All told, the collection is valued at more than $100 million, but it’s not housed at one of Washington’s many prestigious art galleries, nor can it be found on a tour through the White House or Congress.
This sanctuary of American history is quietly nestled on the top floors of the State Department, whose headquarters along C Street is more known visually for its drab austerity and security barricades than for priceless art. But in stark contrast to the Harry S. Truman Building’s lackluster exterior, the Diplomatic Reception Rooms, spread out over the seventh and eighth floor, are a haven of American refinement.
Consisting of a suite of 42 different period settings spanning more than 28,000 square feet, the Diplomatic Reception Rooms hold some 5,000 items ranging from 18th-century Chippendale furniture to landscape paintings to mahogany grandfather clocks to portraits of all the secretaries of state, along with other treasures and tidbits of Americana. Another claim to fame: The rooms are home to the world’s largest collection of eagle-inlay furnishings and art. It’s not obvious at first, but take a closer look and you’ll see the omnipresence of America’s emblematic bird peering back at you from every corner.
It’s an unrivaled collection that tells the story of America’s birth and its early days — from William Douglas MacLeod’s pastoral landscape depicting the Capitol Building in Washington in 1844, with cows overlooking the boarding houses where members of Congress stayed, to the silver eagle-adorned skippet boxes used to protect the wax seals on treaties and official documents, to a beaded Navajo leather saddle bag (one of the most recently donated items).
Mostly composed of fine and decorative arts from 1740 to 1840 — all privately donated — the Diplomatic Reception Rooms host some 90,000 visitors each year, from prime ministers, to students on field trips, to constituents touring the nation’s capital while meeting their members of Congress.
Yet the State Department isn’t exactly the first stop that comes to mind when tourists or Washingtonians want to gaze at illustrious works of art (by comparison, some 600,000 people tour the White House annually). So this year, to mark the 50th anniversary of the Diplomatic Reception Rooms — which will be fêted with a gala reception in October — State Department officials are working to boost the visibility of the masterpieces in their midst.
“We definitely welcome more exposure,” said Marcee Craighill, director and de facto curator of the Diplomatic Reception Rooms who leads an office of four staff members responsible for preserving and protecting the collection. “We have an unbelievable resource that’s just lying here waiting to have its stories told.”
In addition to the 50th anniversary gala, Craighill’s Fine Arts Office is hoping to broaden area educational partnerships and expand access to the Diplomatic Reception Rooms via the Internet, digitizing the entire collection so that when you Google “Benjamin Franklin,” for instance, items from the rooms instantly pop up, with links to historical and artistic information.
“I’m trying more and more to tell the stories of the objects in all of the material that we produce to take it from an extraordinary decorative art collection to an extraordinary historical story,” Craighill told The Washington Diplomat. “So we’ve spent a lot of time in the last few years rebranding who we are, what we do that’s different from other museums, and what our story is.”
That story also epitomizes America’s own arduous journey to statehood. “In so many ways, the story of the development of this collection parallels the story of the development of our nation. We really did have this early period where we were fumbling along and weren’t quite sure of ourselves. And then I think we hit our stride and really developed a cohesive, extraordinary collection that has such great purpose,” said Craighill, a museum specialist who holds a master’s in American decorative arts from the Parsons School for Design in New York.
“To have a museum-quality collection of priceless objects that serve the country, serve the purpose of diplomacy, is extraordinary,” she added. “And truly I walk through the rooms every day and it’s an inspiration to me.”
But the rooms are more than an artistic showcase or walk through history; they’re diplomatic workhorses — a high-pressure environment where Secretary of State Hillary Clinton constantly meets with heads of state, ambassadors, delegations and even royalty from around the world. Here, press conferences are routinely held, envoys are sworn in, treaties are signed, and dinners — from the elaborate to the intimate — are staged with military-like precision.
For example, on a recent visit, The Washington Diplomat peeked into the James Monroe State Reception Room (off-limits to public tours), which was being prepped for a working luncheon with Omani Foreign Minister Yusuf Bin Alawi bin Abdullah. Individual place cards and menus were being carefully laid out, while falafel bread, hummus and other traditional Arab fare dotted the table.
Earlier in the day, Clinton delighted a group of youngsters with a “swearing-in ceremony” for the children of State Department employees as part of Take Your Child to Work Day. And a few weeks before that, Clinton joined former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger for a taping of “The Charlie Rose Show” in the Benjamin Franklin State Dining Room, where the two veteran diplomats reflected on their jobs as part of the “Conversations on Diplomacy” series that will air on PBS. Most recently, the room served as the backdrop for President Obama’s landmark speech on the Arab spring and Mideast peace process.
It’s an intense, behind-the-scenes, 24-hour operation to keep the rooms running smoothly, as everyone from protocol officers to the kitchen staff must balance the daily stream of public viewings and private functions, which amount to three docent-led public tours every day and, Craighill estimated, about 350 to 400 activities each year.
“Unlike a museum, these rooms are constantly being used,” said Craighill, who has worked at the Office of Fine Arts for seven years. “It’s a museum collection with a great purpose,” she added, “fine art in the service of the country, of the art of diplomacy.”
That service though translates into a lot of wear and tear — which in turn fuels another crucial aspect of the operation: fundraising. The Diplomatic Reception Rooms embody the face of American diplomacy for countless dignitaries, so they can’t look haggard, but the restoration of priceless art can, of course, get pricey.
Craighill noted that to reupholster one gold-hued serpentine sofa, for instance, cost roughly $120,000. Each piece of silverware and brass must be re-polished with special lacquers. “The premise is that you do not cause any damage to historical objects. Every aspect is preservation and low-impact — so that there’s not another nail hole driven. Every aspect of restoration is done in the way it would have been done in the 18th century,” Craighill explained.
Yet not a single taxpayer dime is spent for the upkeep, a fact the State Department prides itself on. Instead, it looks to private — and patriotic — citizens to cover the costs. Donors have contributed every single piece of art in the rooms and helped to raise funds each year for their conservation.
“It’s rather remarkable that all of it has been given,” Craighill said, noting she maintains “wonderful relationships” with donors in the U.S. art community. “It’s just remarkable that this collection came about through generosity, through careful selection and acquisitions, to create something that is considered the third most important collection of Americana in the nation.”
For example, David Rubenstein, co-founder of the Carlyle Group, recently lent a copy of the Declaration of Independence commissioned under John Quincy Adams (and located in the room that bears his name) to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the original document. Other items have been donated by immigrants who came to the United States paupers but made their fortunes here, symbolizing the American dream of entrepreneurship.
Like any museum curator, Craighill also works with patrons to fill gaps in the collection. She’s currently on the lookout for more portraits of women of the period — “We’d love to have a Dolley Madison” — and early views of U.S. cities in the 18th and 19th centuries, as well as any other museum-caliber objects “that tell the story of America.”
Each year in August, the rooms are closed for inspection. “Nothing is left to deteriorate. And so everything is examined,” Craighill explained. “Conservator scholars … do an evaluation of the collection and we discuss what we can do within our budget, and lay out a plan for the next few years.”
In the past though, it’s been more of a piecemeal approach, with Craighill’s office charged with raising roughly between $300,000 to $500,000 a year for conservation, forcing it at times to choose one priority over another if the money came up short.
So this year, the State Department has embarked on a concerted 50th anniversary campaign dubbed “Patrons of Diplomacy” to raise $20 million by the end of the year — already reaching the $15 million mark as of May.
Among the goals is to refurbish rooms that haven’t had any major work since 1969 with new lighting, wall paint, upholstery and rugs. Another project is to add greenery to the rooftop terrace, part of a larger greening initiative to make the State Department and America’s embassies abroad more eco-friendly.
Another overarching aim of the Patrons of Diplomacy campaign is to create a permanent, self-sustaining endowment so that funds are always available to preserve the Diplomatic Reception Rooms for future generations. The State Department has also enlisted an all-star roster — including former Secretaries of State Condoleezza Rice, Madeleine Albright, Colin Powell and George P. Shultz — to help tap a new legion of benefactors, hosting recent events for art patrons on the East and West Coasts.
Craighill also praises the current secretary of state for finding time in her busy schedule (she’s logged nearly 1 million miles as one of the country’s most well-traveled diplomats in history) to refocus attention on the rooms.
“When I started this job just over two years ago, I was surprised to learn that there was no endowment to support the Diplomatic Rooms or this collection. Marcee and her team were forced to make difficult decisions every year about which pieces would be conserved and which would not,” Clinton said at a recent reception honoring “Patrons of Diplomacy” donors, explaining the impetus behind the endowment. “It will ensure, with your help, that these rooms and the history inside them are protected for more people to enjoy…. because these works represent the best America has to offer.”
“It was just so serendipitous that Secretary Clinton arrived because we were ready to move forward,” Craighill told us, “but we just needed help.”
Likewise, she credits Protocol Chief Capricia Marshall and the entire Protocol Office for their outreach efforts, actively engaging with the diplomatic community and the public to raise awareness of what the U.S. government does on a daily basis.
The drive to remake the rooms though began in earnest decades ago. They started life almost as blank slates — more specifically, plain office space befitting the early 1960s era of utilitarian modernity. It may have worked for “Mad Men,” but it hardly worked as a grand entrée for foreign dignitaries. So Clement E. Conger, the collection’s founding curator, set about gradually transforming each room, teaming up with interior designer and architect Edward Vason Jones to imbue the space with traditional beauty grounded in historical significance.
Square corners and sparse white walls gave way to elegant molding and architecture that references specific periods and places in American history. Some rooms recreate the feel of an 18th-century home in Virginia, for example, while others evoke the Palladian style of Philadelphia during the time of the Continental Congress.
The pieces have also been deliberately chosen for their historical connection to the country’s early evolution. As Craighill says, “everything has a purpose,” and each piece is part of the larger American narrative.
That silver teapot belonging to patriot Paul Revere, for instance, was made around 1800, the year that ushered in a peaceful transfer of executive power from President John Adams to Thomas Jefferson. The Chinese export porcelain testifies to the boom in trade with the Far East and Europe. The earliest complete tea and coffee set made in the United States shows that the British didn’t have a monopoly on drinking tea. Paintings depicting the breathtaking Wyoming landscape by Thomas Moran, who joined a U.S. Geological expedition there in 1871, helped persuade Congress to set aside federal land for Yellowstone National Park.
A mahogany desk and bookcase is fascinating not only for its unique bombé shape, modeled after ancient Roman sarcophagi, but for its creator: Benjamin Frothingham, a young cabinetmaker whose life embodies the early American spirit. After the British burned Charlestown, Mass., home to his shop, Frothingham fought in the Revolutionary War, rising through the ranks and meeting George Washington before resuming the family cabinet business after the United States won its independence.
The less-than-glorious sides of American history are documented as well. Simple but powerful Wedgewood medallions portraying the silhouette of a chained African American man — inscribed with the words, “Am I Not a Man and a Brother?” — were passed out like campaign buttons in the movement to abolish slavery (Benjamin Franklin handed out the politically charged cameos). A once-proud Native American warrior on horseback looks up to the heavens for guidance to keep his people from losing their land and their way of life in the bronze statue “Appeal to the Great Spirit.”
The objects are scattered throughout intricately themed rooms inspired by American icons such as John Quincy Adams and Benjamin Franklin. For instance, the pale blue walls of the Thomas Jefferson State Reception Room are reminiscent of Jefferson’s stately residence at Monticello. An imposing statue of the third U.S. president — a replica of the one that stands in the U.S. Capitol — watches over the room, which recently served as a photo op for delegates participating in the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue.
The smaller Martha Washington Ladies Lounge, punctuated by tinges of blue and peach, serves as a cozy parlor setting for afternoon tea. Meanwhile, Western and Native American artifacts dominate the clubby gentleman’s lounge next door.
Although individually appointed, the rooms are united by elements of Federal, colonial and neoclassical architectural styles that are most often associated with early American history.
But the undeniable star, and the largest of the rooms, is the Benjamin Franklin State Dining Room, named after the father of American diplomacy. Ringed by two rows of maroon-streaked Corinthian columns, regal gilding and a line of chandeliers, the opulent space was designed by John Blatteau to symbolize the secretary of state’s role as custodian of the Great Seal of the United States.
That seal is prominently engraved in the heart of the ceiling and on the massive carpet anchoring the main hall, which can seat 275 people and leads to an outdoor terrace with stunning views of the Washington Monument and Tidal Basin. It’s the quintessential Washington backdrop, and although American democracy may have been built as anti-thesis to monarchy rule, it’s a room fit for royalty.
“I hope it conveys the spirit of how fortunate we are in this country that citizens have stepped forward,” Craighill said of the rooms in general and the collection inside them. “So many people have come in and said this wouldn’t of happened in their country, a collection like this wouldn’t exist — given by the citizens of the nation for the purpose of diplomacy, to represent their country. It’s very patriotic and it’s very inspirational to be surrounded by that, and reminded that we’re in a country where these things happen. And it’s a very quiet story.”
About the Author
Anna Gawel is managing editor of The Washington Diplomat and news columnist of the Diplomatic Pouch.