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A Gilded Setting for a Golden Summit

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  • NATO Summit Set to Begin

  • By Linda Wheeler
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Friday, April 23, 1999; Page A34

    Herman Aldas dabbed gold paint on a medieval ax atop a ceremonial gate of the Mellon Auditorium earlier this week and then leaned back to admire the effect. The gates and ornaments had been black with age before Aldas and his son Carlos sanded away the grime of more than 60 years. Now the bars are silver again with gold trim.

    "I love art," Herman Aldas said. "It's in my blood. This is the most beautiful building, and the gates are gorgeous."

    NATO leaders representing 19 countries are scheduled to walk through those refurbished gates today and into the same auditorium on Constitution Avenue near 14th Street NW where the agreement creating the alliance was signed 50 years ago.

    Although the same high ceiling, imposing stone columns and large chandeliers are there, the decor of the templelike room will be much different. A two-tone beige rug covers the parquet floor, and the spaces between the stone columns have been fitted with temporary doorways. This week, workers were building a set of bleachers at the rear of the auditorium, testing spotlights and hanging a NATO medallion above the stage.

    When dedicated in 1935, the room was called the Departmental Auditorium and was used for government ceremonies and assemblies. San Francisco architect Arthur Brown Jr., who designed the adjoining Labor Department (which became U.S. Customs Service offices) and Interstate Commerce Commission buildings, lavished the auditorium with artwork.

    James M. Goode, in his book "The Outdoor Sculpture of Washington, D.C.," said the ceremonial space "must be considered one of the most magnificent auditoriums in the country." It was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1966.

    Outside, the portico is supported by six columns and decorated with a six-figure sculpture representing the United States and its national defense and resources. Beneath that are a series of carved figureheads and two eagles in profile.

    Between the gates, the Aldas family was restoring three heavily detailed lanterns. Beyond the gates, the lobby is a rich combination of polished marble and limestone, lit by nine-foot-tall floor lamps. Great mahogany doors, trimmed in gold, open onto the six-story-high assembly room, which can seat more than a thousand people.

    The auditorium was part of an ambitious undertaking by the federal government, beginning in the 1920s, to build office space for various agencies in a central, downtown location. Dubbed the Federal Triangle because of the shape of the 70 acres bounded by Pennsylvania and Constitution avenues and 14th Street NW, the last space was filled recently with the opening of the Ronald Reagan Building on 14th Street.

    The first event in the auditorium was the dedication of the adjoining Labor Department on March 25, 1935, with Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins hosting the festivities. Organized labor was given a prominent role in the celebration. The United Miners of West Virginia band played, and the Melody Strollers, a group of textile workers from Spartanburg, S.C., sang folk songs. William Green, president of the American Federation of Labor, told the audience that the right of employees to form unions for the purpose of bargaining collectively "is essential to self-government in industry and that self-government in industry is far preferable to industrial or political dictatorship or political regulation."

    In this auditorium, President Franklin D. Roosevelt initiated the Selective Service System lottery on Oct. 29, 1940. Here on April 4, 1949, the North Atlantic Treaty was signed by Secretary of State Dean Acheson and leaders from 11 other countries.

    Less grand events have taken place there as well, including concerts, craft shows and an auction of Internal Revenue Service confiscated property.

    In 1995, the auditorium was renamed to honor Andrew W. Mellon, who presided over much of the planning of the Federal Triangle when he was secretary of the treasury from 1921 to 1932.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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