Needed: A New Approach to Protecting America’s Diplomatic Treasures

Speaking Out


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The celebration this year of the 100th anniversary of the modern Foreign Service and the approaching 250th anniversary of our nation’s founding offers hope that the story of diplomacy’s contribution to America’s success will be well told. How did a small, isolated, experimental republic gain acceptance and ultimately assume global leadership?

Our success depended on how well we could navigate among nations. As an acknowledgment of that, the Department of State was established in 1789 as the first administrative arm of the U.S. executive branch. Thomas Jefferson, the first Secretary of State, oversaw just two diplomatic posts, London and Paris, and 10 consular posts. No real estate came with the job, and there was no interest in acquiring any.

Remarkably for a nation among the wealthiest by 1900, the United States largely avoided obtaining property to house its diplomats until after World War I. Yet we now have hundreds of historic properties and thousands of artworks, antiquities, and artifacts on six continents. They are a tangible representation of how American diplomacy navigated our way to world leadership. Their historical and cultural value is inestimable.

But our nation’s diplomatic treasures are a fragile national resource. Many are centuries old. They require conservation and restoration for which public funding at scale will never be available. Either we dramatically raise awareness of them and adopt a new, robust philanthropic approach to their care, or we risk losing them.

What Brought Me to This Challenge

I grew up in a Foreign Service family and served 38 years as an FSO, visiting, working, and even living in some of State’s heritage properties. But I never fully understood how we came to own some 260 culturally, historically, or architecturally significant structures. I knew even less about the collections of more than 16,500 artworks and artifacts housed in our missions and residences. And I had no inkling of the challenge State faces in maintaining, much less restoring, it all.

In retirement, by luck and coincidence, I found myself serving as a senior adviser to a small team in State’s Office of Cultural Heritage (CH), part of the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations. I was drawn to it after a lifetime in the Foreign Service and an interest in history and the power of cultural diplomacy.

The Office of Cultural Heritage is responsible for cataloguing, assessing, setting standards for, and assisting colleagues worldwide in caring for our many culturally significant properties and far-flung collections.

It is not quite a decade old. But the architects, engineers, historians, conservationists, and others among its dozen or so professionals have made great strides in bringing coherence and attention to the challenge of protecting State’s overseas heritage.

I learned from them that inadequate funding to address the growing backlog of maintenance creates an especially acute problem for our older properties, typically ruling out needed restoration work or the installation of modern, more environmentally sound systems. We often hear from ambassadors about the problems they confront when they walk through their front doors.

An Alternative to Public Funding

There is, however, a path to address the challenge that does not involve securing more public funding. After all, the demands of ongoing diplomatic operations will always be more urgent and compelling. This alternate path entails developing a culture of philanthropy based on the stories these places and artifacts tell.

Analogous philanthropies already exist at State, namely those supporting our Art in Embassies Program and Diplomatic Reception Rooms. And we have the example of a trust set up to help maintain an overseas property, Winfield House in London, established decades ago by Ambassador Walter Annenberg.

The Fund to Conserve U.S. Diplomatic Treasures Abroad, the private sector partner of CH, was founded in 2012. Since then, it has undertaken fundraising efforts for small, one-off decorative arts conservation efforts. Today its evolving mission and organizational structure also provide a vehicle for supporting historic buildings considered heritage assets by the Department of State.

A Short History of America’s Public Property Abroad

When Benjamin Franklin arrived in Paris in December 1776 as America’s first diplomat, he had a daunting assignment—to win French support for our independence. But he was left to arrange his own lodging and so stayed in a small mansion lent by a rich aristocrat. The house is gone, but the precedent endured. Until the 20th century, our envoys largely fended for themselves.

We obtained our first property abroad in 1821, when the Sultan of Morocco presented us with a building in Tangier to cement a friendship begun when his kingdom became the first state to recognize the United States. The Tangier American Legation served as a diplomatic post for a record 140 years. The only building beyond our borders listed on the Secretary of the Interior’s National Register of Historic Places and now a nonprofit library, museum, and study center popular with neighbors, scholars, and visiting Americans, the legation’s future is uncertain.

The first property we purchased abroad was the Seoul American Legation, acquired in 1884 and in U.S. possession longer than any other official residence. Our first in Europe was the Palazzo Corpi in Constantinople, bought by our ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in 1907. (Sadly, the popular report that its funding was won in a poker game with congressmen is only legend.)

Either we dramatically raise awareness of them and adopt a new, robust philanthropic approach to their care, or we risk losing them.

America’s growing global role and early 20th century Foreign Service reforms began to change the status quo. Villa Otium, an Oslo landmark, was the first residence purchased in Western Europe, and we also acquired Schönborn Palace, our Prague embassy whose spotlit flag symbolized freedom during the Cold War.

The exquisite Palacio Bosch in Buenos Aires, now an Argentinian national monument, was bought in 1929. The Foreign Buildings Office (now the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations) also began building. Our landmark Tokyo residence, in which Douglas MacArthur received Japan’s emperor after World War II, was completed in 1931.

During the postwar period of U.S. global primacy, we bought and built at a fevered pace. The State Department balked at buying Winfield House for a token dollar from Barbara Hutton, fearing its upkeep would be ruinous, but President Harry Truman ordered its purchase.

Collections: Art & Artifacts

Many know that State’s Diplomatic Reception Rooms house priceless early American antiques and art, from Jefferson’s desk to Paul Revere’s silver. Far fewer are aware of the rich collections in our overseas missions and residences.

Worldwide, our residences, embassies, and consulates house more than 16,500 works of art and artifacts, acquired over generations—statuary conveyed with property, artwork donated by collectors or artists, public art purchased for new buildings, even an antique boat bought to serve an embassy’s needs. CH experts work to catalogue, appraise, assess, and advise our posts on their conservation, care, and display.

The crown jewel of our collections is likely Giambologna’s Cesarini Venus, a 16th-century marble statue that conveyed with Palazzo Margherita, our Rome embassy. The art world raved when it went on tour, including to Washington’s National Gallery of Art.

“Washington at Princeton,” a portrait painted in 1780 by Charles Willson Peale, was meant as a diplomatic gift to the Dutch during the American Revolution but was seized at sea and kept as a prize of war in Britain for 165 years. Sold into American hands after World War II, it was bequeathed to our ambassador’s residence in Paris. The New York Times published an article in early 2023 about CH’s successful effort to authenticate the enigmatic portrait.

A graceful motor launch named Hiawatha has been a well-loved presence in its host city of Istanbul since 1932. Now docked at a museum, it is still in diplomatic use. Ambassador Jeff Flake, his colleagues in Türkiye, and the Fund to Conserve U.S. Diplomatic Treasures Abroad have raised $300,000 toward saving this symbol of U.S.-Turkish friendship.

Diplomatic Treasures Tell Our Global Story and Deserve Support

The State Department manages more than 3,500 buildings in 190 countries. Of those deemed culturally, historically, or architecturally important, 15 percent are in UNESCO World Heritage areas, and 44 are listed in the Secretary of State’s Register of Culturally Significant Property. Secretary Antony Blinken calls it an “honor to preserve our landmark American properties abroad,” describing them as “physical representations of our longstanding diplomatic relationships.”

In preserving them we face a tall order. The Paris residence alone, for instance, needs a breathtaking $200 million for deferred maintenance, upgrades, and restoration. Either we divest and downsize, deaccessioning our history, or we tell their stories and raise endowments for their care. We have begun to develop a more systematic approach to setting up endowments, which will take time. But there are always small steps we can take to raise the profile of our heritage assets.

Our residences and chanceries receive many visitors, both in-person and virtually, and when time and resources allow, our colleagues have created materials to tell their stories. CH has begun to develop virtual tours, films, and studies of some properties for U.S. and local audiences. To celebrate the centennial of Villa Otium, our Oslo residence, U.S. Embassy Oslo enlisted a local celebrity to conduct a lighthearted tour on social media. The public reacted positively. On Wikipedia the entry for Spaso House in Moscow shows how to bring a place to life.

We can do more to open up residences and embassies, mindful of security strictures, especially where cities set aside a weekend or a week to publicly showcase local landmarks. Independence Day celebrations at our heritage properties present opportunities to relate their histories with visual displays for host-country and American guests and the media.

Developing awareness and a culture of caring for our notable properties and collections will take time. We have work to do to prepare detailed resources for those wishing to start endowments, but take a look at what the Fund to Conserve U.S. Treasures Abroad has accomplished in a short time to showcase the Tangier Legation, Paris residence, Istanbul’s Hiawatha, and “Washington at Princeton” (see And the fund has now been accepted for inclusion in the Combined Federal Campaign, allowing everyone to contribute.

This year’s Foreign Service centennial and America’s coming 250th form a favorable backdrop to efforts on behalf of America’s diplomatic heritage. For those with an interest in American diplomacy and all it has done to advance our nation’s interests, now is a good time to answer the Secretary’s call to save the landmarks that tell our nation’s diplomatic story.

Ambassador (ret.) Glyn Davies served 38 years as a Foreign Service officer in Australia, Africa, Europe, Asia, and at the State Department and White House. He was permanent representative to United Nations agencies in Vienna and U.S. ambassador to the Kingdom of Thailand.


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