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Rubenstein Center Scholarship

Letter from Our President

On the Occasion of Mrs. Kennedy's Birthday

July 28th would have been the 86th birthday of one of the great First Ladies in American history; one whose role and influence still has a significant White House legacy. At the young age of 32, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy became First Lady of the United States. She had a vision with wisdom and foresight beyond her years. The influence that she had in three years as America’s First Lady can still be seen, felt and experienced at the White House today.

As a schoolgirl, Jacqueline Bouvier visited the White House with her mother and was surprised that there was no definitive guidebook as one would expect to find at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or any of the world's great museums. She was dismayed that the home of the President of the United States did not have the look and feel of a home that celebrated the nation's history and culture with the finest of American art and furnishings, but was instead a place where objects came and went according to the whim of each new President. Gone was the fifty-three piece suite of extraordinary gilded beech wood furniture acquired in France by President James Monroe for the White House in 1817 when restorations following the fire of 1814 were completed. Gone was the cut and engraved glassware service for sixty ordered by President and Mrs. Franklin Pierce in 1853. Gone was the Tiffany screen of colored glass that stood in the Entrance Hall a mere nineteen years from 1883 to 1902.

It was only a few weeks after the White House became Mrs. Kennedy's own home in 1961, that she set a plan in motion to create a world-class museum. She explained that "Everything in the White House must have a reason for being there. It would be a sacrilege merely to redecorate it . . . it must be restored to reflect the whole history of the presidency." She began the ambitious process of inspiring collectors to donate to the White House many important objects that had been sold or given away. She searched in forgotten corners of the house for treasures stored and forgotten by previous First Families. She brought attention to the need to restore and preserve fine art. Thanks to the leadership and initiative of Mrs. Kennedy, the White House is today an accredited museum with formal collection policies and a professional curatorial staff. Several pieces of President Monroe's gilded furniture has been returned to its place in the Blue Room. President Pierce's glassware is a part of a large collection of State Services preserved in the collection. Although the Tiffany screen may be lost forever, objects given to or acquired by the White House are no longer disposed of when styles change. The White House: An Historic Guide, the guidebook she conceived of and edited herself in 1962, recently marked its fiftieth year in print and continues to be available to those who come to tour as she did in her childhood, as well as those who can't visit but wish to learn more about the house, its history, and its collections.

Another of Mrs. Kennedy’s legacies was the creation of the White House Historical Association in 1961. She had the foresight to know that the White House would need a private partner to provide resources that the government couldn’t provide to maintain the ceremonial State Rooms and public spaces as a stage where the President conducts much of the Nation’s most important business. Since her inspiration created this organization 54 years ago, more than $45 million has been given to the White House to support projects, including the recent restoration of the Family Dining Room with twentieth-century art; the fresh new look for the State Dining Room; and the acquisition of the new White House china recently rolled out at a State Dinner for the Prime Minister of Japan.

Every First Lady throughout our history has had some influence on the house, yet, Jacqueline Kennedy had a transformational role. When CBS televised her leading a tour of the restored White House, she captured the nation's attention and secured a shared public support for the importance of preserving our national treasure. It is through her legacy that the White House today is indeed a showcase of the very best of America. On this day of her birth, we salute her vision and her legacy. And as grateful Americans, we appreciate all that she accomplished in her three short years as First Lady in transforming the world's understanding of the White House forever.

Stewart McLaurin, President, White House Historical Association