Abigail Adams hung her laundry in the unfinished East Room, 1800
The East Room, 1860
The East Room, 1890
The East Room following the 1902 renovation
The East Room today
The East Room
Ascending the from the Ground Floor Corridor, a marble stairway leads the White House visitor to the state floor level. Off the landing to the right is the East Room. The largest of the state rooms, it was designed by James Hoban and George Washington to be a "Public Audience Room." Second President John Adams and his wife Abigail, the first couple to live in the Executive Mansion, used the huge, unfinished room for hanging out wash.
When James and Dolley Madison moved into the house in 1810, they assigned architect Benjamin H. Latrobe to decorate the state rooms, but an impending war with Great Britain halted interior design plans before the East Room could be addressed. In August 1814, invading British troops set the house ablaze, destroying the interiors and leaving only a burned-out shell.
In March 1815, architect James Hoban returned to rebuild the President’s House. The East Room remained unfinished when James Monroe moved back into the house in 1817. The walls were bare plaster and windows were unadorned, the mantles were simple painted wood, and the floor was raw boards. An ornamental anthemion frieze, highlighted with gold leaf on a black flocked background, was the room’s only ornamentation for 11 years. Yet, in 1824, President Monroe entertained the Marquis de Lafayette in this unfinished room.
Elected president in 1829, Andrew Jackson arrived at White House as a hero of the American people. During his first term, Jackson papered the East Room walls lemon yellow and added splendid gold stars. Predominantly blue Brussels carpeting covered the floor. Spittoons, centered on a protective square of oilcloth, lined the east and west walls. He installed the East Room’s first great glass chandeliers, eventually replacing the candles with small lard-oil lamps. Twenty-four Empire style chairs purchased by James Monroe in 1817 were repaired so the throngs of visitors would not be kept "standing upon their legs as they do before kings and emperors."
Large scale entertaining placed heavy demands on the house and necessitated regular refurbishing of the staterooms. By 1841, the Monroe chairs were in such poor condition that a journalist complained they would "disgrace a house of shame." That same year, the White House was draped in mourning black for William Henry Harrison. Funeral services were held in the East Room for the first president to die in office. In 1848, James K. Polk piped gas into the chandeliers in the East Room. It was by the glow of these lights that the second president to die in office, Zachary Taylor, lay in state in 1850. The gaslights still glowed in this largest of the staterooms ten years later when President Lincoln came to the White House. Guests at receptions hosted by the Lincolns waltzed here during the years of the Civil War. Beneath the dancing feet, heavy support logs in the basement shored up a sagging floor.
During the early days of the Civil War, Union soldiers from Kansas used the room as a bivouac. Young Tad Lincoln gave his father some much-needed amusement when he rode a chair pulled by two goats into the East Room during a social visit. After his assassination in April 1865, Lincoln was the third president to be mourned in the East Room.
President Ulysses S. Grant renovated the East Room in 1873-74 for the wedding of his daughter, Ellen. Immense mirrors topped new wooden mantles, two ceiling beams were added continuing Hoban’s anthemia, and Andrew Jackson’s chandeliers were replaced by ornate new gas chandeliers that featured clusters of globe lights. Louis Tiffany embellished the room even further for Chester Arthur in 1882, adding a delicate ceiling wallpaper that resembled Pompeiian mosaics. Theodore Roosevelt gave a state dinner in the East Room for Prussia's Prince Henry in 1901. A photographer recalled it was like eating "in a Christmas tree."
In 1902, architect Charles McKim obliterated the room’s exuberant Victorian décor in a White House renovation for Theodore Roosevelt. Highly carved French-inspired neoclassical paneling, painted a brilliant cream white, replaced what critics had called a "Steamboat Gothic" interior design. The room’s bright finishes were brought to life by three new massive Bohemian glass chandeliers that remain in the room today. Almost immediately, President Roosevelt held a Japanese jujitsu exhibition in his new stately East Room. His children roller-skated on the fine oak floor. Eldest daughter Alice remembered hiding inside ottomans crowned by potted palms. In 1906, the East Room became the setting for Alice Roosevelt's famous wedding to Nicholas Longworth.
Although the White House staged its first formal East Room concert during Chester Arthur’s administration, the space emerged as one of the world’s great musical stages after Steinway and Sons presented a grand piano to the White House in 1903. World renowned pianists came to the perform at the mansion–Feruccio Busoni, Ignacy Paderewski, Josef Hofmann, Olga Samanoff, Sergei Rachmaninoff, and a host of others. This piano was replaced in 1938 by another Steinway concert grand, which remains in the East Room today.
During President Harry Truman’s 1948-1952 interior reconstruction of the White House, the East Room’s "bold, high-relief ornament" was given "a certain gentle simplification" based on McKim’s 1902 design. President Truman showed off the new East Room on international television. He played the 1938 Steinway piano and told the story of how Dolley Madison saved Gilbert Stuart's full-length portrait of George Washington from the fire set by British troops in 1814. Dolley Madison had the painting removed from its frame where it hung in the State Dining Room and fled just before the British arrived at the President’s House. The Washington portrait, the oldest possession in the house, hangs today in the East Room.
During the administration of John F. Kennedy in the early 1960s, the White House became a prominent center for America’s artistic achievements. Opera, ballet, chamber music and jazz, although they had appeared at the mansion before 1960, were given a new focus and showcased in renowned East Room performances. Tragically, in November 1963, John F. Kennedy became the seventh president to be publicly mourned here. The following year, Lyndon B. Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act in the East Room on live television. Today, this room continues to be a grand stage for bill-signing ceremonies, press conferences, and music and dance performances.