If you missed Part I of my White House tour, check it out here. We are now heading upstairs to the State Rooms.
An imposing central hallway leads to the East Room, the largest in the White House. Essentially a large ballroom that can be configured to host anything from banquets to concerts to ceremonies, it doesn’t have much in the way of permanent furniture. Abigail Adams, however, famously used it to hang laundry, since it remained unfinished while she and John lived there.
Perhaps the most remarkable treasure in this room is the 8-foot-tall portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart. The portrait is a contemporary copy by Stuart after his original version (called the Lansdowne portrait; now in the National Portrait Gallery). Dolley Madison famously saved this portrait as she and the last of the remaining staff finally fled the White House as the British stormed into the city during the War of 1812. Short on space and manpower, Mrs. Madison could only save so many items from destruction. She chose the portrait, the silver, Madison’s documents, some books, a clock, and…curtains. Why she placed such a high value on red velvet drapes we may never know. While reading up about this, I discovered an interesting story about a dress that belonged to Mrs. Madison. Some historians speculate that the dress, which is made of a heavyweight red velvet more appropriate for draperies than for a gown, was actually cut from her rescued curtains.
Jackie Kennedy deserves much credit for creating the White House Historical Association and halting practices destructive to White House history. So it blew my mind to find out that the red marble mantels and baseboards were actually painted white under her watch. Who paints over beautiful marble?! More recently it was decided to reverse this, but they never could get all of the white paint off, and streaks remain to this day.
In the Green Room were two of my favorite works of art at the White House. The first was a silver coffee urn owned by John and Abigail Adams. The second was a painting by Ferdinand Richardt, c.1860. Sometime in the mid-twentieth century, a collector spotted a dirty painting at a secondhand market in India. Though obscured by dirt and grime, the architecture in the street scene painting appeared to be British or American. He bought it for about seven dollars. Once restored, the painting was indeed revealed to be of an American building—in fact, it was none other than Independence Hall. Talk about an antiquer’s dream come true!!
In the oval-shaped Blue Room was a suite of c.1815 blue and gold upholstered furniture by Pierre-Antoine Bellangé, ordered by President Monroe during his refurnishing of the White House after the War of 1812. This set of furniture, which was originally much larger, was lost with so many other items in the periodic auctions that were held when new Presidents felt like redecorating. During Jackie Kennedy’s renovation, some of this lost furniture resurfaced and was purchased by or donated back to the White House. Among these reacquired pieces was one of the Bellangé chairs. Quality reproductions of the chair were then commissioned to fill out the set of furniture, and additional originals (there are now 8) were acquired over time. Needless to say, if you have anything from this set lying around, you might want to give the White House a call…
In the Red Room hung a portrait of Angelica Singleton, one of a handful of First Ladies who were not the wife of the President. In the case of President Martin Van Buren, his wife Hannah had died many years before he took office, so his daughter-in-law Angelica served as the First Lady and mistress of the White House. I thought it was a bit comical that the artist—Henry Inman—decided to include a bust of President Van Buren in the portrait of Angelica, as if to prompt viewers who may be thinking, “Umm, who is she again?”
From the Red Room you can look back down through the Blue Room, Green Room, and all the way back to Stuart’s portrait of George Washington in the East Room–although that wasn’t always the case. This alignment of the doorways providing a view through a series of rooms is an architectural feature known as “enfilade” (love it!)
Finally, we entered the State Dining Room with its famous portrait of Abraham Lincoln by George Healy. Interestingly, the White House chose a different portrait of Lincoln for its official commission, despite having been sent this work for consideration by a hopeful George Healy. Lincoln’s son instead bought Healy’s portrait, declaring that it was an unparalleled likeness. His widow later donated it to the White House.
Another hallmark of the dining room is the set of French gilt bronze décor purchased by President Monroe. Some of the candelabras were displayed on the sideboard and mantel, but I was disappointed that the 14-foot-long plateau centerpiece, often laid out on the dining table, was not on view during our visit. The mantel is a reproduction of the one created during the major 1902 renovation by the firm of McKim, Mead, and White. The original 1902 mantel was flanked with lions, which President Teddy Roosevelt decided wasn’t American enough. He had the lions changed out for two American Buffalo (incidentally, he also decided to outfit the dining room with wild game trophy heads!). Franklin Roosevelt further embellished the mantel by engraving a quote from a letter John Adams wrote to Abigail upon arriving at the White House: “I pray Heaven to bestow the best of Blessings on this House and on all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but honest and wise Men ever rule under this roof.” This 1902 mantel was removed during Truman’s renovations (begun in 1948), and sent to his Presidential Library where it remains today. When the Kennedys were in the midst of their renovations, they asked for the mantel to be returned to the White House, but this request was denied, and a copy was installed in its place.
These stories are seriously just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to White House history. For further reading, check out:
The White House: Its Historic Furnishings and First Families by Betty Monkman
Designing Camelot: The Kennedy Restoration of the White House by James Abbott
Something of Splendor: Decorative Arts from the White House by William Allman and Melissa Naulin