it with modernist buildings. Many noisy protests by the residents finally prevailed. It hadn’t occurred to officials to consult them before making plans to raze their homes.

Maybe, Greenberg reflected, architects and planners—influenced by Corbusier’s autocratic city-planning vision of inhumanly tall towers arranged geometrically in windswept parks like filing cabinets for storing people—shouldn’t be quite so dictatorial. Maybe Jane Jacobs and Henry Hope Reed were right in their critique of modernist architecture and urbanism as sterile, ugly, and alienating. Perhaps even Norman Mailer had a point in condemning it as “fascistic” in its arrogance.

Suspended in uncertainty, Greenberg decided to come to America and enroll in the Yale School of Architecture in 1964. The world being small, his class of twelve included the future starchitects Norman Foster and Richard Rogers. With memories of the Stockholm courtyards, Greenberg began to look closely at Yale’s neo-Gothic quadrangles by James Gamble Rogers and John Russell Pope—looked, admired, and learned. After graduation, he joined New Haven’s Redevelopment Agency, just when it was ground zero for the urban-renewal movement Jane Jacobs so deplored. A “tawdry reflection of Le Corbusier’s ideal city,” the movement’s bulldozing of old, cozy neighborhoods with history and character to be replaced by stark towers was, Greenberg wrote, “an unmitigated disaster for American cities and towns.”

As a respite, in 1967, he made a long-planned trip to Charlottesville, to visit Monticello and the University of Virginia. He was developing the kind of American patriotism that perhaps only those who have lived under tyranny can feel. He has written that he revered the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution “as miraculous creations . . . on the order of the tablets of law God handed Moses,” and he wanted to see what kind of architecture the author of the Declaration had created. It was a life-changing pilgrimage. “I felt as if I was walking through Jefferson’s mind,” he writes of Monticello’s complex, rational, inventive geometry (an epiphany I and doubtless many others also have had). For Greenberg, the house and college “captured some quintessential aspect of the spirit of America,” the spirit of the free, self-governing individual citizen that he has sought to embody in the many chastely beautiful houses and college buildings he has designed in his distinguished career.

So he was an ideal choice for carrying on Jones’s State Department project and for providing Shultz with “a place Thomas Jefferson could walk into and feel at home,” as the secretary of state told him he wanted. Edward Vason Jones would have felt equally at home there, for Greenberg, as he says, had figuratively sat “at the feet of this great master,” studying what he had achieved on the floor above and digesting its lessons as only another great master could. It’s as if Greenberg ups the ante on Jones; he sees him and raises him, incorporating his motifs—his rich, stone-colored cornices, his pilasters, his magnificent carving and paneling—and taking them a step further with confident audacity.

His masterpieces are the Treaty Room, for ceremonial signings, and the offices of the secretary and deputy secretary of state. The two offices are virtuoso variations of each other, serenely classical yet paradoxically bursting with almost mannerist energy in the commanding scale and elaboration of their cornices and entablatures, and the drama with which the paneling projects and recedes to emphasize the rooms’ architectural features. Fireplaces with exquisitely carved mantels and vigorously molded overmantels, flanked by stop-fluted pilasters, project outward, and then the wall drops back to another set of pilasters and drops back again to display cabinets on either side, before turning the corner with a projecting pilaster. The rare marble facing of the fireplaces continues around the baseboards of both rooms. Corinthian capitals containing a gilded great seal top the secretary of state’s pilasters, and pediments break through the entablatures over his fireplace and doorway, with its assertively carved frame, gorgeously figured mahogany double doors, and polished brass Georgian-style box locks. The deputy secretary’s pilasters sport Ionic capitals adorned with a carved, gilded ribbon, and that office’s display cupboards have frames modeled on Christopher Wren’s window frames at St Paul’s Cathedral. These are the drawing rooms of citizens, yes—but very rich ones.

The Treaty Room is Greenberg’s greatest triumph, a grand recapitulation of the most striking motifs of the forty-two rooms and a brilliantly original work of art, deploying traditional elements in unexpected ways. A dozen pairs of white Corinthian columns line the large oval room. They support a relatively simple architrave topped by a dentil molding that’s reminiscent of Jones’s Jefferson Room, as is the room’s blue-and-white color scheme, its ceiling medallion, and its elaborate inlaid floor of maple, mahogany, and ebony, its design derived, however, not from Monticello but from Michelangelo’s pavement at the Piazza del Campidoglio in Rome. Four built-in display cupboards, their frames like Wren’s at St Paul’s, as in the deputy secretary’s office, stretch up to the architrave.

The Treaty Room. Photo: © 2022 Durston Saylor

At both ends of the room’s long axis, the paired, stop-fluted columns, which echo Blatteau’s down to the gilded great seal adorning each capital, do something extraordinary. Here the curved wall opens up into a doorway framed by the architrave, which continues around, and by two pairs of columns, the outermost two columns still half-engaged with the wall and the inner two freestanding. Each opening leads into an anteroom painted the same blue and white and with the same architrave and molding, so that one has the impression that the Treaty Room has magically burst its boundaries and expanded outward. When the beautifully framed mahogany double doors on the opposite wall of each anteroom are open, they lead into matching wainscoted reception rooms, so that the view from one reception room through the entire five-room enfilade is an exhilarating architectural experience.

But what of the furniture and decorations with which Conger began this project? The second half of the book catalogs some of the collection’s highlights, and the catalogue is unusually engaging, studded with interesting historical tidbits, if quirky in its selection. The collection’s jewel, the contributor Alexandra Kirtley writes, is “an extraordinary piece of American history”—the desk on which the Treaty of Paris, ending the Revolutionary War, was signed in September 1783. The desk adorns Jones’s John Quincy Adams room, displaying not one but two portraits each of Adams and his wife, Louisa. The room is a shrine to the treaty and to the diplomacy of the republic’s first decades. Over the mantel hangs a (mediocre) copy of Benjamin West’s group portrait of the five American commissioners who began negotiations for the treaty, including the three—John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and John Jay—who signed it. The other half of the painting remains unfinished, as the British commissioners never turned up to sit for West. At one end of the room hangs Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of Jay, the treaty’s real hero, for the first chief justice was also a brilliant diplomat. He ignored Congress’s instructions, which had been dictated by the French foreign minister, to negotiate in lockstep with the French. Instead, he negotiated a separate treaty with Britain, a treaty that left the new nation much bigger, more powerful, and more independent of France than the French minister had planned—or than the Founding Fathers and Congress had dared to hope.

Balancing the desk on the other side of the fireplace is an eighteenth-century architect’s table that the former secretary of state John Kerry, in his foreword to this volume, points to as the table on which Jefferson drafted “the blueprints of a democracy,” which George Shultz elsewhere identified as the Declaration of Independence. This pleasing attribution is most likely mythical; it’s not clear that the table was even Jefferson’s. But very real are the room’s 1820 engraved facsimile of the then-fading declaration, the basis of all subsequent reproductions, and its Thomas Sully portrait of Jefferson at seventy-seven. Other treasures include John and Abigail Adams’s monogrammed silver coffeepot, from the workshop of Paul Revere, and (to me as sacred as the Holy Grail) one of the four silver-plated wine coolers that George Washington bought for his presidential dining room and later gave as mementoes to members of his cabinet—this one to Timothy Pickering, the third secretary of state.

A glance at the Metropolitan Museum of Art curator Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen’s description of the collection’s ceramics shows what makes the five catalogue essays sparkle. Though the furniture, pictures, and silver display the finest American artistry, the plates and vases, Frelinghuysen explains, illustrate the new nation’s immersion in global commerce from the time American ships first entered the china trade. The essay doesn’t just describe the items but also offers a brisk, eye-opening account of how the eighteenth-century export china business operated, with wares fired in Jingdezhen then shipped five hundred miles overland to the Pearl River at Canton (as foreign merchants called Guangzhou), where foreign trading companies, permitted to operate but four months of each year, gathered them in riverfront warehouses, transported them in small boats to ships anchored in deep water down the river, and shipped them to Europe and America. A colorful punch bowl of about 1780 depicts five of the long, narrow warehouses, flying the flags of Denmark, Sweden, France, Holland, and Britain.

In Canton, painters decorated the wares, often with designs ordered by the retail purchasers. The collection boasts a plate from George Washington’s dinner service—emblazoned with the angel of fame holding the badge of the Society of the Cincinnati, the fraternal order of Revolutionary War officers—ordered by the first American trading vessel to reach China in 1784. Tea saucers from 1790 show the arms of Rhode Island and of New York State, while a 1795 saucer of Martha Washington’s shows her monogram surrounded by a chain of the fifteen states that then made up the union. When French porcelain came into fashion in the nineteenth century, James and Dolley Madison bought a dinner service, one plate of which is pictured in the book, in 1806. The friend who acquired it for them boasted that he’d saved 40 percent on the price by getting it from Nast’s Paris factory rather than from the Sèvres factory, as originally intended.

John Quincy Adams State Drawing Room. Photo: © 2022 Durston Saylor

The ceramics collection also offers a welcome corrective to our era’s hypersensitivity about race. Yes, slavery disfigured the founding, but here is the famous medallion Josiah Wedgwood’s pottery works made in the 1780s, showing a kneeling, chained black slave, surrounded by the motto “am i not a man and a brother?” Wedgwood was a leader of the British slave-trade abolition society—a movement that succeeded in 1807—and in the mid-1780s he sent several of the medallions to Benjamin Franklin, the president of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, which had already succeeded in getting the state to pass its Gradual Abolition Act in 1780, the first such law in America. So, even before the Constitutional Convention, Americans were working to end slavery, an affront to “freedom itself,” as Wedgwood wrote Franklin in sending the plaque. Less well known is the collection’s 1838 copper medal showing almost the same image, but of a female slave, surrounded by the legend “am i not a woman & a sister?” The size of a penny, these medals were passed off as pocket change, an effective propaganda tool circulated by the American Anti-Slavery Society until the U.S. Mint swiftly suppressed their circulation.

Also qualifying today’s claim that American history is an unrelieved tale of racism is the collection’s 1848 lithograph made from William Sidney Mount’s 1847 painting The Power of Music. A white fiddler plays for two appreciative white friends inside a barn, while a black laborer, hat in hand and with patched clothing, listens raptly outside, an expression of wistful sensitivity on his fine features. Though separated by the barn door, all four men share a common humanity in their appreciation of beauty. As for the mysterious anonymous American oil portrait of a fashionably dressed black flutist holding a score of William Shield’s duets, painted somewhere between 1785 and 1810, we can say only that the sitter looks like anyone’s equal.

Leafing through this book brings to mind a remark the classical architect Peter Pennoyer once made, that modernists forgot how to design rooms, or didn’t bother to: witness bedrooms with an air conditioner on one wall, a closet on another, an entry door on a third, and a bathroom door on a fourth, leaving no place for a bed. And if you look at advertisements for new houses and apartments, you’ll see lots of raw, unadorned space, dignified as an “open plan.” Such formless emptiness is not an advance on the balance and harmony of these traditional, classical rooms, with their respect for boundaries and individual privacy. At bottom, isn’t Le Corbusier’s dictum that “a house is a machine for living in” poor and brutish, like feeding instead of dining? Architecture is meant to strive for the beauty of these rooms, to adorn and humanize life, not merely to shelter us like an artificial cave.

America’s Collection: The Art & Architecture of the Diplomatic Reception Rooms at the U.S. Department of State, by Virginia B. Hart; Rizzoli Electa, 352 pages, $100.