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Every presidential family that resides in the White House leaves a mark on the building and its traditions. The extent of a family’s influence on the physical White House depends usually on its length of residence and its inclinations to take the trouble to make changes. History plays a part as well. While major additions to the White House and its grounds have usually been directed by the presidents themselves, changes to the interior furnishings have typically fallen to the first ladies. Mamie Eisenhower’s impact in this regard has been underappreciated, especially in the light of the campaign of her successor, Jacqueline Kennedy, to “restore” the White House with antiques to the idea of its earliest years. Yet working less publicly within the parameters of a more traditional role of housewife, Mamie Eisenhower also made significant contributions to the White House interiors during President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s eight years in office. Indeed, by asserting her authority over all aspects of housekeeping, entertaining, and decorating in the White House, Mamie Eisenhower made the Executive Residence her home in every sense.

President and Mrs. Eisenhower moved into the White House at an unusual time in its history. Less than ten months earlier, President Harry S. Truman had returned to the house following a three and one-half year renovation. In its July 1952 color spread showing the newly renovated White House interiors. Life magazine declared that “whatever family moves in next January will enjoy practically brand-new quarters.”1 This was not an overstatement; during the Truman renovation, the White House had been completely gutted. Besides the exterior stone walls and a few selected interior architectural elements, the house had been reconstructed with modern materials. Although rebuilt on the same general plan as the earlier building, the house was dramatically different. Changes included two new basement levels, seventy or so new rooms, and a comprehensive air- conditioning system. The Executive Residence staff was still adjusting to the new building and the increased costs associated with its updated technologies when the Eisenhowers arrived in January 1953.

The Commission on the Renovation of the Executive Mansion, which had overseen construction, had also been charged with the interior furnishing of the restored house. For this purpose, $200,000 had been appropriated to cover all interior work, from painting the walls and restoring old furniture to buying new furnishings. Accepting severe limits of time and money, B. Altman & Co., a New York City department store, took the contract for the interiors. Altman’s had recently provided upholstery services for both the State Floor and the West Wing, so when he was forced to quickly empty the White House in the fall of 1948, Chief Usher Howell Crim turned to Altman’s to supervise packing, moving, and storage services. Pleased with the company’s work, Crim recommended that it receive the exclusive furnishings contract for the renovation. Altman’s proposal, which committed the company to complete all work at cost, receiving no publicity, was accepted in the fall of 1950. Approximately one year was allowed to complete the work.

The Eisenhower's watching television in the Library of the White House with their only son John and his family. One of Mrs. Eisenhower's primary objectives was to make the house comfortable for her family.

National Archives and Records Administration

Charles Haight, director of Altman’s design department, told the Commission on the Renovation that although he believed the White House should be furnished with "antiques of the period," there was not nearly enough money even to consider such an undertaking. President Truman had already effectually silenced the other proponents of this approach. His anger at the Commission of Fine Arts for its reaction to his addition in 1948 of a balcony on the South Portico limited its influence with him and thus any impact it might have had on the furnishing plans. Most important, Truman had barred from the renovation the Commission of Fine Arts subcommittee on White House furnishings, which had been working since the Coolidge administration under the leadership of Harriet Barnes Pratt to add period antiques to the State Floor. “There is going to be no special privileged people allowed to decide what will be done with the refurnishing of the White House,” Truman commanded.2 Without a strong advocate for using antiques to furnish the house or the funding sources to secure them, Haight decided to seek reproductions of period chairs, tables, and the like that he felt were appropriate for the house.3 The reproduction furnishings selected, which tended to be more characteristic of the English Georgian style than American Federal, reflected the upscale furniture market of the time.

Changes made to White House interiors during the Truman renovation were met with almost universal acclaim. The White House’s “original 18th Century style of decoration has been restored, [and] anachronistic details eliminated” proclaimed Life magazine.4 “Every one of the . . . White House rooms is adequately and tastefully furnished,” wrote Bess Furman for the New York Times. Furman also went on to anticipate the pros and cons of Mrs. Eisenhower’s challenge:
Precisely because the White House is so spick-and-span, Mrs. Eisenhower will step into fewer household headaches than any of her predecessors. She will move into the best-looking White House since Abigail Adams crossed its threshold. ... At the same time, the new First Lady will have the least self-expression in White House interior decoration. She can’t order a paint job when everything is fresh as paint—not a thrifty soul like Mamie Eisenhower.5

After the government had just spent almost $5.8 million renovating the White House, it was evident that neither Congress nor the general public would be in the mood to spend any significant amount of money to change the interior decorations to suit the new first family’s tastes. Thus, although Chief Usher Crim requested it, the Eisenhowers did not receive the traditional $50,000 congressional appropriation given to each administration upon election (and reelection) to be used for purchasing and repairing furnishings for the White House. Crim’s budget covered only routine operating expenses of the house and could not absorb any furnishing costs, so he continued to push for dedicated furnishing funds after the appropriation request was denied. Finally Crim was instructed to use leftover money from a large appropriation made in 1946 to meet the Eisenhowers’ furnishing requests.

The draperies and chairs used to furnish the White House bedroom for President and Mrs. Eisenhower.

National Archives and Records Admistration

The 1946 appropriation, originally $680,000, had been intended to fund a variety of improvements to the Executive Mansion and its grounds, including a renovation of the East Wing, a study of the historical furnishings of the White House, and updates to the elevators.6 The unexpected Truman renovation and its subsequent appropriation had eliminated the need for some of the line items of 1946 such as replacing the floor in the private quarters and installing a new heating system. Other projects funded in 1946, including work on the East Wing and landscaping, had been postponed indefinitely. Approximately $200,000 remained from the 1946 appropriation when President Eisenhower took office. During the Eisenhower administration, this account paid for all expenditures that the Usher’s Office deemed nonroutine, from new tableware and curtains to plants, scaffolding, and mechanical equipment. In 1958, the 1946 appropriation was finally exhausted, and a new appropriation of $100,000 was secured for “extraordinary alterations, repairs, furniture, and furnishings” for fiscal year 1959.7

Mamie Eisenhower therefore had some cash in hand for redecorating, but her options were largely reduced to inexpensive necessities such as reupholstering worn furniture and painting walls. The life span for such components of White House interiors is very brief. As someone who considered herself a professional homemaker and who loved to decorate houses, the limitations at the White House upset Mrs. Eisenhower. Assistant Usher J. B. West recalled that Mrs. Eisenhower was “terribly disappointed that she couldn’t transform the entire mansion” when she arrived.8 However, as a long-time military wife, she had literally decades of experience in creating a suitable home for her and her husband with quarters and furnishings that were provided for them rather than those they had chosen themselves.9 By her count, the White House was their thirty-sixth residence.10

Mamie Eisenhower’s first decorating objectives in the White House were to make the private quarters comfortable for both her and her husband and for their grandchildren, who would visit often. Less than twenty- four hours after President Eisenhower’s inauguration, it was clear that Mrs. Eisenhower had already been contemplating how she could rearrange things to meet her tastes. Her first objective, as it had been in their many previous homes, was to establish a comfortable master bedroom. West recalls that during her first morning in the White House, she directed that Bess Tinman’s former sitting room would serve as the Eisenhowers’ bedroom.11

The large vermeil collection donated by Margaret Thompson Biddle included a wine ewer with satyr and grapevines (by Richard Sibley, London, 1817-18).

White House Historical Association

Mamie Eisenhower’s limited budget forced her to be creative in accomplishing her decorating goals. She created the master bedroom she desired by rearranging existing White House furnishings. By requesting to use the draperies, carpet, and chairs from Margaret Truman’s former sitting room for the Eisenhower bedroom, expenses were limited to creating a new upholstered headboard, dust ruffle, and bedspread to match the borrowed furnishings. Mamie Eisenhower’s thrift was also demonstrated in her efforts to provide window hangings for the Third Floor. She secured parachute silk from a local army base at 10 cents a yard and instructed the White House seamstress to fabricate curtains.12

West also reports that one of Mrs. Eisenhower’s first inquiries upon her arrival was about the historic furnishings in the White House:

Looking around at the bland department-store reproductions, she asked brightly, “Can’t we bring out the real antiques?” When I answered that we had none stashed away anywhere, she was crestfallen. “But isn’t there any way we can get historic furniture for this house?”
“Donations only,” I answered, pointing out the few genuine pieces.
“Well, I guess I’ll just have to make do!” she said, marching resolutely off.13

According to her granddaughter, Mamie Eisenhower “loved quality—fine antiques, rich silks and brocades, and the best china and sterling silver money could buy. ”14 Growing up in a wealthy family, she had been surrounded by fine furnishings. Although money was tight early in her marriage, she still insisted on buying high-quality goods, collecting sets of china and sterling silver slowly over a period of many years. Just prior to moving to the White House, the Eisenhowers had lived at the Villa Saint-Pierre, a historic mansion 10 miles outside of Paris. There Mrs. Eisenhower had had her choice of antique furnishings from French government storage along with the advice of leading French interior designers to furnish the house. The warehouses yielded a bed used by Napoleon at Fontainebleau and a historic French tapestry, but she also insisted as well on modem and comfortable furniture.15

Mrs. Eisenhower’s appreciation for history was later seen in the Gettysburg Farm, the first home the Eisenhowers had ever owned. In his memoirs, Dwight Eisenhower recalls that Mamie “started off by deciding to restore the old farmhouse located on the ground we had bought.” However, an engineering survey revealed that the house was an eighteenth-century log cabin faced with brick and that the wood was in such poor condition that it could not be saved. “So anxious was Mamie to retain even a fragment of the original structure, that when she found one portion of the wall and a Dutch oven in which no logs had been used [in what had been the original summer kitchen], she built a complete house around them,” the president proudly wrote.16 Ceiling beams used in the den were also milled from the original wood of the house.

Mamie Eisenhower might have had the desire to furnish the White House with “real antiques,” but there were few to select from and there were no available resources to buy more. Even if she had wanted to personally solicit donations of funds or antique furniture, she probably understood that, coming on the heels of the Truman renovation, there would be little public support for such an effort. Her husband’s political ideology also worked against her in this regard, as Republican President Eisenhower was intent on reducing government budgets after two decades of Democratic control in which the federal government had expanded exponentially.

Eisenhower was unwilling to push Congress for even the traditional $50,000 furnishing appropriation.17 Mamie Eisenhower clearly expressed her desires to her husband, however, as West reported that the president “met me in the hall one day, and explained that he had a ‘little money’ left over from his office appropriation. ‘Couldn’t we use it to do some of the things Mrs. Eisenhower wants to do in the White House?’ I had to explain that it would be fiscally impossible and illegal to transfer funds from the President’s office to the President’s house.”18

Mamie Eisenhower reluctantly accepted that donations would be the only way to add antiques to the White House. Potential acquisitions during the Eisenhower administration were evaluated primarily on their historical importance, particularly to the White House; their suitability to the continued goal established in the 1920s of decorating the house to reflect its earliest era; and their practicality of use. Mrs. Eisenhower was eager to accept gifts associated with the White House or its former occupants. Her first opportunity arose in late 1953 when English lawyer John C. Witt offered a rococo revival sofa, slipper chair, and two armchairs with the provenance of having been among “Abraham Lincoln’s private additions to White House furniture” that had been “sold on the lawn by the White House after Lincoln’s assassination.”19

After having secured the recommendations to accept the donation from both Stanley McClure, a National Park Service employee who had been studying the historic White House furnishings since the Truman administration, and the Commission of Fine Arts, Mrs. Eisenhower gave her approval. Mary Jane McCaffree, her social secretary, communicated her decision, writing, “Mrs. Eisenhower is very much interested in obtaining the furniture . . . and asks that a formal acceptance be transmitted. Space for these pieces has been found in the Lincoln Room and The First Lady is delighted to know that the furniture is being restored to The White House.”20 Mrs. Eisenhower accepted a number of other important gifts relating to President Lincoln for the White House during her tenure, including a massive bronze bust of Lincoln by Mount Rushmore sculptor Gutzon Borglum, a bronze statuette of Lincoln by Hungarian artist Jeno Juszko, and most significant, one of only five known copies of the Gettysburg Address written by Lincoln himself.

A fruit basket used during the John Tyler administration was donated by the family of Mrs. Alfred E. Bates in 1957.

White House Historical Association

Mrs. Eisenhower eagerly approved the donation of a classical mahogany sofa said to have been used in the White Flouse by President James Monroe. As was her custom with gifts of historical significance, she insisted upon writing personally to thank the donor. Thus in September 1956 she wrote to Colonel Theodore Barnes Jr.:

The mahogany French couch which you have graciously given to America by placing it again in the White House is a source of deepest pleasure to all of us who are aware of the importance of such a gift. The sofa will be placed in the Monroe Room where it will highlight furnishings that are also products of the former President’s selection. Because of the beauty and historical significance of this gift, the President and I join the countless people who will profit from your generosity in expressing our most sincere gratitude.21

After it was reupolstered, Mrs. Eisenhower fulfilled her promise to place the sofa in the Monroe Room, a sitting room on the Second Floor of the White House (now called the Treaty Room) established by Lou Hoover and decorated with furnishings associated with the Monroes.22

Mamie Eisenhower’s desire to add antique furnishings to the White House is demonstrated by her acceptance and subsequent use of three large collections donated by brothers William and Shirley Burden, Josephine Boardman Crane, and Margaret Thompson Biddle. She used these new acquisitions to supplement the sparse furnishings of the Truman renovation and sometimes to replace them. In March 1955, the Burdens donated more than sixty items, including furniture, prints, fireplace equipment, and lighting fixtures, that they had inherited from Florham, their grandparents’ c. 1895 New Jersey estate. Because the majority of the donated items were in the style of the late eighteenth century, the Burden gifts may very well have been accepted with the belief that they fit the goal of furnishing the White House in the period of its earliest occupancy. However, most of the objects are late nineteenth-century English adaptations of earlier styles. Mrs. Eisenhower put many of the Burden gifts into immediate use in both the public rooms and the private quarters.

Shortly after the Burden gifts arrived, Josephine Boardman Crane (Mrs. Winthrop Murray Crane) donated twenty Chinese porcelain jars and vases from the estate of her sister, Eleonor Boardman that dated from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries. Mrs. Eisenhower placed most of the Crane gifts on the Second Floor.

In sheer numbers and monetary value, the largest single donation ever given to the White House is believed to be the result of President and Mrs. Eisenhower’s friendship with Margaret Thompson Biddle.23 In 1956, Mrs. Biddle bequeathed her collection of almost 1,600 pieces of vermeil to the White House. The collection of gold-plated silver consists largely of English and French examples dating from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, many of which were made by the finest silversmiths of the period, including Paul Storr and Jean-Baptiste-Claude Odiot. The tight White House budget is revealed in the negotiations over transporting the Biddle collection from her residence in France to Washington, D.C. To avoid paying duty on the $100,000 collection, and because Mrs. Biddle’s executors were not allowed to spend estate funds on shipping, the White House arranged for one of the president’s military aides, Colonel Robert Schulz, to transport the collection on behalf of the president. It was even difficult to secure the $250 in packing charges that were required. While many of the vermeil pieces were quickly pressed into service to hold either food or flowers, a large sampling of the collection was put on display in the Ground Floor Conference Room, now called the Vermeil Room.24

The Eisenhower service plate.

White House Historical Association

Mamie Eisenhower was famous for the great interest she took in the personal lives of everyone she knew, and this proclivity toward personal connections inspired her collecting choices. While she requested that the Commission of Fine Arts advise on what Crim termed the “acceptability” of large or historically significant gifts such as those offered by the Burdens, Mrs. Crane, or Mrs. Biddle, Mrs. Eisenhower approved certain gifts without seeking the commission's counsel. For example, when Esther Clark Rider, a self-described “great admirer” of Mrs. Eisenhower, wrote the first lady directly to offer one of her family heirlooms, a c. 1890 French curio cabinet, Mrs. Eisenhower accepted it for the White House. In her thank you letter to Mrs. Rider, Mrs. Eisenhower wrote, “This cabinet is a little jewel and will bring much pleasure and happiness to us.”25 She placed the cabinet in the private sitting room. In accepting this gift, Mamie Eisenhower was not concerned with notions of historical appropriateness but reacted on a very personal level. Similarly, she accepted a large crocheted handiwork rendering of John Trumbull’s painting The Declaration of Independence from Maiy Peck Dwyer in 1959 simply because she liked it.

The most influential factors in Mrs. Eisenhower’s collecting decisions appear to have been the decorative appeal of an offered gift and its potential use rather than its value as a work of art or conformation to an ideal of a suitable style for the White House. Correspondence between Howell Crim or J. B. West and David Finley, chairman of the Commission of Fine Arts, about potential acquisitions almost always centered on where the item could be placed. If a suitable location could not be identified, the object was declined, sometimes to the regret of the Commission of Fine Arts. Thus offered donations such as an eighteenth-century English comer cabinet, a suite of mid-ninetecnth-century American furniture, and a Louis XVI salon suite were all rejected. In another instance, the White House declined the offer of a museum-quality eighteenth-century bed complete with period hangings due to the fragility of the textiles. Finley often worked to place donations rejected by the White House into other suitable museums or buildings in Washington.

While Mamie Eisenhower was involved in all White House furnishing decisions during her tenure as first lady, she was most interested in the White House china collection. In her 1974 foreword to the book Official White House China, she wrote, “My interest in beautiful tableware began in childhood. I can remember my grandmother’s lovely Haviland china, which she used on formal occasions. My mother’s well-appointed table was a source of pride to her and a pleasure to her family.” As she “began to think of what I could do to add to the enjoyment of those who might pass through” the White House, Mrs. Eisenhower decided to order new ceramics.26

A view of the State Dining Room set for dinner during the Eisenhower administration showing furnishings they acquired, including pier mirrors on the south wall from Josephine Crane, Castleton service plates, and vermeil from the Biddle collection.

White House Historical Association

Because she had limited funds and because the Trumans had ordered a large dinner service near the end of their administration, Mrs. Eisenhower ordered only service plates that could be used in conjunction with the Truman pieces. Obviously pleased with the service plates provided by Castleton, a subsidiary of the Shenango China Company of Pennsylvania, which featured a coin gold border with raised medallions and the presidential seal at center, Mrs. Eisenhower also commissioned Shenango to produce new tableware for the Columbine, the president’s plane.

During President Eisenhower’s second term the first lady shifted her attention to studying the historic White House china and rearranging its exhibition in the China Room. “Shortly after I decided on this project, I realized that professional advice was needed to assure proper identification,” Mrs. Eisenhower recalled.27 Learning that Margaret Brown Klapthor, a curator at the Smithsonian Institution, had recently been researching that museum’s collection of presidential china tor exhibition in the First Ladies’ Hall, Mrs. Eisenhowei solicited her assistance for the White House collection. Klapthor’s research corrected many misattributions and identified gaps in the collections of both the Smithsonian and the White House. Reciprocal loans between the two institutions filled some of these voids, but five administrations remained unrepresented. Mrs. Eisenhower remarked in her foreword to Official White House China, “It seemed sad that these names [Presidents Andrew Johnson, William Howard Taft, Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover] were missing in the White House collection; but since several other presidents were represented by their personal china, I felt that the collection would be enhanced by the addition of china owned by these presidential families.”28

Hoping to attract donations from the unrepresented administrations, the White House alerted the press of the project.29 That September, President Herbert Hoover, the first to respond, donated a set of six plates from family Wedgwood services that had been used at the White House. Donations from the Taft, Coolidge, Harding, and Johnson families arrived in 1959. Mrs. Eisenhower wrote to each family member expressing personal thanks for the contributions to “my favorite White House China Room,” she wrote to Helen Herron Taft Manning.29 “The completion of this room has been very close to my heart,” she wrote to Margaret Johnson Patterson Bartlett, a descendant of Andrew Johnson who traveled to the White House to personally present Mrs. Eisenhower with the Johnson china,30 the donation that completed the collection. Mrs. Eisenhower’s desire to represent each first family in the collection further reflects her personal approach to historic furnishings.

This photograph of the refurbished Diplomatic Reception Room was included in the January 1961 issue of National Geographic. This was the first room in the White Room to be furnished exclusively with antiques and served as an important model for future room refurbishments.

White House Historical Association

The press’s coverage of Mamie Eisenhower’s work with the White House china collection highlights the cultural expectations of the role of first lady. Her activities were repeatedly couched in terms of women’s traditional responsibilities. “Like housewives throughout the country, Mrs. Eisenhower wanted her ‘china closet' in order,” the Washington Star explained.31 Mrs. Eisenhower’s activism on behalf of the White House china collection was portrayed as an extension of her role as a woman and wife, thereby allowing American women to identify with her. Mamie Eisenhower also understood the importance of keeping a relatively low profile in relation to her interest in furnishing the White House. “The dictates of protocol would hardly permit Mrs. Eisenhower to go about begging china from the descendants of these Presidents, or even the President himself, in the case of President Hoover” explained one reporter.32 Mrs. Eisenhower maintained her positive public image in her furnishing work by being seen as contributing to the history of the White House without interfering with its revered traditions or stepping outside her expected role.

The most significant and enduring change made to the White House interiors during the Eisenhower administration was the refurbishing of the Diplomatic Reception Room with fine early nineteenth-century antiques. This project nearly failed before it got under way. The project was the brainchild of Michael Greer, the gifted decorator, then chairman of the Board of Directors of the National Society of Interior Designers (NSID). Greer wrote to Cabinet Secretary Maxwell Rabb in April 1958 proposing “to furnish appropriately the Oval Lobby on the first floor of the White House.”33 His offer was forwarded to Chief Usher J. B. West, who was not sure if Greer meant the Blue Room or the Diplomatic Reception Room. Undoubtedly after conferring with Mrs. Eisenhower, West asked Finley to inform Greer that they felt the furnishings in both rooms were “quite adequate.”34

When the Eisenhowers arrived at the White House, the Diplomatic Reception Room was minimally furnished with newly purchased reproductions from the Kaplan Furniture Company. Mrs. Eisenhower added a number of objects of various styles donated during her tenure, resulting in a less unified effect than its postrenovation appearance. This melange of style inspired Michael Greer to identify it most in need of the NSID’s decorating assistance. From his first interactions with the White House, it was clear that the aggressive Greer was not going to take no for an answer. A little more than a year after his first attempt, he contacted the cabinet secretary, Robert Gray, to press his case again. This time, Finley expressed interest in talking to him if he meant the Diplomatic Reception Room and not the Blue Room. Greer finally got his desired meeting with Finley and West on February 1, 1960.

The unveiling of the refurbished Diplomatic Reception Room, June 29, 1960. Beneath the portrait of Angelica Singleton Van Buren, which came to the White House in 1890, and among antique furniture newly acquired, President and Mrs. Eisenhower join Michael Greer and Dora Brahams of the National Society of Interior Designers.

Dwight D. Eisenhower Library

Finley was encouraging of the proposal, and Greer was clearly eager to get started. However, West left a message for Finley a few days after their meeting to report that he had discussed Greer’s proposal with Mrs. Eisenhower. “Since it is so near the end of the president’s term of office, she would prefer to have nothing done at this time. She thinks that any changes should be left for the next First Lady,” West reported. Finley and possibly West appear to have disagreed with the first lady, as Finley noted on the bottom of this message, “Mr. West will talk further with Mrs. Eisenhower.”35

West and Finley succeeded in convincing Mrs. Eisenhower to accept the NSID’s proposal. When he wrote to Greer on March 3, 1960, West felt the need to remind Greer that “all plans and furnishings must be approved by the White House and the Commission of Fine Arts.” Greer’s presumptions and ambitious timetable had apparently already upset West and Finley, as West continued, “It might therefore save future embarrassment if all plans were submitted to the Commission in the preliminary stages for tentative approval.”36 Greer thus began attending the commission’s monthly meetings to report on the project.
Tensions grew throughout the spring as the broad project progressed and the scope of Greer’s ambitions became clearer. At the end of April, West called the commission offices to express his concern for the “magnitude which Mr. Greer’s plan for the decoration of the Diplomatic Reception Room is taking.” West felt that “Mr. Greer is going too far and too fast” and was worried that Mrs. Eisenhower “might not be pleased with the elaborateness of the plans, which in their initial stages gave no indication of involving so much.” He indicated that “there is also a great danger of getting the room too splendid for its place in the White House routine.”37

Design struggles also emerged as Greer resisted suggestions from both the Commission of Fine Arts and Mrs. Eisenhower. In April, David Finley wrote Greer of the commission’s doubt about the chandelier that Greer had proposed, questioning whether a chandelier was necessary with such a low ceiling. Nevertheless, in his May 2 proposal addressed to the President and Mrs. Eisenhower, Greer included plans for a chandelier. Ultimately, no chandelier was installed. Mrs. Eisenhower personally objected to the “French gray” paint sample that Greer had submitted for the walls and instead requested a “bone white” color.38 Greer never accepted this decision, continuing to press his case for French gray walls well into the Kennedy administration.

Since it is so near the end of the president’s term of office, she would prefer to have nothing done at this time. She thinks that any changes should be left for the next First Lady

— Chief Usher J. B. West

Although not complete, the room was unveiled to the press on June 29, 1960, with President and Mrs. Eisenhower, Michael Greer, and Dora Brahms of the NSID all in attendance. Greer had placed the elegant Federal-era furnishings, primarily made in New England and New York, into small conversation groupings. The photographers in attendance captured Mrs. Eisenhower admiring the new furnishings and the next day the Washington Post published one such image of Mrs. Eisenhower captioned “Proud Housewife.” While Mrs. Eisenhower was pleased to add historically appropriate antiques to the White House, she also made it clear that such additions to the White House must be practical. During the event, Mrs. Eisenhower asked Greer to move two of his carefully arranged chairs to make the room more functional for her family. As the Post reported, after complimenting the color of fabric on the chairs:

she turned housewife and with a few sharp glances around the room suggested to Michael Greer, president of the professional organization, that the two arm chairs be moved away from the fireplace setting to make more room for picture-taking. “We use this side of the room more than the other,” she explained, “because we often have pictures taken in front of the fireplace. So if we could put these chairs some place else to have a little more space, it would be better.” Greer gallantly moved the two chairs across the room to make a conversation grouping with the sofa.39

Working within traditional parameters as the “housewife” of the White House, Mamie Eisenhower asserted her control over all aspects of White House furnishings during her tenure.

Betty Monkman has written about the 1960 refurbishment of the Diplomatic Reception Room, “This gift of furnishings from the period of the building of the White House and its earliest occupancy was the first successful attempt to furnish a room in the White House with American antiques of the highest quality, and it set a precedent for Jacqueline Kennedy’s efforts in the early 1960s to bring a historic character to the house.”40 It is difficult to know exactly how great of an influence this refurbishment had on Mrs. Kennedy’s comprehensive vision for a White House completely furnished with period antiques and whether she would have devised such a plan without this inspiration. At the very least, the project illustrated again at an important juncture the potential of using outside donors to furnish the White House with the type of high-quality antiques for which the United States government was never willing to pay. Mamie Eisenhower certainly deserves credit for supporting this important project, but her discomfort during the process and her reaction to its unveiling make it clear that, even if the project had taken place much earlier in her tenure, she never would have undertaken the type of refurbishing campaign that Jacqueline Kennedy carried out. As housewife of the White House, Mrs. Eisenhower defined the scope carefully. She believed it her responsibility to create a comfortable home and a gracious setting for the entertaining requisite to her husband’s position. Thus caring for the existing White House furnishings and acquiring beautiful and historic new objects for the house were part of her job as first lady.

This article was originally published in White House History Number 21

Footnotes & Resources

  1. "The White House Redecorated,” Life, July 7. 1952, 47.
  2. Quoted in William Seale, The President's House: A History (Washington, D.C.: White House Historical Association, with the cooperation of the National Geographic Society. 1986), 2:1040.
  3. Ibid.. 2:1038-45: Betty C. Monkman, “The White House Collection: The Truman Interiors,” White House History, no. 5: 58-61.
  4. "White House Redecorated.” 47.
  5. Bess Furman, "Keeping House at the White House,” New York Times, December 28, 1952, SM7.
  6. This $680,000 was originally part of an even larger appropriation for SI,650,000 that was to include an expansion of the West Wing, but public outcry caused Congress to eliminate funding for this project. See Seale, President's House, 2:1006-10; Elizabeth Beard Goldsmith, "Tempest in a Teapot: Truman’s Failed Attempt at an Office Addition,” White House History, no. 5 (Spring 1999): 13-22. The $680,000 appropriation had included the traditional $50,000 furnishings money for President and Mrs. Truman, but this money (and then some) had been spent almost immediately. The S680.000 appropriation also ended up covering costs for the Truman Balcony. Office of the Curator, The White House, Washington, D.C.
  7. J. B. West to Dwight D. Eisenhower, June 25, 1958. Office of the Curator, The White House.
  8. J. B. West and Mary Lynn Kotz, Upstairs at the White House: My Life with the First Ladies (New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1973), 139.
  9. See Susan Eisenhower, Mrs. Ike: Memories and Reflections on the Life of Mamie Eisenhower (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996), 61-62.
  10. Lester David and Irene David, Ike and Mamie: The Story of the GeneraI and His Lady (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1981), 270. The authors write that Mamie stated that she and Ike lived in thirty- seven separate residences while they were married. If Gettysburg Farm was their thirty-seventh home, then the White House would have been their thirty-sixth. The authors note that Mamie’s count reflected temporary lodgings (including hotels) and by their count, the White House was the Eisenhowers' twentieth residence.
  11. West and Kotz. Upstairs at the White House, 130.
  12. Susan Eisenhower, Mrs. Ike, 283.
  13. West and Kotz, Upstairs at the White House. 139-40.
  14. Susan Eisenhower, Mrs. Ike, 4.
  15. Ibid.. 257-58; David and David. Ike and Mamie, 175-76.
  16. Dwight D. Eisenhower, At Ease: Stories I Tell to Friends (Garden City. N.Y.: Doubleday, 1967), 359.
  17. Susan Eisenhower, Mrs. Ike, 283.
  18. West and Kotz, Upstairs at the White House, 139-40.
  19. Daniel Varney Thompson to Harry S. Truman, August 15, 1952, Office of the Curator, The White House.
  20. Mary Jane McCaffree to R. D. Muir, February 16, 1954. Office of the Curator, The White House.
  21. Mamie Eisenhower to Colonel Theodore Barnes Jr., September 11, 1956, Office of the Curator, The White House.
  22. The James Monroe Law Library in Fredericksburg, Virginia, owns six armchairs that appear to match this sofa. Two additional matching armchairs and a sidechair were recently purchased at auction by Ash Lawn-Highland, Monroe’s home in Charlottesville, Virginia.
  23. See Susan Eisenhower, Mrs. Ike, 293; Betty C. Monkman, The White House: Its Historic Furnishings and First Families (Washington, D.C., and New York: White House Historical Association and Abbeville Press. 2000), 224. It is unclear exactly when Mrs. Biddle included the clause in her will that directed that her vermeil collection be given to the White House. A 1958 article in the Washington Star quotes Mrs. Biddle's daughter as saying that her mother decided to leave her collection to the White House during one of her many visits to the White House, but it is unclear whether this was before or during the Eisenhower administration. “White House Gets Famed Collection,” Washington Star, January 17, 1958. Margaret Biddle's probated will is dated October 16, 1954. but it is not known whether any earlier versions of her will made the same bequest. Susan Tell, New York State Surrogate Court, e-mail message to author, October 6, 2006.
  24. Files on the Biddle donation. Office of the Curator, the White House.
  25. Esther Clark Rider to Mamie Eisenhower, October 19, 1956; Mamie Eisenhow er to Esther Clark Rider, November 20, 1956, Office of the Curator, The White House.
  26. Mamie Eisenhower, foreword to Margaret Brown Klapthor, Official White House China: 1789 to the Present. 2nd ed. (New York: Harry N. Abrams. 1999), 7.
  27. Ibid.
  28. Ibid.
  29. Margaret Brown Klapthor. "White House China Room." June 1958. Office of the Curator, The White House / Mamie Eisenhower to Mrs. Frederick [Helen Herron Taft] Manning, April 11, 1959. Office of the Curator, The White House.
  30. Mamie Eisenhower to Margaret Johnson Patterson Bartlett, April 30, 1959. Office of the Curator, the White House.
  31. Daisy Cleland. “The White House China Collection Is Unique. Colorful and Complete,” Washington Star, c. May 10, 1959, Office of the Curator, The White House.
  32. Daisy Cleland. “Completion of White House Collection of China Near with Offers from Presidents’ Relatives,” Washington Star, September28, 1958. Dl.
  33. Michael Greer to Maxwell Rabb, April 16, 1958. Record Group 66, Records of the Commission of Fine Arts. Central Files. Series 7A. National Archives, Washington, D.C.
  34. West to David Finley, June 30. 1958, ibid.
  35. SEB [unidentified staff member at the Commission of Fine Arts] to Finley, February 5, 1960, ibid.
  36. West to Greer. March 3, 1960. Office of the Curator, The White House.
  37. Linton Wilson to Finley. April 21, 1960, Record Group 66. Records of the Commission of Fine Arts, Central Files, Series 7A, National Archives.
  38. West, notes on meeting of Commission of Fine Arts in the Diplomatic Reception Room, May 17, 1960. Office of the Curator. The White House.
  39. Patricia Griffith, "Mamie Accepts Antiques,” Washington Post, June 30, 1960. C20.
  40. Monkman, White House, 226.

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