Detectives Benson and Stabler take a tour of the French Embassy. Image source: Netflix.
You may have spent countless hours watching all fifteen glorious seasons of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, studiously tracking the evolution of Olivia Benson’s hairstyles, but did you know that the scenes at the creepy billionaire’s mansion in episode 15 of Season 12 were filmed at the French Embassy? The embassy lent its opulence to the episode, entitled Flight, as the home of a defense contractor who has a thing for younger females.
The Office of Cultural Services of the French Consulate is housed in the former mansion of Payne Whitney (brother-in-law to Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney the founder of the Whitney Museum). The high Italian Renaissance palazzo has a bow-front facade and Corinthian pilasters that can be seen when you look up at 972 Fifth Avenue. According to a 1996 article published in The New York Times the house was a gift for Whitney’s marriage to Helen Hay in 1902. Stanford White, an architect whose other works in New York City include Penn Station and The New York Palace Hotel, was commissioned to design both the interior and the exterior, though he did not live to see the structure completed in 1909.
Of note in the house is the Venetian room, which White designed as a reception room covered in gilt, mirrors, and a lattice cove with porcelain flowers. An auction following the deaths of both the original owners failed to uncover a gem that was being housed at the current French Embassy: a Michelangelo statue of cupid atop a fountain near the entrance of the Payne Whitney house was identified in 1996 as the work of the artist. In 2009, it was announced that the Michelangelo piece would be loaned to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for a period of 10 years.
Law and Order is not the first to shoot in what is now the French Embassy; a scene in Gone With The Wind was shot on the staircase of the house.
France purchased the edifice that currently houses the French Embassy in 1952.
With the growing popularity of high rise apartment, the French Embassy stands as one of the few remaining 20th century homes on this stretch Fifth Avenue.