Wide Receivers The Diplomatic Reception Rooms at the State Department
Foreign diplomats who celebrated the Fourth of July as guests of Secretary of State Colin Powell had a real treat: They were feted in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms, perhaps the most elegant suite of government rooms in the capital. And what better backdrop for diplomacy? On the eighth floor of the State Department building, the Diplomatic Reception Rooms are furnished with a premier collection of 18th- and 19th-century American furniture, paintings and decorative arts. The treasures — many of which have historical significance, dating back as far as the mid-1700s — are valued at more than $90 million.
Only high-ranking VIPs — the vice president, the secretary of state, other cabinet members and assistant secretaries — have the privilege of hosting functions in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms, which opened in 1961. Invitations are coveted almost as much as those to the White House. A lucky 100,000 people are entertained there each year — up to 375 people at a time for receptions and 250 for seated dinners. Some describe the suite as a living museum, where guests can enjoy the use of the same furniture historic personages once used. From the moment the elevator opens on the eighth floor and guests step out onto the rare King of Prussia marble (the quarry closed more than a century ago), they encounter nothing protected by velvet ropes.
The Benjamin Franklin State Dining Room is the largest of the Diplomatic Reception Rooms, and the one used most often to entertain both foreign and American guests. Fluted Corinthian columns line the walls, and eight specially made Adam-style chandeliers light the space.
Other rooms are named for former secretaries of state who later became presidents, so it’s quite apropos that other secretaries of state receive guests at State Department luncheons in this suite of rooms. While waiting in the receiving line, there’s no reason for anyone to be bored. If they’re not interested in cabinets filled with antique porcelain, they can see the desk where the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1783.
The Thomas Jefferson State Reception Room reflects Jefferson’s neoclassic taste and is furnished with American Chippendale furniture from New York and Philadelphia. It’s used not only for receptions, but also for small official lunches and dinners, and connects to the John Quincy Adams State Drawing Room.
A private elevator takes the secretary of state from the seventh floor to the James Monroe Reception Room and James Madison Dining Room — two rooms reserved exclusively for his use. He can hold top-secret meetings or small lunches for guests, who sit on Sheraton side chairs embellished with American eagles.
According to Gale Serfaty, director of the rooms, the 5,000- object collection of American-designed and-crafted furniture and decorative arts is considered the third-best in the country (after Winterthur and the Metropolitan Museum of Art).The most valuable single piece in the collection is a desk, appraised at $5 million. One of the oldest: a 1753 bombé secretary-desk. Acquisitions, a combination of donated objects and private contributions, total $500,000 a year.
At no cost to the taxpayer, conservators work each August to maintain the collection, which includes Paul Revere silver; Chinese porcelain that belonged to George Washington; a Boston Lighthouse Clock, designed by American Simon Willard, which is unique to the United States; a double wine cooler ordered by George Washington; and the world’s largest known collection of eagle-decorated furniture. Ladies, be sure to check out the Ladies Lounge, which contains the earliest furniture in the collection — much of it from New York — dating back to 1740.
Tours of five rooms are available to the public at no cost, but book as far ahead as possible. Reservations are accepted 90 days in advance and require your giving your date of birth and Social Security number. Bring a photo ID at the time of the tour. This tour is not for children under 12. Tours (45 minutes) of the Diplomatic Rooms: 9:30 a.m., 10:30 a.m. and 2:45 p.m., Monday through Friday. The State Department stands on the square block between 21st and 23rd streets, and C and D streets, NW (202-647-3241).