History of the Consulate
934 Fifth Avenue is probably the best-known address for French New Yorkers. For 50 years, it has been the home of the French Consulate.
On December 3, 2002 Richard Duqué, French Consul General in 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 townhouse at 934 Fifth Avenue. The building had been purchased by the French Republic in 1942. The war explains the gap of ten years between the two dates.
March 25, 1942: The French Consulate, which had outgrown the space it had been renting since 1933 at 610 Fifth Avenue, in the prestigious, but expensive, Rockefeller Center, purchased a building twenty-five blocks to the north, facing Central Park. The address: 934 Fifth Avenue.
This very beautiful mansion, built in 1926 by the architects Alexander Walker and Leon Gillette for financier Charles Mitchell, had been “taken over” by J.P. Morgan & Co in 1939 after the bankruptcy of its owner. Mitchell was a victim of the 1929 stock market crash.
That was how France came to invest in New York real estate for the first time since the beginning of its diplomatic representation on the Hudson. France opened the first of its foreign consulates in 1783 (contrary to popular belief, the Dutch Consulate was not founded until the following year).
New York, however, was not home to the first French Consulate in the United States: That honor goes 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 resulted that same year in the establishment of 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 reflected the importance of the city and the consular jurisdiction comprising New York State, Connecticut and New Jersey along with the Bermudas. But in 1942, when the offices in Rockefeller Center became too small, the “French state” was governed by the Vichy regime under Marshal Pétain. On November 11 that year, Washington broke off diplomatic relations with the government of Marshal Pétain. Switzerland represented France’s diplomatic interests at that time while work was done on the new premises at 934.
But in 1943, consular business was taken over by a new authority claiming the legitimacy of the French state: Free France. The representation didn’t become official until President Roosevelt recognized the new French government under General de Gaulle a year later. The Consulate, which had never moved, was to remain in its Rockefeller offices for eight more years. In 1945, it was actually the French Embassy Cultural Services which took possession of 934 Fifth Avenue.
The transfer came in 1952 after the purchase of another mansion at 972 Fifth Avenue, the home of the Payne Whitney family, for the Cultural Services which are still located there.
In December of the same year, the Consulate moved into the Mitchell residence without altering the rooms behind the classical facade, except for changing a spacious bedroom into offices (occupied by the Consul General’s secretaries and by the Deputy Consul General, while that used by the Consul General was kept intact, with original style, wood paneling and parquet).
For 50 years, the style of this palatial residence, inspired by Parisian decorative arts of the beginning of the 20th century, has been faithfully preserved. There have been two architectural changes: in 1955, the construction of a new building at 932 Fifth Avenue required the removal of the fireplace in the Mitchell dining room, renamed the “green room” -in reality a petit salon for receptions-and in 1964, an expansion to house the chancellery meant the end of the fresco painting on the wall at the far end of the entrance hall.
But the new decoration is a credit to past splendor. The trompe l’oeil marble of the lobby reinforces the building’s Italian Renaissance feel, which reaches its heights in the salon rose with its coffered ceiling, magnificent chandelier-far more imposing than the original-damask silk drapes, wall hangings and majestic French windows overlooking Central Park.
The Consulate, all things considered, is more than an official office. It is a showcase, if not a museum, worthy of France’s standing in the United States’ best-known city.
Saint John de Crèvecoeur, First Consul General in New York
John de Crèvecoeur, who was born in 1735 in Caen, had acquired a first-class knowledge of America by the time he was appointed Consul General of France in New York on August 24, 1783.
He signed up as a cadet with French colonial troops in Canada where he was a cartographer, was evacuated to New York in 1759 after being wounded and was employed as a surveyor before settling down in Philadelphia to farm. About that time he changed his name to John Hector Saint John and was naturalized in the colony of New York in 1764. In 1769 he married Mehitable Tippet who bore him three children. He lived on Pinehill estate in Orange County, was imprisoned by the British in New York from the end of 1778 to September 1779 and then returned to France after his release.
The Marquis de Turgot, brother of Louis XVI’s minister, introduced him to Buffon, d’Alembert and Benjamin Franklin at the literary salon of Madame d’Houdetot. He also introduced him to Marshal de Castries, Minister for the Navy, who put him at the top of the consuls’ list for the United States. Saint John de Crèvecoeur took up his post in New York on November 17, 1783 and stayed for two terms, the first until June 1785 and the second from May 1787 to May 1790. One of his duties was to establish a packet service between Lorient and New York and prepare a postal treaty between the two countries. He died in Sarcelles on November 12, 1813.
Saint John de Crèvecoeur authored several works, including Letters from an American Farmer, a treatise on the potato and a memoir on the population, agriculture, finances and commerce of New York (1789).
The Consuls at "934" since 1952
Successors to Saint John de Crèvecœur, nineteen Consul Generals have succeeded since moving into the 934 Fifth Avenue building, including the present Consul General Bertrand Lortholary. Here is a list of the former Consul Generals:
Roger Seydoux (1950-52)
Antoine de Lagarde (1952-57)
Jacques Baeyens (1957-58)
Raymond Laporte (1958-63)
Michel Legendre (1963-68)
Jean Béliard (1968-69)
Henri Claudel (fils de l’écrivain, 1969-72)
Gérard Gaussen (1972-78)
Gérard de la Villesbrunes (1978-81)
Bertrand de la Taillade (1981-84)
André Gadaud (1984-89)
Benoît d’Aboville (1989-93)
André Baeyens (fils de Jacques, 1993-95)
Patrick Gautrat (1995-98)
Richard Duqué (1998-2004)
François Delattre (2004-2008)
Guy Yelda (2008-2009)
Philippe Lalliot (2009-2012)
Bertrand Lortholary (2012 ...)
French Consulate Celebrates 50 Years at the Same Location
From France Amerique/ Le Figaro
By Jean Louis Turlin