The Foreign Service Journal, March 2024

18 MARCH 2024 | THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL 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.) 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.