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At Its Headquarters, City Shows Off Its International Treasures

By Sewell Chan
Sunday, August 1, 2004; Page C05

Last month, as the D.C. Council conducted its usual debates, a group of city officials quietly gathered around a set of glass display cases on the fifth floor of the John A. Wilson Building, the headquarters of city government.

Reaching into the cases, they carefully placed an inventory of international treasures on soft velour cases: a porcelain bowl and figurine of Tintin, the beloved children's cartoon character, from Belgium; a set of teacups from Qatar; a stringed instrument from Kazakhstan; two medals and a wooden seal from Ecuador.

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The loveliest item was a ceremonial fish hook, carved from cow bone, from New Zealand.

The most moving was a pair of firefighter figurines, crafted by Lladro, a Spanish sculpture workshop, donated to the District and New York to commemorate the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The cornucopia of collectibles placed on display July 14 is not part of a rarefied private collection. It is publicly owned, all presented to Mayor Anthony A. Williams since he took office in January 1999.

In 2001, the city completed a $68.5 million historic renovation of the building, a beaux-arts structure constructed in 1908 and traditionally known as the District Building. Renamed for John A. Wilson, a former council chairman who died in 1993, the building houses the Executive Office of the Mayor, the offices of the 13 council members and a few other city agencies.

Top city officials began moving into the building Sept. 7, 2001, four days before the terrorist attacks. There was little time in the next few months to think about how to decorate the marble interior.

In February 2002, Williams (D) created a task force, chaired by lawyer and political donor Max N. Berry, to study the significance of the structure and determine appropriate decor.

The all-volunteer panel completed its work in December. One recommendation was to focus on discrete sections of the building, including the fifth floor, which has three wood-paneled ceremonial offices once used by the trio of presidentially appointed commissioners who controlled the District before the advent of home rule in 1974.

Sherryl Hobbs Newman, a lawyer who oversees ceremony and protocol as the secretary of the District, explained that the gifts are mostly from visitors -- such as new ambassadors or other mayors.

There are nearly 180 embassies in Washington, Newman said, and ambassadors typically visit the mayor's office about the time they present their credentials to the federal government.

The mayor usually gives official visitors a compass clock, a book or a vase, although the gifts have included miniature versions of the large donkey and elephant statues that graced city streets in 2002.

Newman's office keeps a registry of all gifts, which are the property of the District government. Carlton M. Terry of Newman's office estimated that 200 gifts have been accepted.

The displays were given by the Smithsonian Institution, a gift arranged by task force member David C. Levy, the president of the Corcoran Museum of Art.


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