WASHINGTON — When Mary Herter, wife of then-Secretary of State Christian A. Herter, presided over preparations for the first formal dinner to be held in the new State Department headquarters in 1961, one look at the condition of the ladies' room made her burst into tears.
The guest of honor that evening was to be Queen Frederika of Greece, and, as Clement Conger, then the department's protocol officer, explains, the "powder room" had been decorated in garish green, red, purple and turquoise."
"Like those in a gangster's moll's quarters on a 20th Century-Fox lot," Conger sniffed later on.
Ever-dutiful, Conger immediately volunteered to lead a full-court campaign to refurbish the ladies' room--and the department's entire top-floor diplomatic reception complex--in a style more befitting the Free World's leading power.
To no one's surprise, of course, the entire venture would have to be financed by private contributions. Congress never would have stood for such opulence--at least not outside the Capitol Building--State Department officials agreed.
With that, the quiet-spoken Virginian launched a career as the government's top fund-raiser and art historian, amassing a collection of art, antiques and draperies that has become a point of pride to administrations through the years.
From 1961 until 1970, Conger was curator of the State Department's diplomatic rooms. In 1970, at the urging of President Richard M. Nixon, he became curator of the White House as well. Later, he directed the refurbishing of Blair House, the guest house for visiting foreign VIPs.
"I should have had my head examined," he recalls with a smile.
Today, Conger, who will be 78 in October and is still not contemplating retirement any time soon, is seeking to secure pledges for some $2.5 million a year in private contributions "to keep the place going when I'm not here."
It's almost impossible to imagine what Blair House, the formal rooms of the White House and the diplomatic reception rooms of the State Department would have been like without Conger's courtly touch. Now, no one is quite sure what they will be like without him.
Under Conger's direction, the State Department's reception rooms--originally designed in the stark steel-and-glass style of the late 1950s--were remodeled to reproduce the most elegant interiors of the first half-century of American independence.
The paintings and antiques are almost all of American origin, from the final years of the 18th Century to the beginning of the 19th Century. Due both to overall inflation and the soaring art market, the department's collection is now worth at least $50 million.
Conger concedes that much of the initial work in refurbishing the White House was begun by former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, who collected about 1,100 paintings, sculptures and antiques to redo formal rooms on the mansion's first floor.
Conger built on that collection, adding some 1,875 objets d'art during the Nixon, Ford and Carter administrations. But--sadly, to Conger--the effort ground to a halt when Ronald Reagan took office.
"The Reagans weren't interested," he says. "We lost eight years of collecting--when collecting was easy."
Conger says his efforts to redo Blair House--which lasted from 1976 through 1988--were especially difficult because the mansion is constantly in use. "Every new administration gets more foreign visitors," he says. "Sometimes the beds barely cool off between visits."
Unlike the White House and the State Department, Blair House is furnished primarily with antiques of European origin--the sort of furnishings that were favored by its initial owners, who built the structure on a lot directly across the street from the White House.
With antiques becoming so much more scarce each year, it seems only natural to ask whether Conger sometimes finds his loyalties divided. If he spots a rare vase, for example, does it go to the White House or to State?
But whether intentionally or not, Conger has avoided such problems because each institution has a decor from a different era. The antiques in the White House date from the first two-thirds of the 19th Century; the State Department draws from earlier years.
The only competition, Conger says, comes "when we encounter portraits of Presidents who were also secretary of state."
So far, that list is restricted to Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe and John Quincy Adams. Alexander Haig tried to make it a fivesome, but his mid-1980s bid for the GOP presidential nomination never got off the ground.
Conger's last big project--remodeling the office suite of the deputy secretary of state--was completed earlier this year.
Conger regularly reminds potential contributors that their gifts are tax-deductible. And, following a practice employed by churches and other charities, he regularly urges private collectors to remember the government in their wills.
What happens after Conger retires? "I haven't given that much thought," he insists.
For now, Conger hopes to put together $2.5 million a year in private contributions--$500,000 for maintenance, $1 million for acquisitions and $1 million for an endowment.
That's an ambitious goal for a one-man institution that began with a plan to redecorate a powder room. But Conger has no doubts that Herter would have approved. "I think she wouldn't believe it," Conger says, obviously tickled at the thought.