Monday, March 2, 2015

Washington Social Diary: A First Look at the Renovated Residence Francaise

Somewhere down there Amb. Gerard Araud is welcoming guests to the reopening of his residence. 
by Carol Joynt

If there were a French ambassador in “Mad Men,” Gerard Araud could easily play the part, leading his own rat pack, giving Don Draper and Roger Sterling serious competition. Watch him at a party and you’ll agree: when measured on Washington’s diplomatic landscape, he qualifies as the city’s hipster ambassador. And that’s a compliment, if you need to be told. He exudes natural cool, fueled by intellect, and style.

Araud welcomes guests in the main hall. 
Araud’s snappy exuberance was put to good use on Friday evening as he reopened his country’s official Washington residence after a two-year renovation.  We got an early first look. While the structural architecture remains essentially the same – the renovation work was focused behind-the-scenes on troubles prompted by leaks, mold and asbestos – the décor, like the ambassador, represents a country that is both passionately old world and ultra contemporary.
In the moments before the reopening party began, Araud strolled through every public room of the mansion, making sure the details were just right. Servers in black-tie, some who hadn’t worked together since the closure, shook hands with each other or embraced, having their own reunion. They like being back in the old place, its fresh look, they said, and especially the fresh style of the “new guy.”

Amid appropriate hustle and bustle, the Champagne flutes were in place, silver trays were filled with neat rows of mini croque monsieur aux champignons, and canapés with foie gras and caviar. When the hands on the clock hit 6:30 it was showtime and everyone hit their marks, eager to launch a new era of entertaining at 2221 Kalorama Road.

In a well-tailored blue suit (with rose-colored socks peeking out between cuff and shoe), Araud greeted his guests, about 250 of the usual suspects, and some usual suspects-in-training. The list, we’re told, was purposefully shaped to bring in some people who don’t typically receive that invitation.
The Simon Hantaï sets the tone of the residence's new look. The doors to left and right lead to the boiserie.
It was a broad landscape, including from the White House, National Security Agency director Michael Rogers and Social Secretary Jeremy Bernard; the Supreme Court, Justice Stephen Breyer; corporate, Gina Adams of FedEx and Lyndon Boozer of AT&T; publishing, Washington Post publisher Fred Ryan, Smithsonian magazine editor David Caruso, David Bradley; philanthropy, Connie Milstein and Catherine Reynolds; venture capital hot shots, Mark Ein and Jack and Kay (Kendall) Davies; serious old guard, Liz and George Stevens, Ann and Vernon Jordan, and Buffy Cafritz;  good friends of France, such as Susan Rappaport, Patrick O’Connell, president of Relais & Chateaux North America and owner of the Inn at Little Washington; some fellow diplomats, Belgium, Kuwait, Norway, Switzerland, Japan; DC celebrity media, David Ignatius of The Washington Post, David Sanger of The New York Times; some members of Congress, the neighbors, John and Joann Mason, plus a helping of  “famous for Washington.”
The residence staff, happy to be reunited ...
... and to pose for pictures.
The ambassador was often the center of a pod of admirers and, recognizing that everyone was having such a good time, he decided to put off making welcoming remarks. They knew where they were, why mess with the flow of energy? The best parties get their oxygen from drinks, canapés, chatter and laughter, not speeches.

Araud appeared to delight in answering questions about the renovation and décor, every bit the well-informed “docent” as he pointed to old art and new art, this or that detail of fabric or trim. Away from his ear, some whispered,  “I’m afraid I don’t recall what it looked like before, so I can’t tell the difference,” but that’s this slice of Washington, where appreciation of the style and design of a room can play second string to checking out who’s in the room and gaming a good schmooze. Still, they oohed and awed.
Getting ready for showtime.
The occasion was not quite the annual Vanity Fair party, and blessedly not nearly as packed, feeling in part like a dress rehearsal and perhaps a worthy consolation prize for those who may not make the cut for the May soiree that follows the White House Correspondents Association dinner. But these are the people who keep diplomatic social life energized and they represent a lot of the permanent community, and the folks who give generously to the French Heritage Society and the Alliance Française de Washington.

Washington society claims a tribal “ownership” of certain grand properties that were once private homes and now are museums or embassies, including Anderson House, Hillwood Museum, Meridian House, the Italian ambassador’s residence, Villa Firenze, and especially the French Ambassador’s residence. The fans of the French residence are protective, and even though many wouldn’t pass a test on décor details, they are devoted and loyal. They couldn’t wait for this house to reopen.
The Empire Salon, before, with Ambassador Pierre Vimont on the left, Jim Hoagland center, Bonnard to the right.
The Empire Salon, before.
The Empire Salon today. Sand walls, some new upholstery, Bonnard back in its spot.
The same room, from the other direction. 
Before. And now.
Here’s a little tour:  The cross hall welcomes with familiar area rugs but the addition of stunning contemporary art, a blue and white painting by the late Hungarian-French artist Simon Hantaï. The grand staircase is now adorned with a wall hanging by American artist John Wilson.

The Empire Salon with the Napoleon carpet no longer has walls of rose red silk but instead a creamy shade of sand. The beloved Bonnard is still there, hanging in its place over the writing desk. The rose-colored sofas are back, but reupholstered. The “salon modern,” essentially a haute rec room off the main public rooms (Araud also calls it the “winter garden”), has some new upholstery, too; the wall hangings are red and white, as before, but with a new pattern; the area rug is from before, the same for the coffee and side tables and lamps.
The "salon modern" before.
And now ...
As you can tell, apart from the serious internal issues, this was not a spendthrifty renovation. The money went where it needed to go and it shows.  What could be put back in its place was put back in its place. The kitchen got upgraded, too, and the ambassador’s apartment was made more livable.

The most dramatic change is in the dining room, or salle à manger. Out with the dark green walls and in with brighter, lighter shades of cream, the palest yellow and avocado, which serve the decorative panels from Versailles, making them pop. Also, stunning chandeliers from Crystal Saint Louis. Heavy curtains have been replaced by Roman shades, boosting the brightness. 
The main entrance hall, before.
And today, with the John Wilson hanging over the stairs.
Now, and also the cross hall, looking from the dining room to the Empire Salon.
The boiserie, much as it was, but with some reupholstery. No reason to mess with the walls or the terrace view.
The reception room directly behind the main hall, with its handsome boiserie, looks much as it did, with its wall of French doors leading out to the terrace. On this cold evening they were closed tight. The view outside: snow. Keeping it warm just inside: a combo and a singer.

There were beautiful pots of orchids here and there, but missing from the new look were big arrangements of flowers, which at one time were a staple of the residence. Extravagant? Of course, but there’s something about glorious flowers that are a natural fit with this glorious residence. Maybe the French Heritage Society or Alliance Française will set up a little fund and someone will place a call to Allan Woods? Just sayin’.
The dining room before, at daytime and night. 
And now, with the staff greeting each other. 
Here’s who else was spotted at the party: Phillippe Auguin, Kate Bennett, Wayne and Lea Berman, Adam and Tracy Bernstein, Arnaud Guillois, Katherine Bradley, Edith Brewster, Jonathan Capehart and Nick Schmit, Steve Clemons, Didi and Walter Cutler, Kay Kendall, Joseph Gildenhorn, Andrea Sheehan, Andrew Cockburn, Evelyn DiBona, Tom Donilon, Shaun and Liza Donovan, Tom Sietsema and Ed Lichorat,  Susan Eisenhower, Melanne Verveer, Izette Folger, David Frum, Stephanie Green, Lloyd Hand, Rachel Hayden, Outerbridge and Georgina Horsey, Dennis and Elizabeth Kucinich, Christine Lagarde, Finlay and Willee Lewis, Tamera Luzzatto and David Leiter, Eric Motley, Jake Nelson, Nina and Philip Pillsbury, Nora Pouillon, Wayne Reynolds, Lucky Roosevelt, Genny Ryan, Soroush Shehabi, Mariella Trager.

Follow Carol on twitter @caroljoynt