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Rubenstein Center Scholarship

The Chandeliers of the East Room

An Illuminating History

  • Matthew Costello Chief Education Officer, The Marlyne Sexton Chair in White House History, Director of the David M. Rubenstein National Center for White House History

A black and white photograph of the East Room, ca. 1869.

White House Collection

After ascending the staircase from the Ground Floor to the State Floor, the first room that visitors on a tour of the White House encounter is the East Room. As the largest room in the Executive Mansion, it has accommodated weddings, funerals, State Dinners, and much more, but during the nineteenth century it was primarily used as a reception space for the guests of the president and first lady. As the first family’s social and ceremonial obligations grew, the increasing number of evening events at the White House coincided with the advancement of lighting technology. This ensured that the president and his guests could enjoy their meals, conversations, and dancing well into the night.

The interior of the East Room was not completed until 1829. As a result, early administrations seldom used the unfinished space for entertaining guests. President John Adams and First Lady Abigail Adams famously used the room for hanging their wash. Argand lamps and candles provided flickers of light to residents and servants whenever they entered the dark space, but until the room’s completion there was no immediate need for a large lighting system. President Andrew Jackson, who oversaw the finishing of the East Room, ordered several glass chandeliers that burned candles; he later requested that small lard-oil lamps replace the candles because they produced greater illumination for a longer period time. In 1848,President James K. Polk oversaw the piping of gas lines into the White House, insisting that all State Floor chandeliers harness the new technology. Since more traditional means of illumination—candles, oil, and lard—were often the cause of destructive fires, gas was considered a safer lighting alternative.1

A black and white photograph of the East Room decorated for Nellie Grant's wedding. Nellie married Algernon Sartoris in the East Room on May 21, 1874.

National Archives and Records Administration

In 1873-74, President Ulysses S. Grant requested a thorough redecoration of the East Room in a Victorian décor befitting the extravagance of the Gilded Age. The centerpieces of this project were three immense crystal gasoliers that replaced Jackson’s light fixtures. Each chandelier contained 38 globe burners, along with thousands of cut-glass pieces and prism beads.2 The president offered the newly refurbished room to his daughter Nellie for her wedding, which took place on May 21, 1874. One correspondent for the Chicago Tribune praised the East Room’s white and gold finish, elegant lace draperies, and “crystal chandeliers with three tiers of burners,” which “were lighted and handsomely decorated” for the joyous occasion.3 The gasoliers were eventually supplemented with additional ceiling fixtures during the administration of Benjamin Harrison, but these featured a new lighting technology: electricity. The Edison General Company of New York installed electrical wiring in the State, War, and Navy Building (today’s Eisenhower Executive Office Building) as well as the Executive Mansion. While the Harrisons permitted the electrical illumination of the White House, both refused to touch any of the round switches, fearing possible electrocution.4

A black and white photograph of the East Room before a musical performance during the Calvin Coolidge administration, ca. 1928.

The White House

The globe gasoliers remained in the East Room until the Theodore Roosevelt renovation in 1902. The president’s architects McKim, Mead & White contracted Edward F. Caldwell and Company to supply new lighting fixtures that would complement their Beaux-Arts motif. Caldwell secured three enormous three-tier electric chandeliers from Christoph Palme & Company in Bohemia (Austria-Hungary). These fixtures featured thousands of cut-glass pieces, imitation candles, and were ornamented in glided brass.5 After the renovation was completed, President Roosevelt and First Lady Edith Roosevelt hosted the first event of the social season, a dinner for Cabinet members and their spouses in December 1902. According to one account, the East Room with its “walls of white carved wood and golden yellow window hangings” were brilliantly illuminated by the “thousands of electric lights” of the new crystal chandeliers.6 Less than a year later, a correspondent for the Washington Post remarked that the “immense chandeliers” were “overshadowing and out of proportion,” thus “it has been determined to have them cut down.”7 Meanwhile the outdated gasoliers were repurposed and later installed in various committee rooms in the United States Capitol Building.8

Workmen reinstall one of the East Room chandeliers toward the end of the 1948-1952 Truman renovation.

Abbie Rowe,National Park Service

During the 1948-1952 Truman renovation, the three chandeliers were removed from the White House, shorted once again, and modified to receive electricity from the new White House electrical system. Despite these two instances of chandelier pruning, each fixture presently contains nearly 6,000 pieces of glass and weighs around 1,200 pounds.9 They were reinstalled in the East Room where they remain today, shining light upon visitors, heads of state, and distinguished guests. While many tend to focus more on the history of the White House and its occupants, the chandeliers of the East Room serve as an enlightening reminder that everything in the Executive Mansion possesses its own unique history and story.

This photograph shows the East Room during the Bill Clinton administration.

White House Historical Association