Tuesday, March 22, 2016

US State Department Reception Rooms and collections

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of touring the US State Department Reception rooms and collections with the Mid-Atlantic chapter of the ICAA. The ICAA offers frequent lectures and tours here in DC that are always lots of fun!  Of course seeing the picture above and knowing Washington, DC you think - oh whats so special about another Classical 'ye-olde' set of fancy rooms?
Well the special and surprising thing here is that these rooms are housed in the 'modern' building above. YES, no lies!  They have been designed over the past 5 decades in order to provide a suitable place to entertain visiting dignitaries and share the history of our country through design.
I don't think one is intending to fool visitors that these spaces are in any way antique or aren't a part of the modern office building they are housed in. Since 1965 when architect Edward Vason Jones started designing historically appropriate rooms to house the collection of important artifacts they have slowly multiplied to a suite of 42spaces and fill a large part of 2 floors. Above is the main elevator vestibule where guests arrive into the set of rooms.
Notice the excellent faux painting on the flat metal elevator doors to look like paneled wood. I love this more than if these had been actual wood!
The faux work stops there.  The rooms are filled with elaborate paneling and plasterwork done very academically on historic precedent.
The enfilade above wouldn't be out of place in an 18th century house in Philadelphia's Germantown area such as Cliveden (compare with my blog post HERE).
The collections however are greater than anything found anywhere in the country; more historically important anyway. They start in the mid 18th century and stop at the year 1815 where the White House collections begin.
Don't begin to think you can sneak anything away or make yourself comfortable, the rooms are heavily guarded (as is the entire building!).
So how are these classical rooms fitted into a modern office building you may wonder? Notice the modern curtain wall structure outside of the Palladian window assembly above. The rooms are simply built within the floorplan with a few inches of buffer. Every effort has been made to align the modern muntins and structure with the classical rooms.
The ladies lounge was probably my favorite room with the 'newest' antique furniture and where the collections drop off (early 19th century). The art however isn't from this period and dates to the turn of the last century such as the Childe Hassam painting of Cape Cod above.
Here is the current curator pointing out the unusual upper drawer on this chest-on-chest who provided us with an amazingly in depth tour. I love those tourguides who can answer any question no matter how random it may be. It shows their love and appreciation of the collection!
Most of these rooms are used for meetings only -no food or drink. Even the couches and chairs are important parts of the historic collection.
The architect's desk below was one built for 3rd president and architect Thomas Jefferson to his specifications from the Chippendale patternbooks.
The Thomas Jefferson room, seen below, was the favorite of most of our guests on the tour.
Here is Jefferson surveying the room (where food and drink are allowed).
The lighting in these rooms is soft and residential: so important to the feeling of the spaces instead of bright office lighting.
I wonder if any of the fireplaces work? I suppose it would be too great of a risk to the collections.
The only thing which doesn't fit into the Classical ambiance is the glaringly ugly EXIT sign.
The State Dining room, where you have no doubt seen many broadcasts from on the news, is the largest room in the suite.
Would you believe this grand room was built in 1985?! Ok maybe the giant gilded seal on the ceiling gave it away.
Who says "they don't build them like they used to"?
Not a single recessed lighting fixture to be found - thank god.
The rooms vary in size to host different sized functions.
A large roof terrace surrounds the rooms. The state dining room opens onto it through these paneled and curtained doors.
The ICAA is of course a group of mainly architects and interior designers so everyone had their phones out to capture the niftiest details such as hiding modern light switches behind a little piece of hinged door casing above.
And if historic interiors and collections aren't your thing you'll at least enjoy the rooftop views of the city!
Some of the recent award winning work was completed by Allan Greenberg on the 7th floor but pictures weren't allowed beyond the elevator vestibule as this is afterall a working office for the State Department! Who says offices have to be ugly?
Tours of the rooms are available with prior planning -visit the official website HERE for details.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Berrington Hall - the perfect Neo-classical country house

I'm sorry for such a long absence between posts but sometimes real life gets in the way of a virtual, blogging life.  I recently heard from my Australian Penpal though reminding me of my duties and I wanted to share his favorite country house (and it may JUST be mine as well) - Berrington Hall in rural England.
Designed by noted architect Henry Holland between 1778 and 1781, it was built as a house to retire into for politician Thomas Harley.  Holland was the son of a well known builder so had excellent connections to politicians and the aristocracy needing his services and had a distinguished career.
The house itself isn't overly large -you can see it in the floorplan above towards the bottom -with a large service courtyard with dependencies housing the servants and kitchen spaces. Now the courtyard houses a cafe, giftshops, etc, as the house has been owned by the National Trust since 1957.
The lives of these types of service courtyards today are much different than they would have been in the 18th century: muddy andfull of livestock; the domain of servants. Now they're pretty places to have lunch and buy a postcard or two!
One of the most important features of the house isn't architectural at all; the grounds were designed by Capability Brown (who was Holland's father-in-law!).
Lets go into the entry hall; a small but exquisite Neoclassical space where the walls are as delicate as a piece of Wedgwood Jasperware.
The detailing throughout the house is superb in Neoclassical style, similar but less garish than Adam style, and all seemingly beautifully maintained. The drawing room is full of very fine, pretty furniture - nothing extraordinary and imposing such as at some country palaces like Chatsworth but just a pretty country house for living in.
I think the scale of these rooms are perfect for living: one can see themselves reading a book or having a cup of tea alone without feeling dwarfed by cavernous space but could easily have a few dozen guests as well.
 Each room has spectacular ceilings.
 Even the doorknobs are beautiful.
The dining room seems to be missing a carpet, all the better to show off those gorgeous wide wood floorboards.
 The art collection is well known and these rooms serve as picture galleries as much as living spaces.
 Even the ceilings have art!
 Notice the Adam styled zinc grates in the neoclassical marble fireplace.
 Everything is just pretty; is that such a bad thing?
 So many details that you can just keep zooming in on each and every part of the building and find something new.
 Of course I'm in love with the handpainted Meissen porcelain and silver on the table.
The family would have different rooms for different times of the day such as this library above with beautiful neoclassical plaques decorating the wall and ceiling.
If you visit Berrington they also have superb collections of antique clothing and all of the service spaces have been fully restored and are open (sometimes the most interesting parts of these house museums).
 Everything is just lovely.
 The ceiling may be my favorite part of this room.
 A small boudoir on the first floor has the fabulous niche seen above - a private space for the lady of the house.
 The beautiful sitting room here is where casual breakfasts and family meals would be held.
 The piece-de-resistance however is the stairhall.
The skylight floods the interior of the structure with natural light and is decorated as thoughtfully as a wedding cake (and not in the nasty Victorian manner)
The details are picked out in different colors but in a soft hue with no large contrasts - making for a lovely subtle environment. I mean as subtle as gilding can be!
The sad thing is that the prettiest room in the house is simply for passing through although would be in constant use so at least thoroughly enjoyed.
 Notice how the stone treads are so delicate they appear to float; heavily cantilevered from the walls. The art of stair building can be incredible but seldom do you find stairs so well done.
 Not a bad hallway to pass through numerous times a day, no?
Notice the service stair on the left above on the 2nd floorplan adjacent to the main stair.  The family wouldn't want to share this gorgeous space with servants of course. 
Plenty of cozy bedrooms line the 2nd floor for weekend house parties - thats what country house living is all about don't forget!  After this brief tour I think we can see why Berrington Hall is one of penpal Neil's favorite houses and reminds me that I need to plan a trip to the country houses of Britain soon!