Featured The Life and Presidency of Harry S. Truman
The White House Historical Association’s 2018 White House Christmas Ornament honors Harry S. Truman, the thirty-third president of the United St...
During the nineteenth century, a series of “state dinners” were held every winter social season to honor Congress, the Supreme Court, and members of the diplomatic community. In recent times, the term “state dinner” has come to mean more specifically a dinner hosted by the president honoring a foreign head of state as the guest of honor. The State Dining Room, which now seats as many as 140 guests, was originally much smaller and served at various times as a drawing room, office, and Cabinet Room. Not until the Andrew Jackson administration was it called the “State Dining Room,” although previous presidents had used it for formal dinners. In early times, this room was called simply the “company dining-room” to distinguish it from the Family Dining Room across the hall.1
Today’s State Dining Room incorporates the space that President Thomas Jefferson used as a private office. Tall and generously proportioned, the room had fireplaces on the east and west and was flooded with daylight through tall south and west windows. When President and Mrs. James Madison took residence in 1809, the room became an art gallery and dining area. They displayed Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of George Washington, now in the East Room, on its walls. Mrs. Madison rescued the painting before the British arrived to burn the house in 1814.
As early as 1856 a reporter wrote that the State Dining Room was too small for the number of congressmen,
President Rutherford B. Hayes and Lucy Hayes abstained from alcohol and often served soft drinks instead of liquor at White House dinners and receptions. By the close of the Hayes administration in 1881, teas had become a central part of White House entertaining and Lucy Hayes had acquired the nickname “Lemonade Lucy.”4
President Chester Arthur commissioned Associated Artists, of which Louis Comfort Tiffany was a partner, to make over the house in 1882. By far the greatest cost in the State Dining Room was Tiffany’s artistic painting. The walls were painted in many shades and textures of yellow and highlighted in silver. The Century Magazine in 1884 commented “the State Dining-room, only used when large companies are entertained at dinner—[is] a rather chilling apartment in spite of the glowing yellows Mr. Tiffany has given to the walls.”5
During the 1902 renovation, President Theodore Roosevelt greatly enlarged the State Dining Room. The current woodwork, eagle side pedestal tables, chairs, and lighting fixtures remain from the 1902 renovation. The reconstructed State Dining Room included paneled walls of oak, silver electric light fixtures, a great stone fireplace mantel, and window treatments of green velvet. Flemish tapestries of the sixteenth century, illustrating passages from “Eclogues of Virgil” harmonized with the oak and the richly carved cornice was ornamented with heads of moose, deer, and other animals from American hunting grounds.6 In 1909, Roosevelt ordered the carvings on the main stone mantel to be changed from lions to North American bison heads. Architect Glenn Brown, the superintendent of the McKim, Mead and White renovation of the White House, described the finished room as “a stately hall of the English Renaissance” that had replaced “a State Dining Room [that] had been decorated and furnished like one of the better-class boarding houses so well-known in Washington.”7
Changes to the State Dining Room were minor for several decades after 1902. The thirteen game trophies—bought from a New York City collector and dealer and not bagged from President Roosevelt’s hunts as many visitors assumed—were removed during the Harding Administration. In the final year of World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered John Adams’ famous blessing carved on the stone fireplace of the State Dining Room where it can be seen today. On November 2, 1800, Adams wrote to his wife:
“I pray Heaven to bestow the best of Blessings on this House and on all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but honest and wise Men ever
under this roof.” rule
Franklin D. Roosevelt also hung George P. A. Healy’s 1869 portrait of Abraham Lincoln, donated to the White House in 1939, above the mantel where it remains today. In 1948 Harry S. Truman appointed a Commission on the Renovation of the Executive Mansion that decided to retain the original walls, the third floor, and the roof, while removing and then reinstalling the interiors within a skeleton of steel structural beams on a new concrete foundation. Of the state floor rooms, only the State Dining Room walls were reinstalled, but then were painted a light celadon green to hide damage marks and a new black marble mantel was installed.
In 1962, the Kennedys had a replica of the 1902 mantel, complete with bison heads and the Adams’ quote, installed in the State Dining Room and painted the walls ivory white as part of an extensive program to revive the historic character of the White House.
The State Dining Room has been refurbished many times in its history, often with new rugs, draperies, and upholstery fabric. The last refurbishment was in 1998 and by 2010, the rugs needed to be replaced, so in 2012 new rugs were custom-made to a new design.
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