The White House Collection Research Sources in the Office of the Curator

Betty Monkman


A house more thoroughly documented than the White House is difficult to imagine. Historians and students of White House history seeking primary source materials on the late-18th-century origin, design, and construction of the building as well as its 19th-century reconstruction and renovations, changing interior spaces, and purchases of art and furnishings, must turn to the rich resources of the National Archives, which holds White House- related letter-books, financial accounts, and architectural and landscape drawings and plans. To assist in its daily work, the White House Office of the Curator has photocopies of many of these original records from 1800 to 1902. They are supplemented by letters and diary and journal accounts (originals and copies from other repositories) describing the White House, its grounds, the lives of its occupants, and the myriad events that have taken place within its historic spaces.

More specialized records of major 20th-century projects such as the massive Truman renovation of 1948-52 are held by the National Archives, too, in the official records of the Commission on the Renovation of the Executive Mansion, and in those of the National Park Service established in 1933 and charged with certain management responsibilities relating to the White House. The personal papers of the architect and the interior designer who played key roles in the Truman renovation are in the White House Office of the Curator and supplement the official records.

The Office of the Curator, created in 1961, holds materials that have been acquired to support the documentation of the White House collections of art and furnishings, and the history of the building, the management and operations of the Executive Residence, and the staff and consultants who have been involved with the house. Along with historic paintings, prints, and drawings, there are manuscripts, photographs, architectural and landscape drawings and plans, records of White House advisory committees since the 1920s, periodicals, government reports, and extensive newspaper clippings. The office has a 2,000-volume noncirculating library to support historical and curatorial research. Although available to scholars, these resources are not open to the public.

Of major significance are the manuscript collections that have been acquired, primarily by donation, over the last 40 years. The papers of architects, design firms and designers, and White House staff and advisers directly connected to the Executive Residence compose a wealth of resources for the study of the physical building, the changes that have been made to its historic spaces, and its art and furnishing collections. Among the manuscript collections are the following:


Edgar S. Yergason Papers

Gift of the White House Historical Association, 1980

Edgar S. Yergason (1840-1920), a partner in the Hartford, Connecticut, firm of the William H. Post Company, was a designer and supervisor of its department of decorating in the years following the Civil War. The firm secured a White House commission in the Benjamin Harrison administration (1890), and Yergason worked in the Harrison White House until 1892. He established his own company in New York City and was called to the White House again during the McKinley administration to redecorate the Blue Room in the first attempt to introduce elements of the increasingly popular colonial revival style to the White House. Yergason and the Post Company also received commissions for other Washington residences, both before and after his work at the White House.

The Yergason Papers are among the few surviving nongovernment documents relating to interior changes and decor in the White House. They consist of correspondence, estimates, sketches of window treatments and door gates, photographs, and textile samples of his work in the Blue Room (1890-91 and 1899), East Room (1890-91), Green Room (1891), State Dining Room, Cross Hall, Entrance Hall (1891-92), and the second floor corridor (1891). The papers give a special account of the planning and decision process of these projects, many undertaken at the time electricity was introduced into the White House in 1891. The textile samples are evocative evidence of colors in 19th-century White House rooms when only black-and-white photographs illustrated those spaces. The papers also present an uncommon record of the growth of the interior design profession in the late 19th century.


Abby Gunn Baker Papers

Gift of Amy V. Barton, 1969, 1999

Abby Gunn Baker (1860-1923) was a Washington journalist and author who for more than 20 years was engaged in research on the White House and its collection of presidential china and other memorabilia. She was one of the earliest researchers to document the history of the White House. In 1901, the commissioner of public buildings and grounds, Colonel Theodore A. Bingham, with the permission of Mrs. William McKinley, engaged Mrs. Baker to study White House china and write about it because there was so little known about its history or concern for its preservation. Baker searched government records and contacted former first ladies and presidential descendants for information on life in the White House and objects associated with its former occupants. With the support of Edith Roosevelt, Helen Taft, and Ellen Wilson, she sought and obtained donations of examples of the china and other memorabilia relating to presidential families such as rare pieces of porcelain services owned by George Washington and John Adams. Later, she advised Edith Wilson on the establishment of a separate room, the China Room, to exhibit the historic collections of china, glassware, and silver.

Abby Gunn Baker's "The China of the Presidents" was the first published article on the china. Baker was working on a draft of her book "Heirs and Heirlooms of the White House" at the time of her death. This three-volume draft recounts her personal recollections in assembling the china and memorabilia collections and her interviews with former first ladies and their families. Her correspondence with first family descendants is filled with personal reminiscences. Responding to her inquiry, Robert Todd Lincoln sketched a White House floor plan indicating the exact location of the offices of President Lincoln and his staff, and Webb C. Hayes, son of Rutherford B. Hayes, clarified the events surrounding his father's White House inauguration in 1877.

In addition to correspondence, Gunn's papers include rare early photographs of White House interiors and grounds, families and staff, White House invitations, guest lists, programs of musicales, parties and inaugural events, and magazine and newspaper articles on the White House and its families. It is her work with White House china that is the heart of her papers, which also include the earliest photographs of White House china, silver, and glassware, as well as family china and other presidential objects.

The papers of Abby Gunn Baker provide insights into the work of an early-20th-century woman journalist and turn-of-the-century attitudes toward preservation and interpretation of the White House, its history and collections. They are a valuable source for the study of White House china, a distinctive collection that has reflected the tastes and interests of presidents and first ladies for more than 200 years.


Harriet Barnes Pratt Papers

Gift of Mrs. Harold Irving Pratt, 1977

Harriet Barnes Pratt (Mrs. Harold I. Pratt) (1879-1969), a wealthy New York philanthropist, collector of Americana, and horticulturist, served on several White House advisory committees on furnishings from the Coolidge to the Truman administrations. In 1925, she was appointed by President Calvin Coolidge as chair of the first committee created to advise presidents and first ladies and make recommendations on White House acquisitions and decor. Throughout the 1930s, Mrs. Pratt pressed for a new committee appointed by the Smithsonian Institution. This was not done, but a smaller group continued to function in the 1930s as a Committee on Furnishings. In 1941, through the concerted efforts of Mrs. Pratt, Eleanor Roosevelt agreed to the establishment of the Subcommittee upon Furniture and Furnishings and Gifts for State Rooms of the White House to be placed under the United States Commission of Fine Arts. Mrs. Pratt served as its chair and a member until 1947. The subcommittee made recommendations on the acceptance of donations to the White House and on the arrangements of the furnishings in the state rooms. Mrs. Pratt was a powerful advocate on these committees, and her papers reveal her strong opinions and views.

The papers consist primarily of correspondence between Mrs. Pratt and other committee members and government officials. Among them were consulting architect Eric Gugler (1934-48), Gilmore Clarke, chair of the Commission of Fine Arts (1937-50), David Finley, director of the National Gallery of Art, New York architect William Delano, and various design and manufacturing companies. There is also a small selection of letters from Eleanor Roosevelt and Bess Truman. Procedures for the committee are included, as are photographs of objects reviewed.

The Pratt Papers afford the unique perspective of someone closely involved in setting policies and making decisions relating to White House interiors and the acquisition of furnishings over three decades. The materials illustrate the influence of early White House advisory committees and the degree of involvement of presidents and first ladies with the committees as well as the often-contentious differences of opinion among the members of these committees and with government officials with responsibilities for the White House.


Eric Gugler Papers

Gift of Eric Gugler, 1970

Architect Eric Gugler (1889-1974), educated at Columbia University and the American Academy of Rome, played a pivotal role in alterations to the White House in the 1930s and 1940s. After objecting to President Franklin D. Roosevelt's first plan for an expansion of the West Wing in 1934, Gugler prepared alternative plans that were accepted and resulted in the redesigned West Wing that exists today. Gugler worked closely with Roosevelt and his staff on the project, constructing a second floor addition, extending office space in the basement, and moving and situating the president's Oval Office and the Cabinet Room to their current locations on the east side of the building. In addition to his work on the West Wing, Gugler was appointed by Roosevelt to the White House advisory committee for the state rooms and advised on several room projects. His work for the Roosevelts included the design of a grand piano for the East Room, which is still used today, and, at Roosevelt's request, designing a quotation by John Adams on his hopes for future presidents for inscription into the State Dining Room mantel. Gugler's papers are filled with details on the 1934 West Wing expansion, landscape plans, collecting art for the West Wing under the Public Works Art Project, White House advisory committee work in the Red Room, Green Room, and Blue Room, designs of the Steinway grand piano, and the State Dining Room mantel inscription. These are supplemented by his memoir of these projects along with a few signed letters from President and Mrs. Roosevelt, memorandums, photographs, drawings, textile samples, and related newspaper clippings. The Gugler Papers illuminate a significant White House architectural project and offer insight into President and Mrs. Roosevelt's involvement with White House spaces and environments.


Lorenzo Winslow Papers

Gift of Mrs. Lorenzo Winslow, 1984

Lorenzo Simmons Winslow (1892-1976) worked as an architect in the White House for 20 years (1933-53), the longest duration of any architect at the White House. He designed the White House swimming pool in the West Terrace for President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1934) and assisted with the West Wing expansion (1934) and with the design of new roads, gates, and fences on the south grounds (1936), a new White House kitchen and pantries in the residence, new work spaces for carpenter and paint shops under the north grounds (1937-38), and changes to the ground floor White House Library for President Roosevelt (1938). Winslow was appointed official White House architect in 1941 and assumed responsibility for the design and construction of the East Wing (1942). At President Truman's request, he oversaw the addition of the Truman Balcony to the South Portico and in 1948 was named architect-in-charge of the renovation of the White House that continued until 1952. He retired to Florida in the following year.

Winslow's papers are rich in biographical material on him and his pre- and post-White House career in addition to the extensive materials (correspondence, articles on White House history, and ephemera) covering the various projects in which he was engaged. A large group of architectural drawings are, for the most part, working drawings that supplement those in the official records of the Commission on the Renovation of the Executive Mansion (National Archives). Also included is a comprehensive group of White House photographs consisting of historic views and the excellent documentary photographs taken by National Park Service photographer Abbie Rowe before, during, and after the Truman renovation. The vast Winslow Papers afford a distinctive look at the personal Winslow and his official work that resulted in today's White House.


Charles T. Haight Papers

Gift of Mrs. Ilse Vietor-Haight, 1998

Charles T. Haight (1904-1980) was director of the design department of the New York firm of B. Altman and Company from 1945 until he established his own firm in 1960. His involvement in White House interior design projects began in 1945 when Altman's was called upon to replace the fabrics in the Green Room, and he continued as a consultant on a variety of assignments. In preparation for the extensive renovation of the house in the Truman administration, Altman's assisted with the removal, storage, and restoration of the furnishings in 1949; in 1950 Altman's was awarded the considerable commission to oversee the design work and refurnishing of the house. Haight and his staff were charged with the responsibility for preparing and coordinating all plans for the new interior for approval by President and Mrs. Truman and the Commission on the Renovation of the Executive Mansion.

The Haight Papers supplement the official records of the commission in the National Archives and other records in the Harry S. Truman Library and the White House. Included are correspondence with the commission and White House staff, White House invitations, color transparencies of selected rooms, Haight's scrapbooks with numerous articles and newspaper clippings, large samples of fabrics selected for several state and family rooms, and a sample of Blue Room upholstery fabric from the Franklin D. Roosevelt era. Accompanying the papers are souvenir architectural elements from the Truman renovation such as a plaster medallion of a rosette, a gavel, and letter opener made from old White House pine, stones, and nails. The White House also holds notes of an interview with Mr. Haight in 1977 and several watercolor sketches of proposals for White House rooms prepared by Altman's interior design staff in 1950. The sketches were donated by a member of Haight's staff, Edward Wallace, in 2000.


Jeanette Becker Lenygon Papers

Gift of the White House Historical Association and Paul William Smart and Diane Greer Smart, 2000

Jeanette Becker Lenygon (1878-1977) had a long career in New York City as an interior designer and an active association with the American Institute of Interior Designers (AID), which she helped to organize. In 1961, Jacqueline Kennedy accepted the offer of assistance from AID to decorate and furnish the White House Library. As co-chair of its Committee on Historic Preservation, Lenygon coordinated AID's refurbishment of the room and the donation of furnishings for it, including an important suite of federal mahogany and caned furniture attributed to the New York workshop of Duncan Phyfe, 1800-10, and a tole and glass chandelier from the home of American author James Fenimore Cooper.The Lenygon Papers contain correspondence with Mrs. Kennedy and White House staff who worked on the Library project. Included are floor plans and drawings of architectural details of the Library, proposals for drapery treatments, and a rare, three-dimensional hand-painted paperboard model of the room depicting its architectural elements and the suggested placement of its furnishings. Lenygons's extensive handwritten notes document the development of the project, and accompanying original bills of sale for the objects acquired for the room and invoices for other work completed are invaluable records. A small group of photographs of the room before, during, and after the changes and of AID members at the White House, as well as an extensive collection of related newspaper clippings and magazine articles, constitutes the remainder of the papers.

The Lenygon Papers contribute a fuller documentation of one of the enduring projects of the Kennedy era as the room with its 1961 furnishings remains essentially intact. They also chronicle the role played by an interior design organization in the White House and the complexities that can arise when projects are undertaken by a committee working with a first lady with strong creative ideas.


Paul Manno Papers

Gift of Paul Manno, 1997

Paul Manno (b. 1915) was the manager of the New York office of Jansen, Inc., the Parisian design firm patronized by Jacqueline Kennedy in the White House from 1961 to 1963. Its president and chief designer, Stéphane Boudin, worked closely with Mrs. Kennedy on innumerable White House projects in the state rooms and in family areas. As Boudin visited the United States only a few times a year, it was Paul Manno who supervised the considerable work done by the Jansen firm in the White House.

The Manno Papers, from the files of the New York office, render an extraordinary visual design record. Among them are 79 drawings and 23 sketches of proposals and plans for room decor, architectural modifications, furniture, and upholstery schemes. With these designs are a small selection of room photographs and several fabric samples used in various rooms. In addition, an oral history interview with Paul Manno was conducted in 1996. The Manno Papers complement the archival records of the Office of the Curator and the John F. Kennedy Library and yield a detailed account of Mrs. Kennedy's White House refurbishment projects that continue to be of interest to many Americans.


Isabella Hagner James Papers

Gift of Mrs. Alexander Hagner, 1983

Isabella Hagner James (1876-1943), the first salaried social secretary to a first lady, came from a distinguished Washington family of government employees who settled in the city in 1799 before the move of the federal government to its new capital. Raised in the neighborhood surrounding the White House, with Lafayette Park as her playground and St. John's Church as her family parish, she was well known in Washington social circles and was selected as White House social secretary and press secretary by Edith Roosevelt (1901-1909), Helen Taft (1909-10), and Ellen Wilson (the first wife of President Woodrow Wilson) (1913-14). After Mrs. Wilson's death she continued to plan White House social functions for the widowed president until his remarriage in 1915.

Among Belle Hagner's papers are her published articles on her position as White House social secretary, draft chapters of her unpublished memoirs, working notes, ephemera relating to her work, and a special collection of photographs of the Theodore Roosevelt family, several by the noted Washington photographer Frances Benjamin Johnston. Many were personally inscribed to Belle Hagner by the Roosevelts and their children, and some were signed by Johnston. These materials offer insight into her special relationship as a trusted adviser and intimate friend to the Roosevelt and Wilson families.

Her knowledge of Washington society served her well as she created White House invitation lists, planned seating charts, and arranged for numerous White House social events including Alice Roosevelt's debut (1902) and wedding (1906) and the weddings of Jessie Wilson (1913) and Eleanor Wilson (1914). Hagner describes the changes in White House protocol introduced by President and Mrs. Roosevelt and the reasons behind the changes. There are rich descriptions of social and political activities of the Roosevelt administration including the 1902 renovation of the building and details about the Roosevelt family. Hagner also provides insights into Ellen Wilson's project to provide better housing for Washington, D.C.'s poor and the declining health that led to her death in 1914. Hagner's biographical material and her recollections of the social history of the city of Washington in the late 19th and early 20th century are a fertile resource for the study of Washington history.

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