Saturday, March 28, 2015

It's pretty rare that a First Family gets to redecorate the White House. And now it's happened.

It didn't used to be this way. Prior to 1960, each President pretty much did what he wanted with the White House. The White House was open to the public (even the Family Quarters), and the public roamed freely throughout it. Furnishings were heavily damaged by this excessive use, and it wasn't uncommon for people to cut a couple of feet from the carpet or drapes to obtain a keepsake, or steal teacups or dinner plates as souvenirs. The heavy use meant that each President HAD to redecorate. To raise funds, most used or damaged White House furnishings were sold to the public at auction.

Most First Ladies did the redecorating based on their own personal tastes, although sometimes changes were made because the President wanted the White House to reflect political realities. For example, in the first two decades of the 1800s, Presidents often chose French furniture not only because it was beautiful and it was well-made, but because it showed appreciation for France's support of the U.S. during the American Revolution. George Washington's English furniture and his few pieces of American Federal furniture were sold, and French furniture in the style of Louis XV or Louis XVI was purchased.

The style of decoration in the White House varied immensely. Louis Quinze, Victorian Baroque, Art Deco, and even something called "Steamboat Gothic" have been used in the White House.

This changed in the 1960s. Jacquelyn Kennedy inherited a White House which had been gutted in 1949 because it was in danger of collapse. By the time 1952 rolled around and the White House was ready to be redecorated, there wasn't any money left. So a lot of cheap reproduction pieces from all sorts of styles were used to furnish the Executive Mansion. A decade later, the White House looked shoddy and run-down. Jackie Kennedy was determined to change this. Her expert interior designer, St├ęphane Boudin, was a historicist who argued that the rooms in the White House should reflect the era in which they won acclaim. This established a pattern whereby the White House was primarily decorated ONLY in the Federalist or Victorian styles. Kennedy also established the White House Historical Association (WHHA) in 1961 to assist future First Families in correctly furnishing and decorating the Executive Mansion. The WHHA was tasked with helping to raise funds to repurchase White House furnishings which had been sold over the previous 180 years, as well as to purchase high-quality, hand-made reproduction furniture to mimic the way rooms "should" look.

Kenndy's changes swiftly took root. In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson issued an executive order creating a Committee for the Preservation of the White House. This body was tasked with advising the President and First Lady on the decor, preservation, and conservation of the White House. Almost a quarter of a century later, the White House was accredited as a historic house museum in 1988. This formally locked the White House into the pattern set by Jacquelyn Kennedy.

Because the White House is now locked into a Federalist/Victorian style, First Families have little ability to put their own personal stamp on things. Only occasioanlly will drapes or carpets need to be replaced, and even then a First Lady generally has to stay within a very narrow, cramped style when choosing replacements. First Families have the ability to switch out a Federalist sofa for two Federalist chairs, but the historic style and look of each room has to stay pretty much the same. Strong changes, like changing the colors of the walls, almost never happen. And radical changes, like turning a room from a Federalist to Steamboat Gothic look, just cannot happen. (Artwork is different, and generally a much wider range of artwork can be hung or displayed. The Oval Office, which changes with every president, has no particular style.)

The Old Family Dining Room has, until 2015, not been a room open to the public. Located on the State Floor of the White House, the room has been used for working lunches and small dinners involving the President, White House staff, members of Congress, executive branch leaders, and others. It's also been used as a staging area for events in the adjoining State Dining Room, a large event space.

Michelle Obama has changed that. On February 10, 2015, the Obamas opened the Old Family Dining Room to the public. Michele Obama also made the Old Family Dining Room into a Modernist delight!!

The walls of the Old Family Dining Room were repainted for the first time since 1961, eliminating the sunflower yellow preferred by Jackie Kennedy and replacing it with a cool light grey. The room's new rug is custom-made and based on a 1950 design by Anni Albers. Alma Thomas, a force in the Washington Color School style of painting, is represented by her painting Resurrection. (Thomas is the first African-American woman to be included in the White House's permanent art collection.) The WHHA acquired the piece at auction last year for $290,000. Two paintings by the 20th century Modernist Josef Albers were installed opposite the fireplace. A large mirror acquired by the White House in 1902 now stands atop the fireplace. This mirror was present when President Theodore Roosevelt invited Booker T. Washington to a famous "family dinner" at the White House -- a major breakthrough in race relations that was widely condemned at the time.

Gone are the paintings of First Ladies which used to hang over the fireplace and on the opposite wall. Gone are the English Regency yellow silk drapes installed by Nancy Reagan in 1981. Gone are the three-candle light sconces on the wall, replaced with big hurricane-lantern style sconces. Gone are the Chiavari chairs Michelle Obama favored previously. Gone are the clock and the pewter loving-cups that used to adorn the fireplace mantel. Gone is the small serving table which used to stand to the right of the fireplace. Gone is the marquetry table the Obamas previously used, replaced with the table Sister Parrish installed for the Kennedys in 1961. Even the andirons in the fireplace have changed.

Only the sideboard in the Old Family Dining Room remains -- although the tea set atop it is now Modernist, rather than Victorian.

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