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