The White House, Part I (First Floor)

As I mentioned earlier, I was lucky enough to be part of a special study group of Colonial Williamsburg Antiques Forum attendees that went to Washington DC before the conference for a couple of extraordinary tours–including the White House!

With sunny skies, a blanket of snow on the ground, and the promise of fine furniture, we arrived in Washington with high hopes for a grand day. Despite the fact that the storm spoiled much of our would-be visit to the District, I must admit that seeing the White House in the white snow was quite stunning.

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North face of the White House, taken as we entered the East Wing

Upon clearing security and entering the East Wing, we were ushered into a little reception room, where we waited for our curator escort. In this room hangs a portrait of First Lady Julia Gardiner Tyler. Apparently, Mrs. Tyler was appalled that the White House was not collecting portraits of the First Ladies alongside those of the Presidents, and promptly gifted a recent picture of herself to nudge them in the right direction!

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First Lady Julia Gardiner Tyler By Francesco Anelli, via Wikimedia Commons

We then proceeded to the end of the East Wing, where the Garden Room provided a beautiful view of the south portico. Gardens on this side have always done well in the shelter of the south-facing White House, with the sun’s rays bouncing off the massive white structure and onto the plants below. Interestingly, an old story I had heard before turned out to be a myth: the White House did not get its name for the white paint job done after the British burned the house to a char during the War of 1812. It’s a nice story, but the White House had apparently been painted white before the war, and was already being referred to as such in the early years.

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South face of the White House. Note Truman’s second-floor balcony within the columns of the portico.

In 1948, President Truman added the second-floor balcony to the portico, to be accessible by the family’s private living quarters. The propriety of this addition was debated at the time, but it has since been accepted as a tasteful and natural evolution of the building. Shortly thereafter, it was discovered that the whole White House was potentially on the verge of collapse (yikes!). With the addition of a third level and other accumulated “improvements” over the years, the original wooden structure was strained to its limits. The whole thing needed to undergo a major renovation. At great expense, the outside shell of the house was fully preserved while the inside was gutted and rebuilt. The first of several steam shovels (needed to dig out the foundation and basement) wouldn’t fit through any of the doors. So, after disassembling the whole thing on site, each piece was brought separately into the house and put back together. The reassembled steam shovel was then used to dig out a tunnel by which all the other equipment could be brought inside to the job site. Much to the dismay of many (especially in light of how differently we view conservation today), most of that original interior was completely lost.

Connecting the East Wing to the main house is the East Colonnade, which was built as part of a smaller original East Wing (conceived as a guest entrance) in 1902. Behind that long wall with all the picture frames is a long, narrow room that originally served as a giant coat closet for the many guests coming through the White House. In the mid-20th century I guess it was decided that guests could take care of their own coats because it was transformed into a private family theater, which we unfortunately did not get to see.

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Sunlight streams in from the gardens to the East Colonnade

The White House library was created at the request of President and First Lady Fillmore in the 1850s. More recently, a collection of books was carefully selected to represent a broad range of important topics. I’m not sure how often the books actually get used, though. Sometimes the library hosts media events. Much of the fine furniture is cleared out for these, since cameramen and journalists don’t necessarily come in with the same awe and respect for it that we antique nerds do!

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I didn’t get a good picture of the library. This one is courtesy of Peter Gene via Creative Commons.

Among the most significant of the White House furnishings are the large number of pieces that President Monroe acquired to refurnish the house after it was burnt to a crisp during the War of 1812. Man would I have loved to help him with that authorized shopping spree! Unfortunately, these and hordes of additional White House furniture and decorative arts were never valued as historical artifacts of much import. They were sold off in droves at public auctions through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as new Presidents re-decorated to suit their own tastes (or in the case of Mary Todd Lincoln, to raise some much-needed cash!). It wasn’t until First Lady Jackie Kennedy arrived that this practice was officially discontinued. She created the White House Historical Association to help her renovate and then preserve the house’s interior in an effort to reclaim some of its history. A new regulation was put in place so that anything acquired by the White House could never be de-accessioned.

Miraculously, many important White House furnishings lost to those auctions have been reacquired over the years, starting with Mrs. Kennedy’s efforts. These two armchairs in the library were part of a larger set ordered by President Monroe in his post-war shopping spree. Many of the goods Monroe acquired were French (he developed a taste for French décor while ambassador to that country) but I believe these chairs were actually made in Washington.

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Red armchairs ordered by President Monroe to re-furnish the White House after the War of 1812

The Vermeil Room was originally chock full of built-in cabinets to display a large collection of mostly French gilded silver gifted to the White House during the Eisenhower administration. Though beautiful, the relevance of the collection to the story of American decorative arts is limited at best, so today only two of the cabinets are still displaying the gilded silver.  The others have been closed up to provide extra wall space for the display of several First Lady portraits. With an ever-growing number of portraits in the collection, wall space at the White House is a hotter commodity than Manhattan real estate.

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First Lady Johnson presides over Federal lolling chairs and a selection of French gilt silver in the Vermeil Room

After seeing mostly Empire furniture up to this point in the tour, my eyes were immediately drawn to the earlier Federal lolling chairs flanking the fireplace in the Vermeil Room (I’m also a sucker for yellow upholstery). I inquired about them to the curators. “Oh, they’re just standard 1790s lolling chairs,” they said, much to my embarrassment (I guess everyone in DC has a pair of these just lying about the living room!) They kindly and diplomatically directed my attention to the piece I should have been impressed with in that room: a large Empire mahogany center table (from Philadelphia, I think). It was clearly a high-quality and high-style piece. But call me crazy—I’d still take the “standard” lolling chairs. I guess I’m a cheap date!

Later, on the bus ride back to Virginia, one of our Colonial Williamsburg group leaders posed a fun hypothetical: what would you take home if you could have one thing from the White House? Hmmm, unless I could loophole my way into getting two things by claiming that the portraits of John Quincy and Louisa Catherine Adams were actually one “pair,” I think I would claim the little John Seymour two-drawer mahogany (sewing?) table here in the Vermeil room. Awesome alert: it has its original paper label/bill of sale attached to the underside of one of the drawers!

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John Seymour (sewing?) table. Bright sunlight coming in the adjacent window prevented me from getting a great picture…

The China Room was lined on three walls with built-in cabinets to display a sampling from the White House collections of Presidential tableware from George Washington to George W. Bush. Apparently, not every President ordered new china for the house (the Obamas have not yet ordered a service). The most flamboyant was the service ordered by President Hayes from the Haviland Company of Limoges, France. Each particular piece of the service was wildly different, from the three-dimensional oyster plate to the fowl-themed (salad?) plate to my personal favorite, a snowshoe-emblazoned ice cream dish that is as beautiful as it is bizarre. Hayes ordered this elaborate service before realizing he couldn’t actually afford it all, so many pieces ended up being sold to the public, without the Presidential mark on the back. I recognized the oyster plate from an episode of Antiques Roadshow, where someone had inherited several of them!

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President Hayes’s three-dimensional oyster plate

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Salad(?) plate with river fowl, and snowshoe ice cream dish, from Hayes service

The Diplomatic Reception Room is an oval-shaped room that bumps out to form the curved central portion of the White House south face. It was from here that President Roosevelt’s “Fireside Chats” were broadcast, and it now serves as the main entrance hall for the First Family. Here was more yellow-upholstered Federal furniture (yay!), and a labeled desk and bookcase by John Shaw, but even I had to admit that the star of the show in this room was the wallpaper. Printed by French manufacturer Jean Zuber et Cie in the 1830s, the wallpaper is entitled Scenes of North America, and includes several recognizable American landmarks such as Niagara Falls, West Point, and New York Harbor. Jackie Kennedy installed the paper in this room during her historic-minded renovations. There was also a custom-made rug encircled with the coats of arms of the fifty states, but I was too busy looking at furniture to be bothered to find California and snap a picture. I stand by my choice of priorities.

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Diplomatic Reception Room, with 1830s French wallpaper scenes

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Detail of panel showing West Point in New York

Now it was time to head upstairs to the second floor State Rooms. Stay tuned for Part II…

White House, Silver Lining

Every cloud has a silver lining, right? Apparently, it’s even the case for the snowpocalyptic southern storm clouds that forced us to abandon Day One of our DC field trip here at the Williamsburg Antiques Forum. Despite missing out on seeing the Diplomatic Reception Rooms, the National Portrait Gallery, and a few other goodies, our fearless trip leaders managed to salvage two incredible experiences for our Day Two itinerary: a behind-the-scenes look at the National Gallery of Art’s Kaufman American furniture exhibition, and a private curator-led tour of the White House!

Needless to say, it was a great privilege to have been part of this trip. As I’m pretty exhausted from the long day of travel and furniture-gawking (#firstworldproblems?), I’m going to hit the hay. But here are some teaser pictures to whet your appetite! Stay tuned for more…

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Masterpieces of American Furniture from the Kaufman Collection, 1700-1830

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South portico of the White House–in the snow!

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The White House Diplomatic Reception Room (not to be confused with the large series of Diplomatic Reception Rooms at the State Department, which we were unable to see due to the storm)

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President Lincoln’s portrait presides over the State Dining Room

The Cabinetmaker’s Shop…in the snow

It was hard to believe as I cruised down the train tracks from DC to Williamsburg this morning, but a huge snowstorm was about to hit the entire southeast region. The forecast was so bleak that day 1 of our pre-conference DC field trip had already been cancelled, much to my extreme dismay. Still holding out hope for the Friday activities, I arrived at Williamsburg station determined to make the most of the remaining good weather.

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Kaufman Collection Preview

I’m stopping for a few days in Washington DC on my way to the 2014 Colonial Williamsburg Antiques Forum. Incidentally, I’ll be returning here for an overnight trip connected to the conference later this week, but right now I’m taking the opportunity to visit a friend in the District before I head down to Virginia. While she was at work today, I made my way to the National Gallery of Art to visit “Masterpieces of American Furniture from the Kaufman Collection, 1700-1830,” which opened in October 2012. The Kaufmans have promised their exquisite collection to the National Gallery, and this exhibit gives us a sneak peek at some choice selections from the collection.

Since the exhibit is on the itinerary for the Williamsburg conference field trip as well, I will make a more comprehensive report later in the week. Tonight I just wanted to share a couple of highlights with you from today’s visit.

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American Furniture at the MFA

I’ve been gearing up for my trip to Virginia next week, and today I thought I’d share with you some eye candy from another east coast pilgrimage of mine. Last summer I was in Boston for the first time since the opening of the new Art of the Americas wing in the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), and it left quite an impression. Here are some furniture highlights for your enjoyment.

I really liked the new layout of the galleries—most of them are set up in a sort of cross between the “period room” and the standard “furniture against a white wall with labels” approach. In this new cohesive presentation, paintings, furniture, and decorative arts are showcased together. The galleries are sparse enough to allow consideration of each piece individually without it getting lost in a fully furnished period room. Yet at the same time, you get a sense of context for each piece as it relates to other period items. The collections are organized by time period of course, but also by geographical origin. In my opinion, this emphasis on regional differences in 18th century American furniture was one of the strengths of the MFA’s new approach.

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Virginia-bound

It’s Super Bowl Sunday, and we’re getting ready to head out to our friends’ house for their annual shindig. The boys are engaged in lively debate about which player will be named MVP, how this game could affect the future of offensive football, and whether to bet that Seattle’s total rushing yards will exceed 132 ½. I’m only vaguely following. They pause to explain to me what it means to “lay the points,” and I can’t help wondering if this is how they feel when I’m waxing poetic about the virtues of mahogany…

Truth be told, I’m pretty excited myself today, but it has nothing to do with football. It’s T-minus one week before I leave for the Colonial Williamsburg 2014 Antiques Forum, and I just got a call informing me that a spot has opened up for the pre-conference overnight trip to Washington DC and would I like to join? OBVIOUSLY! I’ve been first on the waitlist for months, keeping my travel plans flexible on the off chance that this call might come in. The itinerary includes private tours of the Kaufman American Furniture Collection and the State Department’s Diplomatic Reception Rooms, as well as a behind-the-scenes visit to the National Portrait Gallery’s conservation labs (!!!) and a number of other goodies.

And all of that happens before the conference itself even begins…

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It was a happy day last fall when I pulled this out of the mailbox!

I relish any chance to travel to the east coast, but this trip might take the cake. Stay tuned for reports from this most awesome-est of adventures (anyone else going to be there?!). In the meantime, I’m going to bask in the knowledge that no matter who wins the Big Game today (or whether Seattle manages to get those rushing yards), this gal is going home a happy camper, Virginia-bound.

Developing a Discerning Eye, Part II

I’ve only recently graduated from antiques-intrigued to antiques-obsessed. Since then, I’ve noticed that a healthy diet of books, auction catalogs, trade publications, museums, antiques shops, dealer websites, etc. has had a positive effect on my eye for form and quality. I still have a long way to go, but the fact that I’ve already achieved a noticeable difference gives me the confidence that with continued study, I can get to where I want to be. I thought I’d share with you what has worked for me so far.

To get you started, I highly recommend this book:

The New Fine Points of Furniture by Albert Sack

Albert Sack’s The New Fine Points of Furniture is actually the second version of this unique and invaluable reference. The original, called The Fine Points of Furniture, was published by Mr. Sack in 1950. Incredibly popular among enthusiasts of American furniture because of the effective approach it used to train the eye, the book is known affectionately as “Good, Better, Best.” In the original book, Mr. Sack showed pictures of “good,” “better,” and “best” examples of a given furniture form, and discussed each briefly. Similar to the examples we discussed in my last post (but written by a world-class expert in the field!!), these studies help you to discover what you should be looking for when evaluating a piece of furniture. In the second version (New Fine Points), rewritten with all new examples and slightly more in-depth discussions, he adds two more categories: “superior” and “masterpiece.” Although the “masterpiece” examples are the type likely to be found only in museums or in the very best of private collections, these pieces serve as useful benchmarks by which all American furniture can be judged.  [Read more…]

Developing a Discerning Eye, Part I

Have you ever seen an appraiser on Antiques Roadshow look at an unmarked object and pull an origin story out of thin air? He does a brief once-over and says something like, “Well, this dresser was made in Connecticut around the 1780s” while the owner looks on, thinking, “How the heck does he know that?” He knows that because he has a discerning eye.  It isn’t magic, but rather the result of study and experience. Though the appraiser has consciously trained this eye, it’s not unlike discerning the difference between a car from the 90s and one made recently. We see cars every day and thus have become subconsciously aware of stylistic details that differentiate one design period from another.

But there’s a second aspect of the “discerning eye” that has nothing to do with identifying an object’s origin: instead, it is chiefly concerned with aesthetic qualities. It’s about evaluating the design, proportions, and execution that contribute to the overall merit of an object. What makes one example of a particular form inherently better (and probably more expensive!) than another? This aspect doesn’t come up as often on Antiques Roadshow, probably because only the really great stuff makes it to the cameras in the first place.

I’ll start off this discussion with the caveat that there is certainly much room for personal preference when comparing one piece to another, but just as there are some basic properties that make a good composition in a painting or a photograph, furniture too can be designed well or can fall short. How about some examples?

Newport candlestand copy   Ikea candlestand

Consider these two candlestands. The one on the left obviously has a more sophisticated shape to the turned shaft, the legs, and the dished top, but it also has perfect proportion and design. The widths of the top and the shaft are well balanced to the size of the legs.  And the legs have a great vertical energy to them: the curve of the cabriole leg is elegant, yet conveys boldness and strength. If that sounds quizzical, compare with the example on the right. Here, the curve of the legs is too shallow, making it appear as if the legs are sinking from the weight of the table. It reminds me of the scene in Bambi where his legs are slipping out from under him on the frozen pond. Small wonder that the left table is a Kittinger copy of a Newport masterpiece, while the one on the right is a dumbed-down Ikea version.  [Read more…]

Antiques and Airplanes in Santa Monica

On the first and fourth Sundays of each month, the little Santa Monica Airport is transformed into a wonderful little outdoor antique market. It may not be as large or important as Brimfield or Round Top, but it’s my favorite of the weekend markets I’ve been to in the Los Angeles area. It’s of a manageable size, and for the most part populated by moderate- to high-quality vintage and antique goods. What I hate about a lot of these markets is all the garage sale crap you have to sort through to find real dealers with quality merchandise. The Santa Monica Airport market manages to keep this to a minimum. On a beautiful sunny morning last month, I headed over to the market to browse, shop, and talk to some of the dealers there.

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Another advantage of the Santa Monica market: the weather is always gorgeous!

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What on Earth is a highboy?

“What on Earth is a highboy? Aren’t you concerned people will think your blog is about weed?” (Thank you, well-meaning friends) Unfortunately if you’re looking for thoughts on marijuana, you are in the wrong place. If you’re interested in antique furniture and decorative arts, however…

A highboy is a relatively modern term for what the 18th century consumer would have called a high chest. Essentially, this piece of case furniture is a chest of drawers raised off the ground on legs. At the peak of American highboy design, these chests achieved a vertical energy unparalleled by anything else in the world, then or since.

Early examples of the form appeared in what is now called the William-and-Mary design period. These chests stood on six legs connected by stretchers, giving a beautiful but powerful elevation to what was likely the tallest piece of furniture the owner had ever possessed. Graduated drawer heights, with the tallest on the bottom and the shortest on the top, created a type of forced perspective that enhanced the sense of height.

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William and Mary highboy at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

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