Clement E. Conger, the former State Department curator who transformed the “motel modern” look of its diplomatic reception rooms into a showcase for early American craftsmanship, died Sunday of complications from pneumonia at a hospital in Delray Beach, Fla. He was 91.
Conger’s career, which married the worlds of diplomacy, politics and fine art, was chronicled extensively in print. Seemingly every Chippendale table, every Gilbert Stuart portrait, every Duncan Phyfe cabinet he obtained became cause for a story.
He raised millions of dollars to refurnish State Department rooms for visiting dignitaries and then did the same at the White House and at Blair House, the presidential guesthouse.
His entry into curating, in the early 1960s, was largely accidental.
He was at the State Department helping coordinate visits by foreign officials when the wife of Secretary of State Christian Herter approached him worriedly about additions that had been made to the State Department building. She was distressed to see the new hospitality suite looking so sterile. According to Conger, she “burst into tears,” knowing that she soon had to entertain the queen of Greece.
He fixed the problem with three borrowed French paintings and then got to work forming a committee of wealthy citizens with a healthy interest in history and antiques.
He sent letters nationwide explaining the benefits of lending beautiful objects to the State Department: “national pride, family pride and tax deductibility.”
On weekends, he visited auction houses and private estates for vintage Americana while working full-time during the week as an assistant to top arms-control officials.
Over the years, he overhauled more than 15 main reception rooms as well as the Treaty Room suite and the offices of the secretary and deputy secretary of state.
The furnishings are now valued at more than $100 million, said Pat Heflin, his former assistant.
The Nixons admired his work and invited him to be the White House curator. Curating became his main job, and he divided his time between the executive mansion and the State Department.
He raised millions to renovate much of the White House, including the Red, Green and Blue rooms.
In 1986, First Lady Nancy Reagan reportedly dismissed Conger because of artistic differences.
Conger retired from the State Department in 1992 and then spent two years doing consulting work at Christie’s auction house.
Clement Ellis Conger was born in Harrisonburg, Va. He was a graduate of Strayer College. Early on, he worked in Washington as an officer manager and correspondent for the Chicago Tribune and office manager for U.S. Rubber Co.
During World War II, he became assistant secretary for the United States and British combined chiefs of staff.
He joined the State Department and became deputy chief of protocol in the late 1950s. He helped oversee visits by foreign officials, including Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi of Iran, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, French President Charles de Gaulle and Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.
Survivors include his wife of 55 years, Lianne Hopkins Conger of Delray Beach; three children, William Conger of Maurertown, Va., Jay Conger of Manhattan Beach, Calif., and Shelley Conger of Sherman Oaks, Calif.; and two grandchildren.