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The Lincoln Bedroom: Refurbishing a Famous White House Room

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The Lincoln Bedroom, 2005. The massive bed—rosewood and rosewood-paint-grained walnut—was accompanied by a handsome marble-topped center table made by the New York shop of John Henry Belter.

The White House Historical Association

President Abraham Lincoln's office and Cabinet Room––the large southeast room on the Second Floor of the White House––has been called the Lincoln Bedroom since 1945, when President Harry S. Truman directed that Lincoln-era furnishings be assembled there. In the Truman renovation of the White House (1949-52), only the muted Brussels-style carpet gave a reasonably appropriate design context for the celebrated suite of bedroom furniture acquired by the president's wife Mary Todd Lincoln in 1861.

The addition of a mid-nineteenth-century gaslight chandelier and Victorian-style draperies in the 1970s weighted the decor more toward the Lincoln era. Still, much of what President Truman had provided in 1952 was intact after fifty years when, in January 2002, First Lady Laura Bush expressed an interest in refurbishing the Lincoln Bedroom along historical lines.

As part of the private quarters, the Lincoln Bedroom is not technically a State or official room. Therefore funding its decoration and furnishing is outside the purview of the Committee for the Preservation of the White House, which was created in 1964 to advise on the maintenance of the museum character of the State Rooms; nor is it eligible for the funds provided for the public rooms by the White House Endowment Trust, which is managed by the White House Historical Association. Yet over time the Lincoln Bedroom has achieved the status of a State Room, being as famous as any on the State Floor or the Ground Floor, and as the Lincoln bicentennial was approaching, the White House Historical Association agreed in 2002 to finance a historical refurbishing project, the character of which was to be determined by Mrs. Bush, the preservation committee, and an expert subcommittee that helped with the planning.

Two separate channels of historical evidence were available for the refurbishing project. A few annotated drawings and photographs of the room in use as Lincoln's office helped document the carpeting and wall covering, both in green and yellow. A description of what was then known as the Prince of Wales Room, down the hall, where the furniture had originally been installed by Mrs. Lincoln, indicated the use of purple bed hangings and yellow draperies. The refurbishing project was based on these sources.

Fortunately, the May 12, 1862, issue of a San Francisco newspaper called the Daily Alta California described both Lincoln's office and the Prince of Wales Room. Of the office it said: "very neatly papered, but should be better furnished. All the furniture is exceedingly old, and is too ricketty to venerate".1 A familiar image of the office is an 1866 engraving entitled The First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation Before the Cabinet by Alexander Ritchie, after the painting by artist Francis B. Carpenter now in the U.S. Capitol. Carpenter created the painting while he worked and lived in the White House for six months in 1864, so he knew the room firsthand. Even more important for the refurbishing project were Carpenter's study sketches and the photographs taken in the Cabinet Room at his direction by Anthony Berger of Mathew Brady's studio on April 26, 1864. Of similar specific relevance is an October 1864 drawing of the Lincolns office by C. K. Stellwagen.2

The Lincoln bed in the 1870s sported hangings that may be the purple ones selected by Mrs. Lincoln in 1861.

White House Collection

Stellwagen's drawing housed in the collections of the Western Reserve Historical Society and Carpenter's painting rather schematically suggest that the carpet in the room had a large diamond pattern. Greater detail appears in one of Berger's photographs. Stellwagen noted on this drawing that the carpet was dark green with buff figure in diamonds, and on one of his sketches Carpenter had noted that the patterned stripes were dark green, creating a grid centering medallions described as yellow. This carpet was presumably the 119H yards of G&O Wilton provided for the presidents office in 1861 by the New York City department store, Alexander T. Stewart & Co.3

For the refurbishing project, White House curators returned to files on the carpet from 1995, when then curator Betty C. Monkman had consulted with rug specialist John Burrows about the possibility of deriving a carpet design from the 1864 documentation. Burrows had extrapolated a bold design from one of Berger's photographs, but a carpet was not commissioned at the time. Now Burrows was able to provide computer-generated images. It was surmised that the G&O in the accounts stood for the period colors green and oak, so brown was among the colors selected for the new carpet and gold yarns were chosen for the yellow or buff elements. To enliven the design and complement the proposed bed hangings, purple was introduced as well. Small woven hand trials were used to help make the final design decisions.

In as much as the original Wilton carpet probably would have been made in England, it was decided that that the new carpet should be made by the venerable English firm of Woodward & Grosvenor, specialist in reproduction rugs and possessor of a vast archives of historic rug designs and actual point papers to help assure accuracy. The carpeting was produced in its original Wilton or cut-pile form, woven in traditional 27-inch-wide strips, hand-sewn together, and fitted wall-to-wall.

The Lincoln Bedroom evolves. This 1889 view of the northwest corner of the room shows the Lincoln-period mantel in detail.

Library of Congress

The documentation indicates that the walls of Lincoln's office were covered in wallpaper colored green and gold. Decorative arts scholar Richard Nylander, a member of the subcommittee and chief curator of Historic New England, identified in his institutions large collection of wallpapers a fragment of a very similar period paper—dark green with a gilt grid and medallions trimmed in purple and red. This fragment provided a model very similar in design to the documentation; to better suit a functioning bedroom, the green field color was changed to yellow in a block printed paper.

The suite of bedroom furniture now used in the Lincoln Bedroom was one of Mrs. Lincoln's many and often costly acquisitions of household furnishings for the White House. The massive bed––rosewood and rosewood-paint-grained walnut––was accompanied by a handsome marble-topped center table made by the famous New York shop of John Henry Belter, known for using strong, bendable laminated rosewood, and by a chest of drawers and a set of chairs also attributed to Belter.

View of the Lincoln Bedroom furniture as Theodore Roosevelt used it in the master bedroom, honoring the bed's tradition with gilded cornice and hangings.

White House Collection

Of this room the Daily Alta California said:

The principal feature of the room is the bed. It is eight feet wide and nine feet long, of solid rosewood. The sides are cushioned and covered with purple figured satin. The headboard is a piece of rich carved work, rising eight feet above the bed, and having an oval top. Twenty feet above the floor, overspreading the whole, is a magnificent canopy, from the upper carved work of which the drapery hangs in elegant folds, being in the form of a crown, the front ornament upon which is the American shield with the Stars and Stripes carved thereon. The drapery is a rich purple satin fringe, and otherwise ornamented with finest gold lace. The carved work is adorned with gold gilt. The curtains to the room are made of the finest gold damask, and trimmed to correspond with the canopy. The centre table is of solid carved rose-wood, is quite costly, and exceedingly beautiful.

With the bed as the focal point of the Lincoln Bedroom, one fascinating prospect was to re-create the demilune gilded bed cornice or corona from which the purple hangings and lace curtains had been suspended. Used with the Lincoln bed in the bedroom of President and Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt, it was later used also by Edith Wilson (1915-21) over a bed she owned personally and again with the Lincoln bed by Grace Coolidge (1923-26). When the Coolidge bed hangings were destroyed in 1928, it seems likely that the bed cornice was destroyed as well.

The Lincoln Bedroom evolves. Southwest view, shows the room as President Truman completed it in 1952.

White House Collection

Bedrooms at the west end of the Second Floor have higher ceilings than those at the east end, so the proportions of the hangings had to be adjusted. The shield on the bed cornice is repeated across the room on a similar shield in the cresting of the newly installed rococo revival mirror purchased for the Green Room by President Franklin Pierce in 1853. Old photographs taken in the White House revealed large gilded window cornices that were clearly related to the bed cornice, so they were reproduced accordingly. A rich yellow silk brocatelle of a mid-nineteenth-century pattern and color was selected to hang from them, consisting of panels trimmed with purple and gold bullion fringe and open- scroll braid. These were topped by valence-like swags of cords and tassels, in yellow and purple, matching those on the purple silk bed hangings, designed to closely follow the documents the Carpenter sketches, the Stellwagen drawing, and an 1858 fashion plate advertising merchandise for W. H. Carry l, the firm that provided the Lincoln White House with the bedroom suite of furniture and some draperies. 5

Nearly all the furniture used in the room prior to the current refurbishing was returned. A rosewood dressing chest of undetermined acquisition but long used with the Lincoln suite was kept in the room and placed against the north wall. A large walnut wardrobe was conserved to hold one modern device, a television. Used with the Lincoln suite since 1930, a slant-front desk transferred from the Soldiers Home in Washington, D.C., the Lincoln summer White House has a history of having been used there by President Lincoln when drafting the Emancipation Proclamation. An oak armchair from a set made for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1857 and of a type often used in Mathew Brady's photographs remains as the desk chair. The marble-topped center tables flanking the bed were made by Anthony Quervelle of Philadelphia and purchased by Andrew Jackson for the East Room in 1829.

Highlights of the room are objects documented as having been used by President Lincoln. Four Gothic Revival walnut side chairs, of a type clearly identifiable in the Carpenter painting, are the only ones remaining from the set used around President Lincoln's cabinet table; three of these were installed in the bedroom, one in the Lincoln Sitting Room. Acquired in 1846 in the Polk administration, they were made by J.& J. W. Meeks of New York. On the new white marble mantel, carved from photographs of the 1853 mantel Lincoln knew in the room (removed in 1902, location unknown), stands a French portico mantel clock purchased for the nearby waiting room in 1833 under President Andrew Jackson but used on the mantel in President Lincoln's office.

The Lincoln Bedroom evolves. The image shows the room in the 1990s as it was before the Bush restoration.

White House Collection

In Lincoln's time, a portrait of President Andrew Jackson had hung above that clock, attributed to Miner Kilbourne Kellogg (1814-1889), c. 1840. It now hangs above one doorway. Among the other artwork retained in the room is the 1866 engraving, The First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation Before the Cabinet, after the painting by Francis B. Carpenter and a miniature of Lincoln and his youngest son Tad by Carpenter that was inspired by a photograph taken in the artists presence by Anthony Berger in February 1864. Other portraits of Lincoln displayed in the room include Lincoln, The Ever-Sympathetic by Stephen Arnold Douglas Volk, 1931; a bronze statue by Jeno Juszko, 1925, that portrays President Lincoln in a relaxed, seated pose echoed in the depiction of him in the First Reading engraving; and an 1866 print by William Edgar Marshall, one of the most widely distributed and best known post-Civil War works, this example having once been owned by Frederick Douglass.

On the rooms north wall hangs Watch Meeting Dec. 31st 1862 Waiting for the Hour by William Tolman Carlton, an oil on canvas that depicts slaves and friends waiting for midnight on December 31, 1862, when the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect. It is a study for a painting sent to Abraham Lincoln by abolitionist leader William Lloyd Garrison. The Republican Court in the Days of Lincoln, by Peter Frederick Rothermel, c. 1867, is an imaginary scene of a reception in the East Room showing President and Mrs. Lincoln, Vice President Andrew Johnson, members of the cabinet, and prominent Union officers, including Generals Winfield Scott, Ulysses S. Grant, and William Tecumseh Sherman was probably intended to be a model for an engraving. At no time did all of these leaders ever assemble in the White House.

The refurbishing of the Lincoln Bedroom and the adjoining sitting room, with strong period decor derived and adapted from the historical evidence of the Lincoln era, was completed in November 2005.

The French portico mantel clock was purchased under President Andrew Jackson and used in President Lincoln's office. The mantel was reproduced from late nineteenth-century photos showing the 1853 mantel Lincoln would have known in the room.

The White House Historical Association