In 1936, France was deliberating over the purchase of a 1910 Tudor Revival mansion in Kalorama for its ambassador’s residence in the U.S. It was a difficult decision: While the location was a coveted one even then, an English-style estate hardly seemed appropriate for a house representing France.
The location won out. But under the influence of successive ambassadors over the next 80 years, the interiors of the residence—designed by Jules Henri de Sibour, a Parisian-born architect who lived in Washington—took on a distinctly French style. Unfortunately, they also became worn out, with antiquated mechanical systems, sun damage, peeling paint and leaks.
In 2013, the embassy hired Quinn Evans Architects to give the residence a sorely needed update. Though the budget for the renovation was $7 million, it was pared down significantly. “We designed a $7 million package that we then scaled back,” explains project architect Jeff Luker. “We focused on interiors and systems rather than site work, which we hope will happen in the future.”
The $5 million renovations was completed a year ago. It modernized the electric and mechanical systems and added a new chef’s kitchen with zones for hot and cold food prep and pastry making. A private ambassador’s suite was carved out on the second floor. “The residence does a large amount of entertaining, so the mechanical system had to support 150 to 200 people at a time, as well as provide comfort for an ambassador with a family,” says project interior designer Katie Irwin.
Quinn Evans collaborated with Anne-Sophie Fries-Thébaut, an interior architect at the French Foreign Ministry’s Office of Cultural Heritage and Decoration, to give the public rooms a much-needed facelift. They had help from an unexpected quarter as well: Ambassador Gérard Araud, who assumed the Washington post in September 2014.
Araud, 63, brought vision and a keen sense of style to the project—in more ways than one. “When I became an ambassador 13 years ago, I wondered whether the residence was really useful or if it promoted a sort of old-fashioned diplomacy,” he observes. “But I discovered that it’s an important spot for creating personal relationships. The ambassador should not be stiff and formal.”
Fries-Thébaut and Araud both favored the idea of bringing in a fresh, modern vibe—not to replace the home’s historic elements but to blend with them. “I think it is part of the French style to mix different periods and styles, not to have everything appear to be in a decorator’s style,” Araud comments. In fact, he introduced dramatic contemporary elements into the mix—works by his longtime partner and photographer, Pascal Blondeau, that now hang on the walls of the Salon des Boiseries and the Winter Salon; and the distinctive Regency Chain Link Light in the entrance hall, which he discovered in a Madison Avenue shop in New York.
Araud arrived in time to weigh in on paint selections for the dining room, which went from dark green to pale gray and citron. The Empire Salon also underwent a transformation: Red walls were replaced by a beige-and-white textural wall covering. Crisply painted wainscoting in the reception rooms conceals new mechanical systems. Historic fixtures and hardware were upgraded, including better lighting for artwork.
Against the backdrop of lighter, brighter reception rooms where classical portraits of historic French figures mingle with modern canvases, Araud entertains five to six times a week. Events range from a breakfast for 20 to a Bastille Day celebration with a 400-person guest list. “The house is beautiful and people expect great wine and very good cuisine,” he says. “Americans are more casual and they appreciate that I am opening up this personal residence to them.”
In addition to frequent diplomatic events—journalists and think tankers met to discuss Syria at a recent dinner for 12—the residence opens its doors annually for the Vanity Fair party that follows the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Charities hold fundraisers there and Dior feted the opening of its CityCenterDC shop at the residence. When French president François Hollande visits Washington, this is where he stays.
“The residence is multi-faceted, serving everything from politics to economics to social relationships,” says Araud. “In a sense, it reflects the job of the ambassador.”
Photographer Ron Blunt is based in Washington, DC.
RENOVATION ARCHITECTURE: JEFF LUKER, AIA, LEED AP, and KATIE IRWIN, AIA, IIDA, LEED AP BD+C, Quinn Evans Architects, Washington, DC. INTERIOR DESIGN: ANNE-SOPHIE FRIES-THEBAUT, Office of Cultural Heritage and Decoration of the French Foreign Ministry, Paris, France. CONTRACTOR: The Christman Company, Reston, Virginia.