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Foreign Assets
By Bruce Crumley

The U.S. Government owns 3,500 properties abroad, but only eight of them figure on the Secretary of State’s Register of Culturally Significant Properties. Among them is the Hôtel de Talleyrand, one of the most beautiful and historically rich buildings in Paris. The 18th-century mansion is currently undergoing a meticulous restoration worthy of its distinguished past.

Paris has no shortage of magnificent historic buildings—indeed, its stunning patrimoine is one of the many attractions that have made the French capital so popular with American visitors. What most of those visitors don’t know, however, is that one of those grand buildings belongs to them.
    Set on the place de la Concorde, the imposing Hôtel de Talleyrand was purchased by the U.S. Government in 1950 and is now part of the U.S. Embassy compound. At the time, this elegant mansion, which had already seen its share of powerful figures and political intrigue, was making history yet again, serving as headquarters of the Marshall Plan. This unprecedented undertaking would pump more than $13 billion into European recovery and set the stage for what would one day become the European Union.
    The rooms that witnessed this historic achievement—since rechristened the George C. Marshall Center—are currently undergoing a major restoration. “It’s a truly fascinating project,” says Vivien Woofter, director of Interiors and Furnishings at the U.S. Department of State. “Our goal is to make these rooms look exactly as they did originally, from the parquet floors and gilded paneling to the period furniture and damask wall coverings.” She goes on to explain that reaching that goal involves countless technical, logistical and financial challenges—not the least of which is hiring artisans who have mastered the centuries-old techniques needed to make these rooms look 233 years new. “Another aspect of the project is to install a permanent exhibition on the Marshall Plan,” she adds. “Oh, and did I mention that along the way we have to raise the $4.5 million to pay for it all?”



The Hôtel de Saint-Florentin (as it was originally called) was built between 1767 and 1769 for the Count de Saint-Florentin, a personal friend and influential advisor to Louis XV who was entrusted with several key ministerial roles, including foreign minister. Designed by royal architects Ange-Jacques Gabriel and Jean-François-Thérèse Chalgrin, it became the second building to overlook the banks of the Seine from the place Louis XV—now the place de la Concorde.
    Central to the building’s function was its State Apartment, the rooms where French and foreign dignitaries were received to discuss affairs of state and other sensitive matters. Interior architect Fabrice Ouziel, the historical and technical consultant on the restoration project, explains that these rooms were a contemporary extension of a style that had emerged a century before. “Hôtels particuliers often have several appartements for either private or official use,” he says. “Beginning in the 1600s, they were typically composed of three rooms: the antichambre, a simple room with a stone floor and perhaps a wooden bench where the servants waited for their master; the chambre, or bedroom; and the cabinet, which was usually used as either a small salon or a study.”
    Then came the 1700s, when a more-is-more mood led to elaborate interpretations of this simple floor plan. The State Apartment at the Hôtel de Saint-Florentin boasts seven rooms: three antechambers—each a bit fancier than the one before—along with a grand reception room, two studies (the State Office and the Oval Room) and a bedroom. Each led directly into the next—hallways are a very modern idea—with only the most distinguished guests allowed into the offices and bedroom.
    The idea was for these rooms to dazzle, and dazzle they did with grand spaces, sculpted architectural details, sumptuous fabrics and intricate parquet floors. “There are two particularly extraordinary elements here,” Ouziel points out. “First, the mirrors. They are huge. That is no big deal today, but at the time, mirrors were tremendously expensive—they cost more than the best paintings. That is why Louis XIV’s Hall of Mirrors at Versailles was considered so amazing. The second is the decorative objects, for example, the clocks. These were very modern items and also extremely expensive—a real symbol of power. It was very prestigious to have even one in a house, yet some rooms here had two.”
    Following de Saint-Florentin’s death in 1777, the building passed into the hands of various French aristocrats. From 1812 to 1838 it was the property and home of the legendary politician and diplomat Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, whose impact on the history of France and war-torn Europe was partially made from the mansion. As Napoleon’s foreign minister, Talleyrand used the State Apartment for numerous official visits—including the 1814 gathering of Czar Alexander I, the King of Prussia and Lord Wellington to negotiate the termination of the Napoleonic Wars and the restoration of the monarchy in France.
    Given Talleyrand’s enormous place in French history, his use of the State Apartment alone is enough to make it a major monument. Indeed, after Talleyrand’s death in 1838, Victor Hugo wrote of the famous statesman and his residence: “Into this palace, as a spider into its web, he enticed and captured, one by one, heroes, thinkers, conquerors, princes, emperors [...] and all the gilded, glittering flies that have buzzed through the history of these past 40 years.”
    The next owner of the Hôtel de Talleyrand was Baron James-Mayer de Rothschild, a leading financier, art collector and owner of the Château Lafite Rothschild vineyard in Bordeaux. His family occupied the mansion for more than a century, making some changes yet always showing tremendous respect for the original decor. They notably embellished the antechambers, which no longer fulfilled their original function, so that they could be used as salons for playing music, smoking cigars, discussing business and so on. They also replaced the mirrors, which had been sold off during the Revolution, and installed exquisite decorative panels acquired from Madame du Barry’s Louveciennes pavilion in both the Oval Room and the second antechamber.
    “The panels were from the same period as the original rooms, and the ones in the Oval Room look like they’ve always been there,” says Ouziel. “The ones in the antechamber, however, look a bit lost. That’s because they used to be surrounded by a number of other pieces displayed there by Baron Alphonse de Rothschild, who filled the room with objects that reflected his personal taste as a collector—probably fine fabrics and tapestries, beautiful furniture and the like. That was, incidentally, a great departure from the 18th century, when all decor was determined by the architect and had to conform to strict edicts of style—everything had to be in perfect harmony.”
    The Rothschilds also added a wing to the building, which extended the State Apartment to include a small dining room and a main dining room, and redid the tiny boudoir adjoining the new section. All were done in Louis XIV and Louis XVI styles, which are still considered the epitome of French taste.
    Though perhaps not as steeped in official French history as the original State Apartment rooms, the Rothschild additions were caught up in the events of their time. Guy de Rothschild recalls seeing a joyous throng gathered there to celebrate his birthday break up in a rush to greet Charles Lindbergh after news of the pilot’s landing near Paris reached the party. On a more somber note, the wood panels of the main dining room still bear many small pockmarks—possibly left from wall maps used by Nazi commanders who turned the building into a command center during the war.
    The liberation of France opened the Hôtel de Talleyrand’s American chapter, with American military using the building as an administrative center. For several years, the U.S. Government continued renting the centrally located Parisian townhouse from the Rothschilds before finally purchasing it in 1950. When work on the Marshall Plan ended in 1952, the building was turned into Embassy offices and reception rooms; during the current renovations, the State Apartment continues to be used for entertaining, conferences and meetings.
    “I think everyone who has worked or attended events here has been keenly aware of the enormous historical significance of this place,” says Candice Nancel, the Talleyrand Project Coordinator. “But our decision to put together an exhibit on the Marshall Plan isn’t just Americans tooting their own horn—it’s a way to honor a U.S.-European collaboration that set aside national barriers and set forth a vision of the European Community. Of course we made a financial contribution, but the plan never would have worked if the Europeans hadn’t come up with a strategy for using that money to best benefit all concerned.”
    To honor the Hôtel de Talleyrand’s special place in history, a major restoration effort was launched in 1980; it was, in then-Ambassador Evan G. Galbraith’s words, “the most important architectural preservation effort ever undertaken by the United States Government overseas.” The State Apartment, however, received only cursory attention during that four-year project. Later, Ambassador Pamela Harriman had preliminary research done in view of restoring it as well, but it wasn’t until the Betty Scripps Harvey Foundation made a sizable donation in 1999 that work could begin in earnest.
    “The State Department usually finances infrastructure repairs, but when it comes to interiors, we often have to rely on donations from the private sector,” explains Woofter. “So far, though, this project has generated a lot of enthusiasm. It intertwines European and American history, and that speaks to a lot of people.” Ambassador Howard H. Leach has been active in fundraising efforts, soliciting contributions from foundations as well as from French and American individuals. To date, about one-third of the total funds needed to finance the project have been raised; if all goes as planned, work should be completed by 2004.
    As is always the case with historic restoration, extensive research had to be conducted before the first paintbrush could be broken out. Ouziel and his team spent months digging through official archives, sales inventories and other documents—and came across a few surprises along the way. “Perhaps most astonishing was the fact that so much of the original 18th-century decor was intact,” says Ouziel. “Everyone had assumed that the Rothschilds had changed everything.”
    They also found references to a style that reigned very briefly in 18th-century France. “Most wood paneling from that era is white with gilded carvings in relief,” says the architect. “But we discovered that some paneling was painted a very pale gray. We looked for traces of that color in the State Apartment, but the rooms had been stripped and repainted so many times that it was impossible to tell what the original color was.” Impossible, that is, until they found a closet door that had been blocked off for more than a century. On the back were telltale traces of gray paint.
    The next step was finding specially trained artisans with a background in art and architectural history to do the restoration work. “That was the easy part,” says Ouziel. “Getting them to accept the job was quite another story. There are so few people with their level of expertise that they are well known, but they are in such demand that you have to work hard to get them interested in your project.” Eight different groups of artisans have been hired to date, including carpenters, plasterers, marble masons, gilders and decorative painters.
    The techniques they use are sometimes unconventional, to say the least. For example, the repair and preparation of panel carvings and moldings for re-gilding requires a rare, fine putty made of chalk and rabbit hide that is best mixed in workers’ mouths. Once moistened with saliva and heated to body temperature, the paste is carefully layered onto surfaces by artisans with invariably putty-white lips. “It’s not just a question of respecting tradition for tradition’s sake,” explains Patrick Maury, who heads a team of gilders working on the project. “We do it this way because no one has ever invented a better material or method.”
    Nancel recalls another unusual technique that grabbed her attention in a very different manner: One morning she arrived at the work site and found the entire wing reeking of garlic. She attributed the malodorous reception to a worker having overindulged at dinner the night before, but upon entering the room emitting the smell, she discovered people busily working a heated mash of garlic into repaired wood panels. “It’s apparently an old method used to treat wood against disease, bugs—that kind of thing,” she explains. “The mash also seems to work wonderfully as a base coat; paint adheres to it very well.”
    Thus far, two of the rooms—the Oval Room and Rothschild Boudoir—have been fully restored, and work on the smaller dining room is well under way. The bedroom is currently stripped of its wall panels, which are being repaired in a Loire Valley workshop. Once it has been reassembled and restored, work will begin on the State Office and Grand Reception Room. As in the other 18th-century rooms, the white paint will be stripped and replaced with the original pale gray.
    For fashion designer Hubert de Givenchy, a member of the Restoration Steering Committee, attention to such details is proof of the careful research and craftsmanship that have come to characterize the project. Though America may be notorious for its obsession with the present over the past—and for its tendency to view history through American lenses—Givenchy insists the “restoration of this historically significant building mirrors the great respect Americans hold for French history, art and architecture.” In the case of the Hôtel de Talleyrand, that respect was certainly redoubled by its links to the Marshall Plan, which forever bound together the histories of the United States, France and Europe.s

For more information on the restoration of the George C. Marshall Center, contact Vivien Woofter, Director, Interiors & Furnishings, O.B.O., U.S. Department of State (Tel. 703/875-6263; wooftervp@state.gov) or Candice Nancel, Project Coordinator (Tel. 33/1-43-12-45-27; nancelcl@state.gov).

  



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