The Group

An intrepid State Department cadre helps preserve embassies abroad

?A 1777 inventory of the Talleyrand building informed restoration of the reception rooms.

Credit: Building Diplomacy by Elizabeth Gill Lui

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On a sun-washed winter morning in the high hills that climb away from the old city of Prague, craftsmen are meticulously patching the buff-colored stucco exterior of Villa Petschek, official residence of the United States ambassador here. Photographs of the house taken just a few years ago show a carapace of grime and stain, a legacy of institutional neglect. But the finished job reveals a Beaux-Arts masterpiece restored to perfection.

In a security-conscious era when many of America's old embassy buildings are being replaced by impregnable strongholds, the preservation and restoration of ornate residences like Villa Petschek may seem anachronistic, expensive, or even dangerous. But the efforts under way here, and in dozens of other world capitals, are a crucial part of U.S. representation abroad. Rather than projecting wariness, they publicly demonstrate America's embrace of the local fabric and our respect for history and preservation around the world.

"Why don't we just sell this stuff?" asks Richard Morgan rhetorically. Morgan is the American diplomat whose recent responsibilities included U.S. embassy offices in the 19th-century Palazzo Margherita in Rome. He answers his own question: Because each preserved building where Americans conduct diplomacy is a "unique piece of history," and restoring each one with care shows our appreciation of the host country's architectural and cultural heritage.

True, caring for these sometimes-fragile buildings—a labor of love inside the foreign buildings bureaucracy of the State Department—requires a patient struggle for funds before a skeptical Congress and stubborn budgeteers. And appropriations since September 2001 have been dominated by safety concerns. But, thanks to a growing recognition of the cultural and diplomatic value of these landmarks, preservation efforts have taken root overseas.

Villa Petschek could not be more steeped in the past. The nine-bedroom mansion, completed in 1929, was designed by famed architect Max Spielmann with all the sumptuous appointments necessary for a family intent on entertaining high-society Mitteleuropa in the years between the wars.

With the Nazi occupation of Prague in 1939, that golden interlude ended for the Petscheks, Czech Jews, who fled the country with little more than their luggage. German military governors occupied the house, helping themselves to some of the contents and stamping the Nazi eagle onto the books and furnishings. In 1948, the U.S. government acquired the property as part of a war reparations settlement.

During the 1980s, ambassadors (Shirley Temple Black among them) entertained prominent Czech dissidents at Villa Petschek soirees, tacit nourishment for what would soon become the Velvet Revolution and the beginning of the end of the Soviet system. Writer Vaclav Havel, later the Czech president, and other dissenters would come and go to these gatherings in the trunks of cars. Havel, heading home one night, was arrested two blocks from the residence for fraternizing with Americans.

Not far away, in Prague's city center, stands the embassy office complex, housed in a sprawling 18th-century mansion called Schoenborn Palace. It also played a symbolic role in unraveling communism. At the top of the palace garden stands a glorietta, a stone gazebo that commands a panoramic view of the city. But it is the view of the glorietta—topped by an American flag—that reminded two generations of an alternate reality.

Both facilities, of course, are also working buildings. At Villa Petschek, "representation," as the hosting of events is called in diplomatic dialect, is a constant for diplomats and their dwellings. Today's U.S. Ambassador to the Czech Republic, Richard Graber, calls the house "an impressive setting to get a lot of work done for the United States."

Five hundred fifty miles west, in Paris, the U.S. government owns two more historic buildings of note. The ambassador lives in the ornate Hotel Pontalba, a Rothschild family mansion dating to the 1840s. Nearby stands the 1767 Talleyrand building, another former Rothschild residence, used for years as a rather palatial annex to the main embassy structure. Unfortunately the Talleyrand has recently felt the burden of its vulnerable location, and the United States has removed its personnel and leased all but one floor.

The decision does have a silver lining: Today that floor is being restored—and transformed into a showcase for the State Department's determination to celebrate its offshore architectural heritage. Thanks to private funds and the championship of recent American ambassadors, a suite of 10 reception rooms here now constitutes the George C. Marshall Center. (It was in these rooms, shabbier then but not without grandeur, that the Marshall Plan for European recovery was hammered out and launched in the late 1940s and early 1950s.)

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