JANUARY 2003

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French Consulate Celebrates 50 Years
From France Amerique
By John Louis Turlin

934 Fifth Avenue is doubtless the best known address for French New Yorkers. For 50 years, it has been the residence of the French consulate.

On the third of December, Richard Duqué, France’s consulate general to New York, celebrated the anniversary with the American French community. Exactly a half century ago, in December 1952, the French consulate relocated to the five-story hotel at 934 Fifth Avenue. The building had been obtained by the French Republic in 1942. The war explains the gap of ten years between the two dates.

March 25, 1942: The French consul, not comfortable in the place he has been renting since 1933 on 610 Fifth Avenue, in the prestigious, but expensive, Rockefeller Center, buys a building, twenty-five blocks to the north, facing Central Park. The address: 934 Fifth Avenue.

This very beautiful mansion, constructed in 1926 by the architects Alexander Walker and Leon Gillette for the financial figure Charles Mitchell, was occupied by J.P. Morgan & Co in 1939 after the bankruptcy of its owner. Mitchell was a victim of the 1929 stock market crash.

Thus, France invested in a New York building for the first time since the beginning of its diplomatic representation on the Hudson. France opened its first foreign consulates in 1783 (in contrast to popular belief, the consulate of the Netherlands was not created until the following year).

New York, in fact, was not home to the first French consulate in the United States: That honor was given to Philadelphia, the first capital (New York followed it in 1791 and Washington in 1802). Signed in 1778, the treaty of friendship and of commerce between France and the United States created, in the same year, the first French consulate in the new republic. Boston and Baltimore followed in 1779, then Charleston – and New York– in 1783.

A century and half later, New York had become… New York. The importance of the consulate was measured by the importance of the city and the district that groups together New York State, Connecticut and New Jersey, as well as the Bermudas. But in 1942, when the offices in Rockefeller Center became too small, the French state was led by Marshal Pétain and a government that was the Vichy system incarnate.

In November 11 of the same year, Washington put an end to diplomatic relations with the government of Marshal Pétain. Switzerland represented France’s diplomatic interests at that time.

But in 1943, consular affairs were resumed by a new authority claiming the legitimacy of the French state: the free France. The representation didn’t become official until President Roosevelt again recognized the French government under General DeGaulle. However, the consulate did not leave the Rockefeller offices for eight more years. In 1945, the cultural services of the French Embassy moved to 934 Fifth Avenue.

The full transfer took place in 1952, after the purchase of another hotel at 972 Fifth Avenue, a building that belonged to the Payne Whitney family. Cultural services are still located there.

In December of the same year, the consulate moved to the Mitchell residence without modifying the rooms behind the classical facade, except for changing a vast bedroom into offices (those of the secretariat of the consulate general and general assistant consul, the furnishings of the consulate general were preserved from the previous location).

For 50 years, the style of this palatial residence, inspired by the Parisian decorative arts of the beginning of the twentieth century, have been faithfully preserved. There have been two architectural changes: in 1955, the construction of a new building at 932 Fifth Avenue led to the removal of a dining room fireplace, and in 1964, additions to the ministry of justice took out the fresco painting on the wall at the bottom of the entrance hall.

But the new decoration gives honor to the past’s splendor. The marble of the lobby reinforces the building’s Italian Renaissance feel, and the pink living room is a triumph, with its superb luster – a lot more imposing than the original –its damask silk rugs, and its majestic French windows overlooking Central Park.

The consulate, considering everything, is a display window, more like a museum, worthy to the image of France in the United States’ best known city.

Translated from French by Elias Saber.

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