Home away from home, in style Ambassadors: In Tokyo, Paris, Moscow and other capitals, diplomats and their spouses live and entertain in impressive homes that blend U.S. diplomacy and familial privacy.

Sun Journal

December 03, 1996|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,SUN STAFF

TOKYO -- It's fitting that Joan Mondale has been living for the past three years in an almost palatial building that is part art museum, part home.

She is a potter married to a public servant who over the years has transformed himself from politician to diplomat -- while she has transformed a personal love of the arts into an unflagging public crusade for them.

Joan and Walter F. Mondale -- former vice president, former Democratic candidate for president, and now near the end of an assignment as U.S. ambassador to Japan -- live in a building the United States commissioned in 1927 specifically as an ambassadorial residence. It was a first for the United States. And it was built without modesty: The residence, completed during the Depression and the presidency of Herbert Hoover, cost $125 million.

Thus its first name, "Hoover's Folly."

There are 174 U.S. ambassadorial residences, no two alike except that all combine the private and the public. Ambassadors and their spouses and their children and their dogs and their cats and their goldfish need privacy, and at other times need to be seen.

In Moscow, the ambassadorial residence is Spaso House, a venerable mansion of a dozen bedrooms and sitting rooms, nine bathrooms and a 27-yard-long hallway -- for which the State Department pays Russia the equivalent of $22.56 a month in rent. The Soviet Union and the United States negotiated a new lease in 1985, set the price in rubles -- then the Soviet Union and the ruble collapsed.

In Paris, Ambassador Pamela Harriman lives in a grand, three-story, 18th-century house. She has decorated the house with paintings by van Gogh, Rousseau and Cezanne -- all from her private collection. Her neighbor? The Elysee Palace, official residence of French presidents.

An opulent oasis

In Tokyo, the ambassadorial home is part of a diplomatic compound that seems an opulent oasis in a crowded city. A gently curved driveway winds between bamboo, past a small swimming pool, to a house that Joan Mondale has filled with paintings and sculptures borrowed from Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art. The loan of the artworks was arranged through Art in Embassies, a 32-year-old State Department program designed to place original American art in ambassadorial homes.

Almost everything is on an impressively grand scale. During the tenure of Ambassador Edwin O. Reischauer in the 1960s, the black-and-white tiled vestibule was used as a badminton court. Instead of a net, you now see a golden fish perched atop a wooden stand, the work of artist Frank Gehry. Beyond is a gold-banistered stairway that once inspired the visiting astronaut-and-future-senator John Glenn to slide from the second floor to the receiving hall.

An average year includes hundreds of guests. An American can half-believe that the house is his own. "We've had 1,400 from the beginning of the year through Oct. 1," Joan Mondale says. "An incredible number of groups still want to see this house, and we can't entertain them all, but we can show them around." She leads the way to the living room -- an enormous rectangle, "like a fairy-tale dream." Since Hoover insisted that builders buy American, the paneling is American walnut and the floors Vermont marble.

At one end of the room sits a grand piano, and on the walls are four works called "Untitled (Living Room)," by American artist Richard Prince. He has rephotographed images of living rooms used in advertisements in the New York Times, then poked fun at their commercial perfection by blurring, cropping and enlarging them.

In the dining room, a series of Max Yavno photos documents the social and cultural landscape of New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles from the 1930s to the 1970s. Some offer silent commentary on child labor, glimpses of life in the city streets or scenes of everyday happenings. "Here we sit in this glorious room and these pictures surround us," Joan Mondale says. "I don't lecture during the dinner -- so I don't know if anyone notices."

Deciding which artwork would come to Japan was "like being in a candy store, we chose this and this and this," she says. But the pieces were also chosen with care. "I don't really want to shock people. I want to make them think."

Mrs. Mondale, after graduating from Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., worked as a slide librarian at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. In the 1960s, after moving to Washington when her husband went to the Senate, she gave weekly tours at the National Gallery of Art and wrote a book, "Politics in Art."

In 1977, she earned the nickname "Joan of Art" as she began crisscrossing the country to speak on behalf of the arts after President Jimmy Carter named her honorary chairwoman of the Federal Council on the Arts and Humanities.

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