Published: June 28, 2021
When word reached our ears that the White House had recently acquired two Chelsea clocks from the White House Historical Association (WHHA), it seemed an opportune time to find out more about the collection at the White House, how it has evolved over time and how it changes between presidential administrations. We reached out to Marcia Anderson, the association’s vice president of publishing and executive editor, who filled us in on the recent gifts and the connection between the White House and WHHA.
Explain the relationship between the White House and the White House Historical Association.
The White House Historical Association supports the historic White House. The White House is of course the home and office of the president, but it also holds a significant fine and decorative arts collection, with many centuries-old pieces associated with previous presidents and their families. WHHA helps fund the acquisition and preservation of these historic furnishings and artworks. We are a private nonprofit and nonpartisan organization with offices right across Lafayette Park from the White House. Since our founding in 1961, we have produced books and educational products and programs that enhance the public’s understanding and enjoyment of the historic White House, and the proceeds from sales go toward expanding and maintaining the White House’s permanent collection.
Who owns the works of art and antiques in the White House Collection?
Everything in the permanent White House Collection is owned by the American people.
How has the collection evolved?
The collection as we know it today really goes back to the Kennedy administration and the vision that Jacqueline Kennedy had for the White House. When she became First Lady in 1961, she was determined to make her new home reflect the history of the presidents and a place the nation could be proud of. ‘It is such a beautiful old building,’ she said. ‘We need to bring it back to the way the founders envisioned.’ She recalled being disappointed when she had toured the White House as an 11-year-old and found that there wasn’t even a booklet to explain the historic settings.
Within a year, she changed all that. She formed a committee to help locate furnishings that had once been in the White House, to solicit donations and to make decisions about acquisitions. She hired a curator, and to make sure that items brought into the White House Collection would never be auctioned off – as many had been in the past – she inspired passage of Public Law 87-286, which made them ‘inalienable,’ a permanent part of the White House Collection. She promoted the founding of the White House Historical Association, which I work for, and undertook as its first project the preparation of a guidebook for the historic White House. Sales of the guide then helped purchase items for the collection. No public funds were used for Kennedy’s restoration of the White House.
What are some of those things that have been repatriated, if you will, back into the collection?
Among the most important examples are pieces from the French-made, gilded wood furniture suite purchased by President James Monroe in 1817. Created in the Paris workshop of Pierre-Antoine Bellangé (1757-1827), the suite originally included 53 pieces: two 9-foot-long sofas, 18 armchairs, 18 side chairs, two bergères, two fire screens, four stools with X-shaped stretchers, six footstools, and a pier table. By 1961, only the pier table remained in the White House. During her restoration of the State Rooms, Kennedy attracted the donation of two armchairs and two side chairs from the original suite. In the 1970s, two additional original Bellangé armchairs, one bergère and one of the two sofas were returned to the White House Collection. Most recently, in 2012, the White House Historical Association donated one of the two original fire screens. Including the pier table, the White House now owns ten of the original 53 pieces of the 1817 suite.
When the WHHA isn’t acquiring objects for the White House, what does it do?
We’ve been publishing books and conducting educational programs about the White House. This year we are marking our 60th anniversary by publishing a book, Designing Camelot, that details the Kennedy restoration and explains how the association has carried on its work. The book includes a list of the fine art and historic furnishings that we’ve donated to the White House since 1961.
Does the White House Historical Association have a collection?
No. The Association is an educational organization, not a museum. We acquire items only to give them to the White House.
Are there works that have entered the White House Collection independent of the White House Historical Association?
Yes. Kennedy’s committee began to build the White House Collection through private donations, and in 1964 it was renamed the Committee for the Preservation of the White House. Its members are scholars and specialists in historic preservation, and they work in consultation with the Office of the Curator and First Lady to make decisions about accepting gifts. They review whether the proposed gift meets the parameters for acquisition and is a meaningful piece for the collection. They also make recommendations about what goes on view in the State Rooms.
Is the White House Collection made up of only – or a majority of – American things?
The fine art collection focuses on works by American artists. Works by living artists are not accepted.
The collection of furnishings and decorative arts includes works by both American and English or European makers. Many of the lighting fixtures in the White House are English; carpets are from England, France, Persia and Turkey, in addition to the United States. The goal is to ensure that items are the finest examples of the period. Kennedy insisted that ‘Everything must have a reason for being there.’
The State Rooms in the White House represent a number of different periods and tastes in American history. They are not frozen in time but are living spaces and slowly evolve under the guidance of the committee. One of the best-known rooms at the White House is the Blue Room, which represents the Empire style popular in the period of Napoleonic France. The Green Room, on the other hand, is a Federal parlor, with furniture made in New York City and attributed to the Scottish-born cabinetmaker Duncan Phyfe.
Do works in the White House change with various administrations? Who picks which works go on view?
The curator, the Committee for the Preservation of the White House and the First Lady play a very big role in what is on view in the State Rooms. The public spaces are carefully curated spaces, and the committee advises on how they should be furnished. New administrations don’t usually change those public spaces with great frequency.
The floors where the First Family lives – the second and third floors – are private spaces and the First Lady has much more control over how those rooms and spaces are decorated.
Since 1998, when I came to the White House Historical Association, a few First Ladies have overseen refurbishment of some of the public spaces. Hilary Clinton was involved in a redecoration of the Blue Room; that was a big project and included changing the wall coverings. Laura Bush refurbished the Green Room and the Lincoln Bedroom and Michelle Obama worked on the State Dining Room and the Family Dining Room.
What did Laura Bush and Michelle Obama change in those rooms?
The Lincoln Bedroom had been little changed since the Truman administration. In 1945, President Truman placed pieces associated with President Lincoln in the second floor room that had served as Lincoln’s office and Cabinet Room. Among them was the massive carved rosewood bed purchased by First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln for the state guest room and in which the Lincolns’ third son, Willie, died in 1862. By 2002, the room showed wear. With the advice of the Committee for the Preservation of the White House, Laura Bush created a room that reflects the historic record and the styles of the 1860s. With funding from the White House Historical Association, replicas of the Lincoln-era marble mantel, draperies and a carpet were reproduced, based on historic photographs and sketches drawn by the artist Francis B. Carpenter, who spent hours in the room in Lincoln’s time preparing studies for the large oil painting, “The First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation Before the Cabinet.”
The refurbishment of the Family Dining Room by Obama in 2015 was intended to showcase modern art and design. With funding from the White House Historical Association and advice from the Committee for the Preservation of the White House, she oversaw the installation of a pictorial weaving, “Black, White and Gray” by Anni Albers, adapted as a rug for the room. The Philadelphia bookcase on the south wall was filled with Twentieth Century American tableware, and the tea service from the 1939 World’s Fair was displayed on the sideboard. Four works of American abstract art, donated to the permanent White House Collection, were placed in this room. The White House Historical Association donated “Resurrection,” an acrylic and graphic on canvas painting by Alma Thomas (1891-1978), a member of the Washington Color School and the first African American woman artist to be represented in the White House Collection. Also displayed were “Early Bloomer [Anagram (a Pun)]” by Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008) and two works by Josef Albers (1888-1976), “Study for Homage to the Square: Asking” and “Homage to the Square.”
The WHHA recently gave two Chelsea clocks to the White House. What can you tell me about the clocks? How old are they?
Both are modern and both were made for the White House. One is a wall clock. It hangs on the wall in the ground floor corridor of the White House above the doorway that goes to the president’s elevator. The face of the clock features an eagle that was inspired by the James Monroe State China. What is neat is that the calligraphers who work in the White House – they do the hand-lettering for invitations and menus – drew the numbers on the face of the clock along with the words ‘The President’s House.’ So, the clock is a connection to people who work in the White House. The other clock is a mantel clock that was presented to President Biden for the Oval Office. It has an image of the North Front of the White House on the face.
What are some of the more recent additions to the White House Collection?
The Bellangé fire screen and the painting by Alma Thomas are two notable recent additions.
Are there gaps in the White House Collection?
We know that there are more pieces from the Bellangé suite out there, and we are always looking to add to the suite.
-Madelia Hickman Ring
[Editor’s note: Designing Camelot: The Kennedy White House Restoration and Its Legacy, by James Archer Abbott and Elaine Rice Bachman, with a foreword by Caroline Kennedy, the White House Historical Association, 2021, casebound, 398 pages, $65, will be available for purchase as of July 28 at www.shop.whitehousehistory.org.]
5 Church Hill Road / Newtown, CT 06470
Mon - Fri / 8:00 am - 5:01 pm