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White House Decorative Arts in the 1810s

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In 1809, James and Dolley Madison moved into the nearly completed President’s House that contained worn furnishings from past administrations. Mrs. Madison employed Surveyor of Public Buildings Benjamin H. Latrobe to refurbish the State Floor, and he custom-designed furniture for the Oval Room.

On August 24, 1814, British forces invaded Washington, D.C. and set fire to the public buildings. The conflagration destroyed Latrobe’s interior design for the state parlors, along with all of the furnishings that had been purchased for presidential use since 1789. The responsibility of rebuilding the house fell to Madison, but the task of refurnishing it went to the new president, James Monroe, who took office in March 1817. His goal was to restore the dignity and grandeur of the President’s House as a conspicuous symbol of a strong, united country. He ordered the elegant French Empire furnishings that are integral to the historic White House collection today.

Tea Box. China, c. 1811 (box); Jacquemart et Bérnard, Paris, France c. 1809-11 (wallpaper). A rare surviving artifact from the pre-1814 President's House.