Monday, January 26, 2015

Washington Social Diary

This is a NYSD photo of Araud, entertaining at his apartment when he was France's ambassador to the U.N.
THE HAPPY FRENCH NEWS
by Carol Joynt

Some of the news of the week from Washington again had to do with France, but this time in a happier way. After being closed for a full two years for an extensive renovation, the French reopened the Tudor-style Kalorama mansion that has been home to the nation's ambassadors since the 1930s. A member of the staff posted a photo on Facebook with the message, "Moving day, so great to be back in that magnificent house."

"Moving day, so great to be back in that magnificent house."
The repair work was principally behind the scenes and probably won't be apparent to visitors because it focused on issues of leaks, mold and asbestos. The redone public rooms may look familiar.

The happiest about the reopening may be the new French Ambassador Gerard Araud, who when he landed here in September made it clear to anyone he met that he was eager to get the work done and lay claim to the fabled home. The city's many fans of France were eager, too.

During the repair project the ambassador (Francois Delattre before Araud) was exiled to Foxhall Road and a McMansion that while spacious was very low on the chic scale. Entertaining went on as usual, it just wasn't quite the same.

As part of the renovation, the ambassador got spiffed up digs, too. Many aren't aware that while ambassadors to Washington typically reside in elegant and huge mansions, the part that is privately theirs – sleeping quarters, bath, sitting room, basically – is often not among the grand formal rooms, and occasionally even in the attic. No different with the French residence, though now the ambassador's apartment has been refreshed and with a kitchen and some other amenities added.
The circa 1911 French Ambassador's residence on Sunday, January 25, 2015, renovated, reopened and ready for the 21st Century.
The French ambassador's residence was designed in the early 1900s by architect Jules Henri de Sibour as a private home.
Like many of the great mansions of Washington that are now embassies, the French residence was designed and built at the beginning of the last century for a rich family from elsewhere – in this case Philadelphia – who fairly quickly sold it to John Hays Hammond, a San Franciscan who got rich in mining and after that career became a philanthropist, and was friends with President William Howard Taft, who tapped him for diplomatic roles. The French bought it in 1936 and for almost 50 years it served as both residence and chancery (meaning the offices of the staff).
A 1923 photograph of the residence of John Hays Hammond on Kalorama Road, Washington, D.C. SOURCE: Library of Congress.
John Hays Hammond Sr. & Jr.
In the mid 80s the many official offices of the embassy, with staff today numbering in the hundreds, moved to a new modern building on Reservoir Road, literally across the street from Georgetown University, that is called Maison Française. It is a massive complex with large public spaces, auditorium, the best "cafeteria" in town, and even includes a few modest staff apartments on the grounds. After the terrorist attack happened at the offices of the satirical newspaper, Charlie Hebdo, people left bouquets of flowers at the gates of Maison Francaise.
The contemporary Maison Francaise, which serves as the offices for the embassy staff and also has many public rooms. It was opened in the mid 1980s.
The Kalorama residence on the left, and the exile on Foxhall on the right.
Thus, Kalorama is a residence above all, but one that is used for the special occasions and even as an occasional hotel for visiting French dignitaries. It can also be leased, under certain circumstances. For example, it is where Vanity Fair magazine hosts (in the past and again this spring) their star-studded soiree that follows the annual White House Correspondents Association dinner.
The drawing room of the French Ambassador's residence — before renovation. It's new look may be similar.
A small luncheon in the dining room, when Pierre Vimont (in the middle) was ambassador.
The French Residence lit up by and for the Vanity Fair party in 2013. (It was held even while renovation work was underway).
Partying on the French ambassador's terrace.
There's a cult of embassy social life in Washington, and any number of organizations that exist to encourage and support the diplomatic corps in flinging open their doors to invite in the chosen, ranging from members of the government to Congress to business and philanthropy and society.

This is where the French Heritage Society and the Alliance Francaise play a vital role, among other groups. Since the embassies don't have a whole lot of policy work to do, social life gives them a way to wave the cultural flag and maintain goodwill with receptions, dinners and parties. To that end, the French Ambassador's residence always has been the shining house on the hill.
French doors at the French ambassador's residence.
Good for daytime or a late night swim, the residence has a lovely lawn and pool.
Some ambassadors have more social skill than others, some build a circle of Washington friends that make the whole effort zing, which is good for the home country and good for those on the guest list. The town can't wait to see and experience Araud's sense of style. Based on only a couple of times spent in his company, my guess is it will be elegant but modern, important but fun, official and yet diverse, and Tweeting will be not only permitted but expected and appreciated.
Amb. Gerard Araud.
Photographs by Carol Joynt.

Follow Carol on twitter @caroljoynt