White House reflects presidential styles
Two hundred years ago, when President and Mrs. John Adams moved into the newly built White House, Abigail Adams wrote to her daughter, complaining, "There is not a single apartment finished." She noted that she was using the bare East Room as a drying room, "to hang up the clothes in."
Since then, more than 40 first families have occupied the 132-room mansion, making 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue probably the best-known residence in the world. Behind the porticoed doors and majestic sandstone walls, presidents and first ladies have put their individual stamp on stately spaces, changing decors, adding furniture, and collecting a treasure trove of china and textiles.
In the process, the White House has become what curator Betty Monkman calls "a rich resource for the study of American decorative arts."
Ms. Monkman chronicles that decorative evolution in an encyclopedic new book, "The White House: Its Historic Furnishings & First Families" (Abbeville Press, $60). Produced in conjunction with the White House Historical Association, the book offers an inside view of some of the nation's most important heirlooms, along with historical lore.
More than a million tourists troop through the public rooms each year. As Monkman says in a telephone interview, "We're the longest continuing residence of a head of state that's been open to the public. For 200 years, people have been able to walk through rooms and not pay."
What draws them? "These objects in the White House have a lot of meaning," says Monkman, who has held curatorial posts there for more than 30 years. "They provide us with a glimpse into the lives of the presidential families that have lived here, as well as significant White House events that have occurred here. They're also evidence of changes in the nation's taste and technology - its styles of decoration, its history, and its cultural heritage."
These objects also inspire the families who live here, she says, by "putting them in touch with former presidents."
The dream of a President's House, as it was first called, began taking tangible form in 1792, when architect James Hogan designed a three-story structure modeled after 18th-century Irish country houses. Funds were tight, so only two stories were built.
In earlier decades, it was often presidents themselves, several of whom were widowers or unmarried, who oversaw the acquisition of furnishings and changes in decor. That role sometimes sparked controversy.
In the 1820s, John Quincy Adams was criticized for wasting government money on a billiard table. And President Martin Van Buren lost his bid for reelection in 1840 in part because opponents accused him of spending too lavishly on foreign carpets and finger bowls.
Many early furnishings have been lost. In 1814, British troops threw torches through the windows, badly damaging the house. Reconstruction took three years. Even after that, until 1903, unwanted items were routinely auctioned, although some eventually found their way back. Only one object, a Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington, has been in the White House since Adams's time.
Other pieces have met a different fate. During the inaugural reception for Andrew Jackson in 1829, a crush of well-wishers mobbed the President's House. Struggling to get refreshments, they broke glass and china. According to one reporter, men with "boots heavy with mud" even stood on "damask satin-covered chairs," hoping to see Jackson.
Over the years, the decorative pendulum has swung between those who wanted to emphasize American objects and those who preferred to look abroad. James Monroe, an ardent Francophile, added gilded French furniture. First lady Grace Coolidge launched the first effort to bring in American antiques. She also began a tradition of having first ladies leave a memento of family life. For the "Lincoln bed," she crocheted a coverlet featuring patriotic symbols.
For Monkman herself, there are clear favorites. "I love the French objects from the Monroe period," she says. "They're some of the oldest pieces, and their elegance is quite remarkable." She adds that she is also "quite moved by the Lincoln things. The Lincoln bedroom, with its Lincoln-associated objects, is a very emotional place."
That continuity permeates the White House. "There's always constant change here," Monkman says. "And yet, even with decorative changes, these objects endure."