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 Dwight Eisenhower and First Lady Mamie 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.