The Blue Room
The Blue Room with the Yellow Oval Room above and the Diplomatic Reception Room below it, form the most elegant space of James Hoban's plans for the White House. For the south wall of the Blue Room, he designed French doors flanked by long windows. An oval portico with curving stairs that descended to the south lawn was included in these original plans, but was not built until 1824. For expediency President John Adams used the space for a south entrance hall, as he occupied an unfinished house. Since the time of President Thomas Jefferson, this oval room has been used for receptions. However, the room has not always been blue. First Lady Dolley Madison preferred bold red velvet draperies for the "Oval Drawing Room" and her architect Benjamin Latrobe custom-designed a suite of classical-revival furniture with crimson cushions. The interiors and furniture were destroyed in the fire of 1814.
President James Monroe moved back into the house in 1817 after its restoration and redecorated the "large oval room" in the French Empire style. Monroe ordered mahogany furniture from Pierre-Antoine Bellange predominantly for formal use in the oval and state dining rooms. The president's agents, the American firm of Russell and La Farge in LeHavre, France, however, shipped 53 pieces of carved and gilded furniture with crimson silk upholstery. They informed the president that "mahogany is not generally admitted in the furniture of a Saloon, even at private gentlemen's houses."
Red dominated the room's design when John Adams, the son of President John Quincy Adams, married Mary Catherine Hellen here on February 25, 1828. Andrew Jackson fitted the room out in green. Martin Van Buren redecorated the "elliptic saloon" and started the tradition of a "blue room" in 1837. In 1848, gas lighting was piped to all the chandeliers on the state floor except the Blue Room. Sarah Polk thought candles looked better in Monroe's luster, an elegant fixture that was reputed to have belonged to Napoleon. She was vindicated when on the first night that it was used, gas ran out and all went dark except the candlelit oval room.
In 1860, President James Buchanan sold the Bellange chairs and sofas at auction and replaced them with a Victorian Rococo Revival suite that served into the Theodore Roosevelt administration. In 1882 President Chester Arthur commissioned Louis Tiffany to redecorate the state rooms. Tiffany tinted the walls of the Blue Room in a light-green "robin's egg blue" which became lighter toward the ceiling and culminated in an ivory and silver frieze of hand-pressed paper. The Rococo Revival furniture was kept and reupholstered in blue silk canvas. Grover Cleveland - the first president to marry in the White House—wed Frances Folsom in the Blue Room in 1886.
In 1902, Theodore Roosevelt hired McKim, Mead & White to renovate the White House. Charles McKim restored the Empire décor and designed a set of furniture comparable to the Bellange originals. The walls were covered with heavy, steel blue ribbed silk, woven to match a sample from the Napoleonic era. In 1948, the chandelier in the Blue Room tinkled a warning that the interior structure was in a shaky condition. President Harry Truman directed a major renovation that reconstructed the interior of White House on a new foundation and steel frame. In the rebuilt Blue Room, project architect Lorenzo Winslow restored James Hoban's original cornice design and continued McKim's silk wall coverings. In 1962, Jacqueline Kennedy directed the room's redecoration, covering the walls with a cream-colored satin. By that time, the White House had acquired three of the original Bellange chairs auctioned off in 1860, from which copies were made. Eight Bellange pieces have been recovered to date and share the room with copies.
On the mantle is a bronze-dore clock bearing the figure of the Carthage general Hannibal. The clock, made by French bronze casters Deniere and Matelin, was one of a pair bought by Monroe in 1817. It has been in the Blue Room since the days of his presidency.
Paintings of presidents are also on display. As secretary of state, Monroe commissioned John Vanderlyn to paint a presidential portrait of James Madison in 1816. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were vice presidents when they sat respectively for John Trumbull in 1793 and Rembrant Peale in 1800. John Tyler's 1859 portrait by George P. A. Healy is one of the finest in the White House collection. Ander Zorn's portrait of President Taft shows the Blue Room of 1911. An 1819 portrait of James Monroe by Samuel F. B. Morse, who later patented the telegraph, hangs prominently in the room.
The Blue Room still serves as a reception area, most notably during the holidays, when it is adorned by the official White House Christmas tree. Many distinguished guests have been received here. In 1822, James Monroe had tea and cake with chiefs of the Great Plains Indian tribes. In 1878, Rutherford Hayes accepted the credentials of the first Chinese minister to the United States. The Blue Room has also welcomed at least one child. During the Eisenhower Administration, the christening of granddaughter Mary Jean within these curving walls reminded the country that the White House is more than an icon of the presidency—it is home to a family.