Presidents of the United States have enough to worry about, but an ill-timed makeover of the White House can readily become a political liability. After the Panic of 1837, an opposition-party Congressman accused President Martin van Buren of transforming his official home into “a PALACE as splendid as that of the Caesars,” and thereby doomed the incumbent’s re-election. A century and a half later, while the Reagan administration slashed school-lunch subsidies and declared ketchup a vegetable, Nancy Reagan provoked outrage when she bought a $209,000 china service embellished in gold and ketchup red.
Although the White House has been redecorated more often than any other American dwelling, those changes were prompted less by personal whim than by heavy wear inflicted on this most publicly accessible of all rulers’ residences. The electorate’s insatiable curiosity and proprietary notions about the White House caused the Executive Mansion to be photographed often, as illustrated in Dream House: The White House as an American Home, a handsomely produced but unconvincingly argued polemic by Ulysses Grant Dietz, senior curator of decorative arts at the Newark Museum (and namesake of his presidential forebear), and Sam Watters, a specialist in American design.
Dietz and Watters inflect the standard White House chronology by proposing six distinct stages in its development, which they call Country House, Villa, Mansion, Palace, Suburban Home, and Shrine. But their organizing rubrics do not always apply, and this Kuebler-Rossian sequence forces the typically circuitous and fitful evolution of style and taste—from which not even presidents are exempt—into a simplistic linear progression.
The authors reserve some of their harshest criticism for Jacqueline Kennedy, who did more than anyone else to bring a sense of historical continuity back to the White House at a time when it displayed scant evidence of its rich heritage. For example, she reunited the suite of furniture James Monroe ordered from Paris for the Blue Room in 1818, and installed Dolley Madison’s Empire sofa in the Red Room along with the inkwell Thomas Jefferson used during his presidency. The sensation set off by her 1962 television program, A Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy, was merely hinted at in clips woven into an episode of the cult AMC drama Mad Men last season. Yet as Dietz and Watters assert with considerable overstatement and a touch of malice, “[T]he White House, for all its changes, remains a shrine to the taste of Jacqueline Kennedy.”
Their accusation echoes the revisionist misperception voiced in The New York Times the day after Barack Obama’s inauguration. In an Op-Ed piece titled “Free the Blue Room,” Deborah Needleman, chief editor of the now-defunct shelter magazine Domino, claimed that “Mrs. Kennedy…shrouded her schemes in a welter of bureaucracy that now makes it difficult for any successor to again enliven the decor of the executive mansion.”
Quite the contrary: Jacqueline Kennedy harbored no illusions about the essentially ephemeral nature of all decorating. Although she was clearly eager to memorialize her considerable undertaking when she gave me a rare interview and behind-the-scenes help for a 1980 New York Times Magazine article on changes in White House decor since her brief time there, the former first lady coolly predicted, “In another hundred years it will be just one more chapter in the history of the White House.” But any “welter of bureaucracy” was more attributable to Lyndon Johnson, who in 1964 created the Committee for the Preservation of the White House, the oversight panel that instituted professional practices and upheld curatorial standards recognized by the American Association of Museums when it accredited the White House as a museum in 1988.
Jacqueline Kennedy’s real mistake was to disingenuously call her celebrated project a “restoration,” because she thought the word “redecoration” sounded frivolous and faddish. Though Dietz and Watters are technically correct when they note that “Even though documentary evidence survives to restore any one of the state rooms to a specific historic period, they bear little resemblance, in their artifacts or their decoration, to their appearance at any given moment in history,” they fail to acknowledge that all restorations, no matter how accurate, inevitably bear telltale signs of the times that produced them and thus can never be wholly “authentic.”
Whatever constraints are imposed downstairs at the White House, Presidential families are free to decorate however they please on the mansion’s top two floors. Though the Obamas thus far have made no changes to the main public rooms, they have hired the Los Angeles-based designer Michael Smith to do up their personal quarters, and let it be known they would patronize Pottery Barn, the good-taste-on-a-budget home furnishings chain akin to J. Crew, one of Michelle Obama’s favorites for fashionable but moderately priced clothing.
The foremost authority on White House architecture and decoration remains William Seale, whose two-volume study The President’s House: A History, originally published in 1986, was reissued last year in a revised and expanded edition. This tellingly detailed narrative is rooted in design scholarship but animated by Seale’s anecdotal flair and social acuity.
In one of his most affecting passages, Seale captures the transitory nature of private life in the White House, describing the sudden end of the half-finished 1881 refurbishment when word came that President James A. Garfield had died from an assassin’s bullet after only six months in office. Stunned workmen laid down their wallpaper rolls, paint cans, and brushes, then fled as if from some latter-day Pompeii. The abandoned materials had to be hurriedly removed before the President’s body was brought home, to spare the grieving Garfields this additional evidence of a life cut short and a family circle shattered.
Ulysses Grant Dietz and Sam Watters, Dream House: The White House as an American Home (Acanthus Press, 2009)
William Seale, The President’s House: A History, 2nd edition (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008)
November 10, 2009, 8 a.m.