The White House
Its Furnishings & First Families
By Betty C. Monkman, Bruce White, Michelle Obama
Abbeville Press Copyright © 2014 Betty C. Monkman
All rights reserved.
The American capital in the early nineteenth century was an anomaly. Other towns and cities of the United States grew up on a commercial foundation; even the frontier settlements laid out in advance of the arrival of permanent householders usually had some assured prospects of trade by river or rail. But the well-informed founders of this nationstatesmen familiar either through travel or study with the great cities of Europeenvisaged even more for the national capital than a meeting place for Congress and a seat of the executive branch of government. Their carefully prepared plan for the city of Washington in itself proclaimed their dream of embodying in the stones of her buildings, in her parks and fountains, and in the broad sweep of her avenues a dignity and beauty that would symbolize the ideals of the new republic. With the federal city a reality, architectural competitions were held in 1792 for the new nation’s two most important buildings, the Capitol and the President’s House.
President George Washington, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, and the commissioners of the Federal City gave William Thornton the prize for the Capitol and James Hoban the commission for the residence of the president. Hoban apparently drew inspiration for his somewhat conservative design from Leinster House, Dublin, and from other English and Irish country houses shown in James Gibb’s Book of Architecture
(1728). His original plans called for a structure three stories high, but as funds were meager, two stories would suffice. Construction had begun in the fall of 1792, but when, in November 1800, President and Mrs. John Adams took up residence, the buildings set within Virginia sandstone walls was still unfinished. Abigail Adams wrote her daughter, complaining: There is not a single apartment finished
We had not the least fence, yard, or other convenience, without, and the great unfinished audience-room [the East Room] I make a drying room of, to hang up the clothes in.” Though conditions were drafty and unpleasant, John Adams nonetheless bestowed a lasting benediction on the house, following his first night there: May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof.”
Thomas Jefferson, the mansion’s first long-term resident, from 1801 to 1809, was not overly enamored of the building either, grousing that it was big enough for two emperors, one Pope, and the grand Lama.” A diligent amateur architect, he designed low terrace-pavilions for either side of the main building, thinking they would soften the structure’s grandiloquent impression. Jefferson appointed architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe to finish the structure, and he had completed numerous projects before it was burned by the British in August 1814 during the War of 1812. To rebuild the gutten mansion, President James Madison (1809-1817) rehired James Hoban.
By 1817 President James Monroe (1817-1825) was able to move into the reconstructed house, and he ordered the elaborate French Empire furnishings that remain at the core of the historic White House collection. Hoban was still on the scene in 1824 when Monroe hired him to add the semicircular South Portico, a Latrobe-Jefferson pastiche. Five years later, Andrew Jackson (1829-1837) engaged Hoban to build the North Portico, again following Latrobe’s Jefferson-sanctioned plans. Throughout the nineteenth century, creature comforts brought about by advancing technology were added, including water closets, running water, central heating, gas lights, and electricity by 1891.
The symbol of continuity and stability the White House in reality has been continually in revision over the past two centuresas Betty Monkman’s engaging narrative so ably demonstrates. Ever since the Adamses moved into the house, first families have furnished and redecorated the White House in the prevailing styles of their times or the exigencies of the moment. Because the house was not only the president’s home but his office as well, the structure endured the stress and strain of daily use by numerous visitors.
Chester A. Arthur (1881-1885) undertook a major refurbishing of the mansion in 1882, having wagon-loads of old furniture carted away to public auction, and then calling on the celebrated New York designer Louis C. Tiffany to redecorate the interior. When Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909) because president, the house underwent another revamping when the prominent architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White was selected to survey the building and make recommendations. Extensive greenhouses that had flanked the building for decades were demolished, and interior facilities were modernized. The Roosevelt renovation began the process of reshaping the White House into what was envisioned as its original appearancea process extending through succeeding presidencies. By the early 1960s, Mrs. John F. Kennedy, recalling the period when the White House was first occupied, redecorated the state floor rooms in the Federal style. Earlier, during the administration of Harry S. Truman (1945-1953), the White House had been gutted to create more space and to provide structural stability within the original walls. This involved disassembling the rooms, removing the internal fittings of the building, then piercing the interior back together over a steel structural frame.
It is difficult to know whether to be more astonished at the boldness and courage or at the originality and genius of that generation of incomparable leaders who launched this nation. The founding fathers formulated the paradox of democracy and limited government, and they and their successors institutionalized it with such practical devices as written constitutions, bills of rights, a system of checks and balances, and judicial reviewall sanctioned by the primacy of law.
That the American cause had opened a new chapter in the history of mankind was reaffirmed by foreign liberal intellectuals throughout the nineteenth century. The French social philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville wrote: In that land the great compliment of the attempt to construct society upon a new basis was to be made by civilized man; and it was there, for the first time, that theories hitherto unknown, or deemed impracticable, were to exhibit a spectacle for which the world has not been prepared by the history of the past.” America was not just one more empire but a transforming presence who emergence at the center of history had been made possible not only by the providential wealth of a virgin continent, but by the first successful application of a new principle in human affairs. The present year,” Martin Van Buren said in 1838, closes the first half century of our Federal institutions
It is reserved for the American Union to test the advantages of a government entirely dependent on the continual exercise of popular will.” Andrew Jackson’s prophecy that America was manifestly called by the Almighty to a destiny which Greece and Rome, in the days of their pride, might have envied” was coming true.
Between the time of Washington and Lincoln, America was searching for its identity to give meanings to its past, present, and future. One reason Americans tried so compulsively to explain America was that the country kept changing beyond the conception and even the recognition of its people. The belief that America was different, that America was exceptional, evolved into a national mythology of sorts. All expected us to become the most splendid empire since Rome, indeed the first true empire of liberty in the history of mankind. The principal instrument of collective progress was an exceptionally functional elite, a swarm of achievers, largely self-taught, who had earned rather than inherited their places. They were rigorously continental in scope and vigorously capitalist in thrust, this multitude of uncommon men and women whom Lincoln hailed as the fairest portion of the earth.”
The diverse, changing, and in many ways unique White House collection of decorative arts featured here vividly reflects the disparate strands of this emerging American culture. Democratic nations,” De Tocqueville observed, will therefore cultivate the arts that serve to render life easy in preference to those whose object is to adorn it. They will habitually prefer the useful to the beautiful, and they will require that the beautiful should be useful.” Romantic beliefs led artists to seek truth and beauty in the commonplace of daily life, and there is a functional beauty in these peculiarly American household objects of utility and adornment. Ralph Waldo Emerson urged young American writers to find their inspiration and materials in the meal in the firkin; the milk in the pan; the ballad in the streets; the news of the boat”; and, as for himself: I embrace the common, I explore and sit at the feet of the familiar, the low.” This kind of art would be democratic and practical, moral and optimistic. And in that spirit, over the next several decades, literature was written and arts, both ornamental and useful, were created all across this broad continent. Herman Melville called Americans the advance guard of mankind, sent on through the wilderness to untried things, to break a path in the New World that is ours.” Wendell Garrett, 1998 (Continues...)
Excerpted from The White House by Betty C. Monkman, Bruce White, Michelle Obama. Copyright © 2014 Betty C. Monkman. Excerpted by permission of Abbeville Press.
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