Published: October 4, 2011
The White House, official residence of the President of the United States for more than two centuries and arguably the most famous home in the world, is a universal symbol of the nation. Although the mansion’s gleaming white exterior has changed little over the years, the interior, repeatedly refurbished, has become a magnificent showplace of America’s decorative arts.
Examples of White House furniture, ceramics, glass, textiles and metals not only document the evolution of such furnishings, but offer glimpses into how US first families lived, worked and entertained within these historic walls. In 1819, artist and inventor Samuel F.B. Morse underscored the importance of quality decorative arts in the president’s house, writing, “Something of splendor is certainly proper about the Chief Magistrate&or the credit of the Nation.”
In that spirit and in honor of the 50th anniversary of the White House Historical Association, a grand exhibition, “Something of Splendor: Decorative Arts from the White House,” has been organized by the White House office of the curator, the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the White House Historical Association. On view through May 6, it comprises 93 items selected by William G. Allman, curator of the White House, and Melissa C. Naulin, his assistant curator, from the White House’s permanent collection of about 50,000 objects. Many have never been seen outside the mansion.
“Each artwork in [the exhibition] has a rich story to tell,” says Smithsonian American Art Museum director Elizabeth Broun, “and [the curators] are gifted tellers of these stories.”
Often called the People’s House, the White House has been toured by many Americans, but the rooms are so impressive and the décor so compelling that individual objects often get lost among all the glories. Seeing them singled out in an exhibition such as this, learning who created them, in what style, for what purpose and for which first family, adds interest to each item and makes it come alive. “Through&⁛the] eyes [of presidents and first ladies] and the lens of history, we see these rare objects as touchstones of our democracy and markers of our civic leadership,” observes Broun.
Questions have persisted since the outset about how to furnish the chief magistrate’s house. When John Adams became the first occupant of the White House, his wife Abigail famously said, “I pray to Heaven to bestow the best of Blessings on this House and all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but honest and wise Men ever rule under this roof.”
Furnishings supplied by Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were destroyed when the British burned the mansion during the War of 1812. The rebuilt house was filled by President James Monroe with high-style French objects. Among them, a pair of elegant, silver soup tureens, customized with American eagle finials, and a lavish 53-piece suite, of which an 1817 gilded beechwood armchair is on view. Although use of such foreign-made goods was roundly criticized, they helped Monroe spotlight the presidency and America’s sense of triumph over Britain.
The White House interior has been frequently refurbished to keep up with American fashions, with out-of-style furnishings sold at auction. Some redecoration schemes, such as that carried out by President Martin Van Buren, were criticized as too “sumptuous” and “dazzling.” First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln was castigated during the Civil War for extravagant spending on the White House, such as stylish dinner plates featuring a reddish-purple border color from France.
Early in the Twentieth Century, President Theodore Roosevelt carried out a major renovation, selling off old furnishings and making the public rooms more historic in nature, evoking the time of the house’s earliest occupants. Stimulated by the nostalgia of the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia and the classicism of the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, in 1902 Roosevelt hired celebrated New York architects McKim, Mead & White to make the interior of the mansion more stylistically compatible with its Eighteenth Century architecture. Eliminating Victorian decorations that reflected fashions of the day rather than affinities to the structure, Roosevelt ended White House efforts to follow contemporary styles, concluding a century of being furnished like a modern home.
Among the most spectacular additions were shiny brass Egyptian Revival andirons in the Blue Room, supplied by the fashionable decorating firm of L. Marcotte and made in France, where they were inspired by antiquities plundered during Napoleon Bonaparte’s military expedition to Egypt, 1798‱801. In spite of incongruous decoration of the Blue and other rooms, the ever-optimistic Roosevelt declared that the People’s House was “restored to the beauty, dignity and simplicity of its original plan.”
To provide the first family with more space and privacy, Roosevelt moved his office suite in 1902 from the White House residence to the new West Wing. During an expansion in 1909, the famous Oval Office was created and has been redecorated by each succeeding president.
In the 1920s, First Lady Grace Coolidge personally made a coverlet out of crocheted shoe thread, elaborately decorated with patriotic symbols, for the famous “Lincoln bed” at the White House.
Between 1949 and 1952, President Harry Truman oversaw a massive project to enhance the structural stability of the venerable house; the old stone-clad shell was gutted, basements were excavated and a steel frame was erected around which to rebuild and modernize. Older furniture was restored and many Nineteenth Century-style pieces were acquired.
First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy instituted major changes with the aid of the first White House curator, who designed public rooms of museum quality as showcases of American decorative and fine arts. She also fostered establishment of the White House Historical Association in 1961; since then it has funded acquisition of objects for the mansion, refurbished public rooms and organized educational and preservation programs.
“The President’s House,” a watercolor on plaster, was painted about 1824 above the fireplace mantel of a New Hampshire tavern by self-taught artist Rufus Porter. Likely based on an engraving by noted American artist George Catlin, it offers a sunny view of the president’s house flanked by six government buildings (not the four that actually existed at the time). This folk art mural was removed from its original location and installed in the White House in 1992.
Painter, writer and inventor Porter (1792‱884) led a peripatetic life during which he decorated numerous New England houses and taverns with crisp, colorful, idealized landscape murals. His legacy is perpetuated in the Rufus Porter Museum and Cultural Heritage Center in Bridgton, Maine.
Among the most imposing works displayed in the exhibition are large objects, such as a handsome mahogany pier table dating to 1829. Made by French émigré and Philadelphia cabinetmaker Anthony Quervelle, it is the only one of three to survive that were acquired for the East Room by President Andrew Jackson. Extensively restored, there is evidence that it was once more highly decorated.
A finely lacquered Japanese cabinet, known as a chigai-dana, was apparently delivered to President Franklin Pierce in 1855 by Commodore Matthew Perry after he successfully negotiated the first trade agreement between the United States and Japan. Because of its exotic elegance and the diplomatic success it represented, the cabinet was placed prominently on the State Floor and later in second floor family quarters.
A standout among the chairs exhibited is a gilded armchair with eye-catching gold and red upholstery and beautifully carved lions’ heads made by Herter Brothers, the rising New York interior design firm, for First Lady Julia Grant’s refurbished Red Room. The chair and a center table are the only surviving objects in the White House from the original 13 pieces of furniture that decorated the room.
One particularly historic item is the exquisite mahogany lighthouse clock, made about 1825 by Simon Willard of the esteemed Massachusetts family of clocksmiths. Designed to resemble the celebrated Eddystone Lighthouse off Plymouth, England, it features a sulphide medallion portrait of the Marquis de Lafayette, who stayed at the White House during his triumphal tour of the country in 1824‱825.
When electricity was introduced to the White House in 1891, four brass and cut glass sconces in the form of cherubs and a matching chandelier were installed in the family dining room. Tentative about the new technology, President and Mrs Benjamin Harrison had most fixtures wired to provide both gas and electric light, and, refusing to touch the electric switches for fear of getting a shock, they relied on staff to turn lights on and off. In 1902, the cherub sconces were moved to West Sitting Hall in the second floor private quarters, where they remained for a half century.
Fashionable china and glass services, often customized with patriotic symbols, were purchased from time to time to outfit the president’s table. American fine glassware makers were able to compete earlier with their European counterparts than domestic porcelain manufacturers; all major glassware services purchased for the White House throughout its history were created in the United States. A beautifully cut glass compote engraved with the eagle emblem (circa 1853, Franklin Pierce), a glass water bottle (1891, Benjamin Harrison) and a water goblet (1938, Franklin D. Roosevelt) exemplify such customized glassware. Porcelain service plates made by Lenox, Inc, of Trenton, N.J., for Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Ronald Reagan are decorated with the formal presidential coat of arms.
The boldest table ornament on view, a silver sculpture centerpiece inspired by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “The Song of Hiawatha,” was made by Gorham Manufacturing Company of Providence, R.I. It was secured for the White House by First Lady Julia Grant after she saw it at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia.
The most distinctive and elaborate state service was created in 1880 by French manufacturer Haviland & Co. at the behest of First Lady Lucy Hayes. American artist Theodore Davis designed the service based on US flora and fauna, such as a dinner platter depicting a wild turkey.
As this exhibition demonstrates, White House decorative arts are in a continuing state of evolution, with each first family placing its individual stamp on the collection. The objects they choose to live with, past, present and future, will continue to offer glimpses of their and the nation’s tastes in the field of interior décor.
The 94-page, fully illustrated catalog, written by curators Allman and Naulin, offers fascinating anecdotal and contextual background for 60 objects in the exhibition. Published by the White House Historical Association, it sells for $14.95 softcover.
The Renwick Gallery is on Pennsylvania Avenue at 17th Street, NW. For information, www.americanart.si.edu or 202-633-7970.
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