Fine collection graces State Department reception rooms RALLYING 'ROUND AMERICAN ANTIQUES

November 03, 1991|By Carleton Jones

Almost everybody old enough to sit up in front of a TV saw Jacqueline Kennedy on TV a generation ago, rooting for more American antiques to decorate the White House.

Beginning in 1960, Clement E. Conger, curator of the executive mansion at the time, spent 16 years rounding up U.S. craftsmanship and historical treasures for public rooms of the president's house.

Last week Mr. Conger unveiled a book that describes a second major hoard of American decorative arts, assembled under his leadership for the nation with the help of collectors, scholars and donors -- the diplomatic reception rooms of the Department of State. Officials estimate its worth at $50 million.

To house this superb collection of American domestic masterpieces, the department has redone the top floor of State's 22nd Street headquarters in Washington. Originally 1950s in inspiration and planned by the General Services Administration, the State reception rooms featured a sort of "motel" decor, according to Mr. Conger. The ladies' lounge "looked like Hollywood's idea of the powder room of a gangster's moll," the curator adds.

The new rooms, much in the mood of Georgian Virginia and Philadelphia, include mostly items dating from the Colonial and Federal periods (1790-1820) of American design. (Note for taxpayers: No public funding was involved in assembling the museum-quality suite of 4,500 items of Americana.)

A lavish 496-page megabook, "Treasures of State," with photographs and essays on individual rooms and items, accompanies the new look in State's reception rooms. Five Maryland authorities on American antiques contributed to editing and writing the massive guide. They include Wendy A. Cooper, author and furniture specialist; Jennifer F. Goldsborough, chief curator of the Maryland Historical Society; Hope C. Hendrickson, project coordinator for the book; J. Jefferson Miller II, ceramics authority and essayist for the volume; and Gregory R. Weidman, Maryland Historical Society curator.

Mr. Conger will be signing copies of the book at the 14th annual Maryland Historical Society antique show in Baltimore's 5th Regiment Armory between noon and 1 p.m. on Friday.

Noted New England antiques specialist Alexandra W. Rollins was editor and project director of the new publication. Since many of the items in the State Department suites are delicate and have six-figure values, the most valuable ones are not used if they might be at risk, says Ms. Rollins. But many sturdy antiques are usable and sittable. The chairs that can be sat on get stiff padding on the seats. "We use a thing called 'Ethafoam' on the chairs. These are chairs that we really don't prefer people to get comfortable in," the editor says.

The workmanship of the Georgian and early Federal periods was not necessarily aristocratic or Tory in feeling, according to Jonathan L. Fairbanks, Weems curator of American decorative arts at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and one of the book's 25 essayists. He notes that silversmith Paul Revere in his work "remained loyal to English aesthetics but not to the crown."

In fact, patriotic symbols play a big role in State's collection of Americana. The James Monroe and James Madison rooms "contain the largest collection in the world" of American furnishings ornamented with the official U.S. eagle with outstretched wings, according to the new volume. The eagle symbol originally was inspired by the design of the Great Seal of the United States, of which State is the custodian -- and it shows up in multimedia profusion.

Apparently, according to the many specimens in "Treasures of State," there were eagles, and then there were eagles. The pose that seems to predominate was a spread-eagle eagle, often with a body in the shape of a red, white and blue-striped shield.

A dazzling 10-inch golden Chinese export plate that is part of the collection shows a spread eagle standing on a cannon. The plate and matching china are believed to have been ordered by Sylvanus Thayer, first superintendent of West Point, about 1805 to 1810.

At least two specimens of the eagle motif in highly prized Baltimore cabinetry are represented in the State Department collection. One is a half-round card table with a flip top, the second a Pembroke table, a small drop-leaf model used as a convenience item for breakfast and tea service. Early Federal craftsmen in a number of states used eagle inlay images with backgrounds of golden tawny satinwood added for brightness and relief.

Some patriotic symbols entered the fine furniture world in the early 19th century as imports, inspired not by the U.S. eagle but by the neo-classic boom of the times. A convex mirror made in England and topped by a gilt eagle with a ring in its beak is a specimen of this sort of unconscious national symbolism.

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