Truman Hall is a traditional Flemish country estate built in 1963 for Côte d’Or chocolatier Jean Michiels and his family. The Michiels, who had nine children, previously lived in an old townhouse in the compound of their family-owned chocolate factory, which was located in central Brussels near Midi Train Station. An escape to the quiet Flemish countryside must have been a strong attraction when the family decided to build a new house.
The property was acquired from the Michiels family by the U.S. government in 1984, beginning a new chapter for the estate as the official ambassadorial residence. The 13th U.S. Ambassador to NATO, David Abshire, renamed it Truman Hall in honor of the 33rd U.S. President, Harry S. Truman, who championed the North Atlantic Treaty and led the United States to become a founding member of NATO. During the dedication of the residence, Ambassador Abshire spoke of the solidarity of America’s ironclad commitment to Europe and said, “We are here to stay permanently among our Allies, to help keep the peace.” The David M. Abshire library adjacent to the main salon at Truman Hall was named in his honor.
At the edge of the property, a house originally used as a gardener’s cottage was converted into a guesthouse and named after U.S. Senator Arthur Vandenberg. The Republican senator worked closely with the Democratic President Truman to secure U.S. Senate approval for the Washington Treaty, which the United States, along with 11 other founding members, signed in 1949 to create NATO. President Truman and Senator Vandenberg set the standard for U.S. bipartisan support for NATO and helped inaugurate the modern transatlantic project.
As the official residence of the U.S. Ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Truman Hall has become a center for welcoming our Allies and partners in the most successful security alliance in the history of the world. In 2006 the estate was added to the U.S. Secretary of State’s Register of Culturally Significant Properties in recognition of its architectural, historical, and environmental qualities. This designation honors important U.S. diplomatic facilities that figure prominently in the international heritage of the United States. With over 3,500 U.S. government sites internationally, Truman Hall is one of only 38 properties to receive this prestigious distinction.
Truman Hall sits at the peak of a gentle hill, protected on the east by a grove of pines, open on the west as the slope drops away to the parks and lakes of Tervuren.
Architecturally, Truman Hall is a loaf-shaped Flemish country house constructed of brick and Belgian Greystone lintels, with extensive slate roofing, elaborately dormered and hipped.
Much of the estate’s beauty can be credited to René Pechère, an outstanding Belgian landscape architect. Around 1960, Mrs. Michiels met Mr. Pechère and was impressed by his artistic and sensitive style as well as his interest in practical detail. When the time came a few years later to build a new family home, René Pechère was invited to submit plans.*
Michiels and Pechère lunched together frequently for nearly a year going over their ideas: the large windows of the house would face southwest with the kitchen and breakfast room on the east where the sun strikes first; the dining room and salon in the center of the house would receive the sun at lunchtime; and the library on the west end would receive the last warming rays of the day.
One of the most appealing rooms is the David M. Abshire Library just off the salon. This small library is adorned with fine 18th century wood paneling that makes this the most intimate room in the house.
The garden starts to the east of the house, where the vegetable and herb gardens are laid out in formal patterns. A hazelnut grove divides the swimming pool from the tennis court. Beyond that, a thick planting of pine trees borders the property.
To the south, a walkway draped in Virginia creeper vines beckons along the edge of the lawn. Pechère had seen this feature in Italy and adapted it to his own design. Along the walkway are three walled gardens. The first is an open area that originally served as a children’s area with a large sandbox and playhouse. The second section was designed as a hide-and-seek jungle of bamboo. In 1984, it was converted into a “NATO garden” with cobbled circles representing the NATO Allies at that time. The third is a hidden garden containing a marvelous array of azaleas, which is dazzling in the late spring and early summer.
At the end of the vine-covered walk, the path opens and curves around the south end of the lawn. Here the path offers an imposing view of the rear of the house before plunging into the secluded rhododendron walk, which is filled with blossoms in late May and early June. To the west is a thicket of hazelnuts, after which a sloping grassy path descends through a natural forest to a large circle formed by 16 giant sequoias. A labyrinth in the center of the circle was designed as a sunbathers’ retreat.
The property chosen for the Michiels’s new house was previously agricultural land, and save for the forest at its border, was completely treeless. Preparation to introduce trees began a year in advance of construction with the selection of mature trees from the former estate of Jean Michiels’s father. Trenches were dug around the trees and the roots were encased, much like potted plants, so that new roots would develop within the containers. After a year, the tree branches were tied up, and each tree was moved onto to a truck bed. The trees were transported to the new estate under police escort and required the removal of tramlines to allow passage. It took an entire night for the trees to reach the estate grounds. Today, visitors can see many examples of trees that were transported in this way, including the towering circle of sequoias on the west flank of the property and the great cedar near the swimming pool.