Thursday, April 16, 2009

Welcome to the White House, First Puppy

Recent pictures of Washington DC’s newest/fluffiest resident, Bo the dog, romping around the White House remind us that this iconic Washington residence is indeed just that. A residence. Home to the President and the first family, the White House also does triple duty as part top secret office building and part museum. It is understood by all of its inhabitants (except perhaps the dogs) that their residence is temporary, but each administration does try it’s best to leave their mark. Fortunately enough, because of these territorial instincts (something the dogs would understand?) the interior of the White House now holds one of the greatest collections of American decorative arts in the country.

The cornerstone of the President’s Mansion was laid in 1792 under the supervision of architect James Hoban. While George Washington advised Hoban on the design, John Adams was the first president to move into the house in 1800 while it was still under construction. In 1801, Thomas Jefferson introduced the first indoor water closet, and running water was piped in through hollowed out logs beginning in 1833. While living there in 1809, James Madison commissioned noted American architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe to design what is now the Blue Room in the fashionable Greek Revival style at which Latrobe excelled. Unfortunately, in 1814 Madison and his wife Dolley were famously forced to flee the home with George Washington’s portrait as it burned under British attack. Incoming President James Monroe again hired James Hoban to rebuild the house, and updated the interior fashions with new French Empire furnishings. Several of these, including a Parisian-made settee and seven gilded chairs, remain today as the oldest original pieces of furniture in the home.

During the Victorian Era, President Buchanan brought modern Victorian decor into the house, and later Mary Todd Lincoln spent a great deal of effort to upgrade the mansion with Rococo Revival laminated rosewood furnishings. Many of these remain today in the famed Lincoln bedroom. During his administration in the late 1870s, Rutherford B. Hayes improved and expanded the White House greenhouses to reflect current interests in scientific advances and exotic curiosities.

By the time Chester Arthur entered office in 1881, the Victorian was on its way out. Arthur sold much of the extravagant interior decorations added during the period and commissioned fellow New Yorker and color expert Louis Comfort Tiffany to redecorate the oft used Blue Room in it’s namesake blue hue. In 1902 Theodore Roosevelt continued the trend by bringing on the Neo-classical powerhouse architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White to fully remove the Victorian dressings and replace them with the streamlined interiors found in the White House today. Roosevelt also commissioned McKim, Mead and White to construct the West Wing of the building to help separate his office space from the family quarters occupied by his six rambunctious children. The West Wing was later expanded in the 1930s by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who also added (given the times) a small movie theater and an air raid shelter. 

In 1948, Harry Truman took office and shortly thereafter discovered that the structure of his new home was in a disastrous state. Over 130 years of constant use as office and living spaces had passed since the last reconstruction, and Truman began planning for a new restoration as soon as his daughter’s piano started to sink into the floor. From 1948 to 1952, the house was completely gutted and rebuilt with modern steel beams and concrete slabs that were pinned to the original 1814 exterior. The interiors were then replicated using Hoban’s floor plans, with decorations mimicking McKim, Mead and White’s classically inspired designs.

The gutted interior of the White House in 1950

Truman’s restoration of the house was well received, but his one major misstep was to redecorate much of the interior with standard issue furniture. Luckily, the White House found its savior in 1960 with the arrival of Jackie Kennedy. An icon of fashion herself, Jackie Kennedy worked tirelessly to make the White House a showcase for the decorative arts. Aware of the importance and depth of history that the house possessed, she worked to establish a collection of original pieces and to restore the public rooms as period spaces. Under her guidance, in 1961 the White House gained a curator and officially became a museum. She then created the White House Historical Association, which still exists today to raise money for the care of the home’s collections and to acquire further pieces of furniture and art. After Jackie, the care and preservation of the White House became an official task of the First Lady. In 1964 Lady Bird Johnson helped establish the Committee for the Preservation of the White House, of which the First Lady is the honorary chair, and in 1979 Rosalynn Carter oversaw the creation of the White House Preservation Fund (now the White House Acquisition Trust) with an original endowment of 25 million.

Today the historic preservation of the White House is managed by the National Park Service and the General Services Administration. It received its museum accreditation from the American Association of Museums in 1988, and visitors willing to call their Congress members in advance can view prominent pieces from the collection on daily tours. And of course, the collection is always growing. Reflecting her personal style, new First Lady Michelle Obama hired interior decorator Michael Smith to create casual, homey interiors that are distinctly American; mixing priceless Early American antiques with affordable modern pieces. Ubiquitous furniture sources like Anthropologie and Pottery Barn were tapped for the more affordable items, while the President and First Lady sleep in an 1820’s tall-post maple bed and Malia Obama does her homework on a desk used by President Lincoln.

Here’s hoping that Bo doesn’t get to chewing on the legs of those.

Source: Delahanty, Randolph. "The Nation's House" Museum, January/February 2009 

Image Sources: Obama and dog,; White House Shell,

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