It’s one of the most coveted invitation in Washington: A party at the French embassy. The ambassador’s residence in Kalorama looks like — as an awed guest once put it — Hollywood’s version of a grand diplomatic manor: Elegant reception rooms, sprawling grounds and pool, and outdoor patio that serves as the backdrop for Vanity Fair’s annual White House Correspondent’s Dinner after-party.
So it was with mixed feelings when Ambassador François Delattre, who arrived in D.C. two years ago, moved out of the residence in December. The historic home was years overdue for an extensive renovation — boring stuff like plumbing and rewiring — which required Delattre, his family and staff to relocate to a rental on Foxhall Road for a least a year. Not easy for us mere mortals; even harder when your diplomatic portfolio requires hosting an unending parade of local and visiting dignitaries. (And soothing neighbors already cranky about parking space.)
“We have a new temporary residence which is good for smaller dinners and parties,” he told us. “We entertain quite a lot — frankly, every day.”
The real challenge is big events like this year’s Bastille Day celebrations. The parties kicked off Thursday night at the palatial Anderson House thanks to more than 200 years of French-American fraternité: the D.C. mansion was loaned to the embassy by the Society of the Cincinnati, founded in 1783 by American and French officers who served together in the American Revolution.
A stream of administration officials, senators, congressman, and other Francophiles mingled in marbled halls sipping champagne and nibbling on foie gras and cheese— austerity has its place, but it wasn’t here.
The rest of the national day events (a cocktail benefit for young patrons, and a blowout for 3,000 French expats) were held at La Maison Française, the modern addition tucked alongside the embassy’s office buildings on Reservoir Road. Not old, not elegant, not even close to charming.
“For many of our American friends, it’s a bit un-French,” Delattre explained. “They like the old style, which I respect. But for us, who are heavily investing in innovation, innovation, innovation, this is not a bad signal to show — since we have no choice anyway — that France is also about modernity.”
And speaking of un-French: The Kalorama residence, like so many of other embassies in Washington, started out as a private home. The 1910 building, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is British (Tudor and Jacobean Revival) architecture; the French took over in 1936.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Adrienne Arsht’s name in a caption. This version has been updated.
Earlier: David Gregory throws fit over parking, 4/10/13
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