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...
Theodore Roosevelt’s remodeling of the White House in 1902 transformed it from a crazy quilt of alterations over time into a cohesive statement of modern times. Of course the historic original house prevailed. That it be kept was central to the stated concept of “restoration” that architect Charles F. McKim laid before the president and first lady. The familiar White House image was to be the wrapping for a new package. The relic was to be refined outside and improved within. By such an objective, the modern needs of a presidential headquarters were met without compromising a revered symbol. Indeed, the symbol itself was probably more clearly defined after McKim than it had ever been before.
McKim and his colleague Glenn Brown, Washington architect and secretary of the American Institute of Architects, had studied the house from every angle.1 They appreciated its noble past—the house of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln. In their minds’ eyes they pared it back to the original, removing added greenhouses on the west, old gas lamps installed on the columns, and other intrusions on the Georgian purity originally ordered by George Washington. With these things stripped away, they could build. They decided to leave the one of Jefferson’s wings that survived, that on the west, beneath the “unsightly” glass houses, and to rebuild the other on the east. Then McKim could say that with these chaste horizontal thrusts, “the cup had its saucer.”2 The renovation of the White House began at that moment.
If the exterior fit rather well into the definition of “restoration,” the interior was quite another matter. In many respects, except for size, the interior of the White House had been more an American house than the Georgian country house it seemed. The plan, much simplified from that of the original model, Leinster House in Dublin, Ireland, is only somewhat like similar houses in the British Isles; it is less complex, being without antechambers, an abundance of private stairs, small corridors, or ceremonial galleries, and it is much more open in the flow from room to room. Although protected during its construction by President Washington, the rising house had also felt the attention of committees. To save money, planned marble floors, for example, had been omitted in favor of wood. The basement groin vaulting that would have supported the marble was too far along to change, so it was built. When McKim first saw the arches, they were covered with layers of grease and whitewash, a canopy over a dark, alleyway hall between kitchens and storage rooms. At its worst it smelled of the butcher shop and fish market; at its best, toward the west end, it savored of spices.
The walls of all the rooms were plaster, without ornament. Rather handsome crown cornicing in composition was in place, most of it much altered by 1902, yet it was not extraordinary. What was not plaster inside was nearly entirely of wood. A gangly, creaky staircase rose at the west end of the great Cross Hall. A babel of some 23 marble mantelpieces, and a few of wood, adorned the chimneys of the main rooms of that same number. Most of them were white, but some in brown, black, and a few pink, the majority with arched openings fitted for coal, to supplement the steam-heat radiators. Wall-to-wall carpeting or straw matting covered every floor but the Entrance Hall, itself laid in encaustic tiles set in a bed of mortar laid directly onto the wood floor. The carpet patterns were many and intricate, rivaling only the countless designs of wallpapers and textures of lace, damask, velvet, and brocade that hung heavily at the windows.3
Admirers of Victorian decorative arts—and there were those even in 1902—might point out Louis Comfort Tiffany’s hall screen of murky red, white, and blue art glass. They might acknowledge the well-maintained, homey, and “American” look of the tasseled parlors and expanses of rich color, the gaslight buried in overhead showers of glass and brass. Surely they would open the French doors to the conservatory, where whiffs of roses, orchids, sweet olive, and other fragrances were almost intoxicating, and snow, fallen on the glass roof, could be seen upward through palm and banana trees.
It was all of this that McKim stripped away. He rethought the house and its functions. Within the familiar building, keeping its romance, he made the White House work for the young head of state of the newly international nation President William McKinley had bequeathed to his successor. Roosevelt’s job was to convey to the American people the meaning of the new presidency, more powerful and evident than it had been since Washington’s time. The White House was not the least element in what was to be a memorable performance.
The White House McKim studied had been, essentially, a two-story house with a basement below that and an attic above. Since installation of the elevator in 1882, the latter had not been accessible, and we have briefly experienced the basement’s grime. McKim needed space. He needed to honor the flow of thousands of callers, who needed accommodation while remaining aware that they were in a house of state. On the other hand, he needed to solve two other problems of the house: it could no longer accommodate home and office entirely on the second floor. On the east was the president’s office, with 30 men reporting to work six days a week. The west end was the family quarters of eight rooms including a large oval room immediately above the Blue Room but not as elegantly proportioned. Either office or residence had to go.
McKim’s solution was to move the office out and take those rooms that had served as presidential offices since James Monroe’s time for family spaces. The office was placed in a new building on the west end of the west terrace or wing. Initially called the Temporary Executive Office, the new building, which was to be known eventually as the West Wing, was carefully designated as being for the office and staff of the secretary to the president, not the president himself. The president had a “workroom” adjacent to the secretary’s office, and adjacent to this was the cabinet’s meeting room, separated by folding doors. The Oval Office was not to come until 1909 with President William Howard Taft.4 Roosevelt had repeated problems with members of Congress who refused to meet with him in the Temporary Executive Office. Most of his official meetings were thus held in the sanctity of the White House, upstairs in his book-lined study.5
Meanwhile the basement of the White House proper became the ground floor. Sprawling banquet and family kitchens were united into one efficient modern kitchen on the northwest. Servants were moved to the attic, their basement rooms taken over, and the storage rooms were emptied, to be redesigned and fitted as powder rooms and the like. The oval furnace room beneath the Blue Room became the Diplomatic Reception Room, a special entrance meant to honor the diplomatic rank of those who entered the house.
Now the basement was served by a new entrance in the reconstructed East Wing, which contained a coatroom, a gallery, and a circular driveway. It was an elegant entrance for White House social occasions. Guests passed from carriages into the long gallery, then beneath the house in the basement, now resplendent with its groin arches magnificent under coats of stark white plaster. Rest rooms were off the corridor, and a stair rose there to a vestibule that, to the right, gave into the East Room, and to the left, into the Entrance Hall. This new and newfound space solved a lot of problems about convenience while removing the need for comfort facilities from the state floor.
It was the state floor that McKim and his advisers reserved for the most dramatic treatment. Everyday function moved aside, this could be the gala area for which it was intended. The old grand stair was removed, its space incorporated into the adjacent dining room, making a large room that could seat more than a hundred guests. A new grand stair with iron railings was built where a secondary stair had been, but opening differently, near the main door to the East Room. Tiffany’s screen vanished, along with the gas chandeliers and brackets and other articles of that past America.
Mrs. Roosevelt was very much involved in the interior decoration. All fabrics and furniture passed her approval. Francis Bacon, an architect at A. H. Davenport, the famous Boston furniture manufacturer, doubtless advised her, as he did on all the McKim, Mead & White projects that used Davenport, and they nearly all did. Among the Davenport Papers are sketches for the great marble-topped consoles still used in the dining room, supported by carved American eagles; a four-poster bed, “Colonial” style is also labeled “White House.” For the Blue Room, Leon Marcotte of New York made copies, somewhat enlarged, of furniture in the signature style of Pierre Bellangé, from whom President Monroe had purchased furniture for the room after the reconstruction of the White House in 1817. The cobalt blue silk used on the walls passed muster with Edith Roosevelt before it was used.6
Generally, Mrs. Roosevelt turned a gentle eye toward the Victorian things. She was an inveterate antiques-shopper. Old objects in the White House interested her, and she and the president had adopted the Lincoln bed as their own immediately upon moving there. Other heavily carved pieces pleased her, the sorts of furnishings McKim would have consigned to auction with a grimace. On several occasions she stopped antique furniture before, on McKim’s orders, it left the house. There was no antiquarian tendency in McKim. Good, well-made copies or adaptations were more his taste in historical styles, and for the most part that is what the White House received. In one instance, that of the pair of marble dining room mantels installed in 1818, he favored the historic and installed one in the Green Room and the other in the Red Room, where they remain today. His interest was probably less in their history than in their appropriateness to the Beaux Arts approach to decoration, which he applied to the White House.
McKim was prominent in that stream of Americans who, educated in Europe, had brought back academic European ideas of architecture and design to cast the final stake into the heart of Victorian decorative concepts, so beloved in their own country. Borrowing from the ages, the aesthetic called for creating a modem architecture from the ideas and inspirations—and the motifs— of the past. While a nativism would emerge eventually, the Beaux Arts idea in the United States considered the past the property of all. A designer could borrow from any monument in the history of humankind. The triumph of the philosophy was made whole in the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. There neoclassicism from the ancient world and the Renaissance captured Americans’ hearts.
Frank Lloyd Wright and his mentor Louis Sullivan were among a handful of objectors. Most agreed with such a world traveler as John Hay that the fair placed the United States on a par with the best Europe had to offer. The fair gave the whole idea of the Beaux Arts almost universal acceptance, and the architectural mode appeared not only in mansions and great buildings but in relatively small courthouses, theaters, and houses all over the country. As a philosophy, the Beaux Arts approach meant a reuse of the ideas and spirit of the past, not necessarily the neoclassical past, as was seen at the World’s Fair, but any past— Spanish, Russian, American, Colonial Revival— and all the rest. It was an eclecticism less inclined toward mixing historically unconnected motifs, as had the Victorians, than creating a cohesiveness of theme in one building. The idea would spangle California with tiled roofs, New England with saltboxes, and the South with white columns, all footed in the past of the regions yet shared in this case by many other regions.
Decorative arts followed the path of the architecture in turning to the high styles of the past. This trend naturally led most directly to the French modes of the 17th and 18th centuries. Old prints and paintings, not to mention many actual sites, preserved the ideas of drapery and ornament, restraint and embellishment. Ancient silks, mounted as wall coverings in European houses, were taken down and reused as chair covers and window hangings. New York abounded in dealers who could provide these things. Antiques were often part of the most costly renditions of houses, yet the market soon had much to choose from in the Louis XV and Louis XVI modes, the Jacobean, the Georges, and other historical styles. If a single pioneering book summed up the idea for interiors, it was The Decoration of Houses, which had been published in 1896 by architect Ogden Codman, also a gifted interior designer, and Edith Wharton, later the famous novelist and, not insignificantly, a cousin and friend of Edith Roosevelt.
When the White House was at last a home again toward the close of 1902, McKim unveiled a masterpiece of showmanship to the popular presidential showman. Driving up the north drive, the visitor would see the same countenance everyone had always known, serene among its elms, comfortingly white, twinkling with electric light in old-style fixtures. To enter the north door, beneath the great stone swag that had delighted George Washington, was to enter something very white, very sparse, and grand in a serene and elegant way. The floor of Joliet stone, the row of Doric columns, paired, the gilt benches, the long mirrors facing across the hall, the tall plaster casts of classical statuary before them: it was an image reminiscent of the White House but little like it had been.7
The sparse Blue Room, now with a bare, herringbone-pattern floor of oak parquet, was a deep, rich nighttime space punctuated by white-and- gold chairs, glossy white woodwork, and a French chandelier that, like all the fixtures, came from that master of period style lighting devices, Edward F. Caldwell in New York. The mantel, its columns clusters of Cupid’s arrows, was copied from one in Marie Antoinette’s bedroom at the Petit Trianon. Next door, the Green Room had dark green velvet walls and matching curtains. Modem Sheraton style chairs painted cream color and covered in chintz mingled with some White House antiques, including a round center table Andrew Jackson had purchased and mantel garniture from James Monroe.
While the Blue Room was ceremonial, the Green Room invited one to sit for tea, in a rich “international” sort of elegance. Mrs. Roosevelt’s own taste influenced the soft, buttoned red- damask furniture, an entire overstuffed suite, in the Red Room, which was otherwise furnished with presidential portraits against red velvet walls and curtains.
The long Cross Hall, onto which these three parlors opened, was terminated at either end by the East Room and the State Dining Room. With these, McKim, and probably Francis Bacon, created a contrast that would make a Beaux Arts enthusiast’s heart flutter. On the west the State Dining Room was entirely paneled in “English” oak, waxed to a dark shine. Built by Herter Brothers to McKim’s design, the paneling and the English-style furniture provided by Davenport evoked and indeed well represented a dining room in an 18th-century Georgian country house. From an interior decorator named William Hart in New York, McKim acquired stuffed animal heads for the dining room that would forever be associated with Theodore Roosevelt.
At the east end of the Cross Hall was the East Room. It was like it had been in that it had four fireplaces, great windows to the east, and three great chandeliers. Otherwise it was completely new. Caldwell made the large chandeliers, which McKim reduced in scale. The walls of wood, designed after a Louis XVI suite at the Chateau de Compiegne, were painted porcelain white. Gold benches, console tables, and large jardineres with palms were the only furnishings in the vast and ceremonial space.8 The conceit of having an English 18th-century room at one end of the hall and a French 18th-century room at the other was in a sense McKim’s bow on the package.
One could not call the Roosevelt White House, as some did at the time, overdone. That opinion, where it was not malicious (by “Yahoos,” as TR said), came probably from the great contrast between what the White House had been and what it had become. Well- known writer and antiquarian Esther Singleton, a fair and learned critic, was moved to write in 1907 the first history of the White House, a two- volume work called The Story of the White House, in what clearly was a negative reaction to the general tenor of the changes.
Certainly the house worked well for the new “international” presence of the presidency. Washington was filled with important people from around the world as never before in its history. To the diplomatic community once crowned by mere ministers plenipotentiary had been added the exalted rank of ambassador, beginning in 1893, and full-rank ambassadors were now present by the score. Gilded coaches rolled forth to the White House from half a dozen embassy driveways, and many more official vehicles boasted carved arms of lesser kingdoms.
The White House was central to official society in Washington. Roosevelt was clear in his role of selling the new presidency. The Roosevelts were sticklers for what they perceived as correctness, and they functioned best in a formal setting, although he was a master at warming the stiffest setting with incongruities when he thought it appropriate. At the essence, however, starch was safer than hilarity when the representatives of nations mingled. The Roosevelt White House was governed by strict rules that applied to every employee and every function of the house. Nor were the Roosevelt children permitted some of the liberties history ascribes to them again and again.
The interior of the Roosevelt White House survives architecturally, but many of the decorative arts are in storage. Caldwell’s East Room chandeliers were reduced in size a second time, by President Harry S. Truman. The paneling in the State Dining Room has been painted for half a century. Only in the East Room, itself rebuilt, can you feel the thunder of TR’s splendid appearance, as you see Sargent’s portrait of him at the old stair, reflected a hundred times in the broad mirrors.
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