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Lifting the Face of a Historical House

Times Staff Writer

When renowned New York decorator Mario Buatta was offered the chance a few years ago to help renovate the dilapidated Blair House--the 19th-Century capital landmark that has played host to world leaders from Lincoln to Khrushchev and Sadat--he jumped at the chance.

“Clem (Clement E. Conger, State Department curator) asked me if I’d be interested in coming down to see the house. I said, ‘Interested? My God, I’ll take the job!’ ”

Now, more than three years, $13 million and many coats of paint later, the restored Blair House sits virtually complete, its majestic doors swung open this week to the unabashed oglings of official Washington and its spanking fresh, “B.H."-embroidered towels hung in waiting for foreign dignitaries who will stay there.

Unforeseen Hitches Encountered

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But en route to the rejuvenation of the sprawling, four-story site that was closed four years ago for safety reasons, Buatta encountered some unforeseen hitches--scheduling delays and financial restraints, design disagreements and, most harrowing, The Animals.

First there was a large rat that Buatta said managed to burrow its way through a door to a drawing room, forcing workers to replace a section of paneling.

And in April, when President and Mrs. Reagan were due at a pre-opening review of what has often been called the world’s most exclusive hotel, a dog that had been sent to sniff for explosives made a mess on an expensive rug.

“I got a firsthand glimpse, and it was pretty awful to see all the carpeting go down the drain, so to speak,” Buatta recalled.

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Still, the New York designer has no regrets.

“This is probably the best job you could get, and I’m thrilled with the way it turned out,” Buatta said as he surveyed some of his handiwork--a renovated, deep-red room that faces the White House, across Pennsylvania Avenue, and that once served as a temporary office for President Truman.

Truman lived in the Blair House for more than three years during his presidency while the White House was being remodeled. He is said to have been astonished, in a 1963 visit, by the house’s remodeling and remarked then: “What have you done to my old home? Why, you have moved everything around.”

Were he alive today, Truman would doubtless be even more surprised by the Georgian mansion’s state.

Safety Systems, New Wing

Armed with an $8.6-million grant from Congress, renovators went to work installing fire and safety systems, fixing the roof and replacing the plumbing, wiring, heating and air-conditioning systems at Blair House, which is actually four adjacent houses.

They also added a wing with a garden room and a primary suite that officials said should give visiting dignitaries more room and better security. The old heads-of-state suite--which, unlike the new one, sat over the oft-traveled Pennsylvania Avenue--had become “too dangerous in these days of terrorism,” said Conger, the curator.

“We have all these terrorists on the loose now, and it would be very embarrassing--and a nightmare--if we had an attack here,” Conger said. The only assault on Blair House to date was a 1950 assassination attempt on Truman by Puerto Rican nationalists. A security guard was killed.

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In addition to structural work, about 75 of the Blair House’s 125 rooms have been redone in whole or part with refinished floors and walls, fresh paint, reupholstered furniture, rugs and curtains, and some new china, artwork and other pieces.

Donations Funded Inside Work

The interior work was funded largely by about $5 million in donations--33 for more than $100,000--from a roster of wealthy socialites nationwide that included such names as Rockefeller, Getty, Perot, Hammer and Annenberg.

“This shows what wonderfully patriotic people there are in this country who are willing to help restore a house so far away,” said a glowing Selwa Roosevelt, chief of protocol at the State Department, who headed the project.

Buatta teamed up on the interior redesigning with another New York decorator, Mark Hampton; each picked the rooms he wanted to work on, and they flipped a coin to see who would get those rooms that both sought.

Decorating within the government bureaucracy, Buatta and Hampton said, they often found themselves exasperated in trying to get approval for various design decisions from a committee that oversaw their work.

“Everyone in the world is fearful of decorators,” Hampton joked, and Buatta says he fought for two years to use the color he wanted in one room.

A Delicate Balancing Act

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But the greatest challenge came in trying to balance the house’s desperate need for restoration against the demand to preserve its heritage.

“So much of this house is just steeped in the tried tradition of the government,” said Hampton. “That became more and more impressive the longer we worked on it. You do fall into the spell that a house that has had such an interesting history can cast over you.”

Indeed, the history of Blair House dates from 1824, when it was built by Dr. Joseph Lovell and his wife, who traveled in a small clique of Washington jet-setters in a city whose population numbered but 16,000. As legend has it, the windows were put in place just in time to offer the Lovells front-row seats for the Marquis de Lafayette’s triumphant parade through the streets of the capital.

This “spacious two-story brick building,” as it was then described in newspaper advertisements, assumed its current name in 1836 when it was bought by Francis Preston Blair, a powerful and influential publisher who started a pro-Andrew Jackson Administration newspaper.

Has Housed World Leaders

The U.S. government bought the house in 1942 for $142,000, and since then it has housed six Cabinet members and has temporarily hosted hundreds of visiting foreign dignitaries, including Emperor Hirohito, Queen Elizabeth II, Leonid Brezhnev, Anwar Sadat, Menachem Begin, Margaret Thatcher, Ferdinand Marcos and the Shah of Iran. Blair House is not open to the public.


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