What I Learned At The White House: Chapter One

A Memoir

The Blue Room of the White House, now resplendent with Christmas tree and trimmings, is arguably one of the most beautiful rooms in America.

This is the official heart of the house, the state room where photo ops, receiving lines, live music, and an infinity of ceremonies both large and small take place. The Blue Room is expansive in mood and size, and these attributes (plus its oval shape) set it apart from its neighbors, the Green and Red Rooms, which perch on each side like a pair of respected aunts. There is warmth in the Blue Room, and zest, now that Michelle Obama has taken to thrilling the bejesus out of tour groups by popping into the room at odd moments.
            The key to the room is the Monroe furniture. It was bought for the public reopening of the house on January 1, 1818 after the disastrous fire of 1814. This silk-upholstered and gilded ensemble goes a long way toward explaining the decisions of the Committee for the Preservation of the White House. In 1995 the committee, headed unofficially but forcefully by Hillary Clinton, restored the room with rich colors, gilding, French polished woodwork, and elaborate draperies in both fabric and wallpaper forms. The sidewall, a copy of a common American wallpaper, is a perfect foil.
            As paperhanger and consultant I've worked in this room several times, and this memoir shares details of that work. It was wonderful to be walking down a sunny sidewalk in Washington knowing that I was heading for my job at the White House. This heady feeling subsided when I began meeting the dozens who go there daily.
             I am often asked: 1. How did you get that job? 2. Were you nervous? and 3. What's it like to work in the White House? I'll answer those questions in these blog posts. I'll also talk about how the work of designers Kaki Hockersmith, Ken Blasingame, and Michael Smith on the second floor differs from the work done in the state rooms.
            Staff at the White House tend to stay put and there is a pronounced Southern flavor, especially among older workers. One person I missed seeing on a recent work trip is Cletus Clarke, head of the paint shop. Cletus had to be between 70 and 80 years of age when he finally retired. This cheerful black worker was a walking encyclopedia. He talked effortlessly about the last dozen or so presidential households, a real-life "Butler," if you will. Like staff painters everywhere, Cletus was constantly under pressure, finishing one room as he started prepwork in another. By some accounts there are 125 rooms in the White House. Cletus seemed to be just as happy as I was that the wallpaper was being handled by someone else. Certainly wallpaper has had a great run in the White House, especially during the nineteenth century, and it's been an honor to help put some of it back. The great exceptions are the Red and Green Rooms. These have been upholstered for so long that a change seems most unlikely.
            Aside from any decorative statements, the White House as domestic icon and cultural touchstone is woven into the fabric of American life. It is at once a domicile, a seat of power, a tourist attraction, and an armed camp. The second floor, where the First Family lives, is well-insulated from media attention. The politics and pressures of statesmanship are reserved for the offices of the West Wing. The chief symbol of the political side is the Oval Office, which was created in 1909 by Taft. It is not to be confused with the oval rooms in the main block of the White House.


There are good reasons why George Washington preferred an oval shape for his main reception room, as we shall see. Although Washington never lived in the White House, he created the model for the "elliptical saloon" at the President's House in Philadelphia (1790 - 1797). Above and below the Blue Room are two more oval rooms, all three stacked something like a wedding cake, except that instead of a tiny bride and groom at the top there sits the Truman balcony looking out on the South Lawn.


Above the Blue Room is the Yellow Oval Room, part of the second-floor residential area just mentioned. Below the Blue Room is the Diplomatic Reception Room into which Jackie Kennedy put the Scenic America panorama by Zuber in 1961.

That installation was one of the important wall decorations inspired by Jackie Kennedy's house restoration in 1961. Two others were a set of War of Independence (also by Zuber and based on Scenic America) still hanging in the President's Dining Room, now covered by fabric, and the Chinese scenic wallpaper in the double parlors at Blair House, the President's Guest House across Pennsylvania Avenue. This last was originally hung c. 1765 by John, second Earl of Ashburnham Place, Sussex, England.
            A good choice for a study guide about decoration at the White House is William Seale's The President's House, a two-volume tome. The great things about it are the scope and the tone, which is relentlessly domestic. No furnishing detail is too small, and many are found in no other source.
            One of the first things we learn from the book is that the house was down-sized from the original plans by L'Enfant. As built, the house became less formidable and palace-like. It was also reoriented 90 degrees. The house is most often seen from the north, where the temple-like facade cuts a fine figure. When standing in the middle of the Blue Room the view south through the central window to the Jefferson Memorial is grand. The line of sight to the Memorial is perfect. 
            The importance of centrality extends to the drapery wallpaper frieze. The ceiling  line of an oval room demands consistency, and full figures. Full swags being necessary, the border was centered on both the north and south axes and cut to fit. The folds of paper drapery were compressed in one section by about four inches, and elongated in another section by about seven inches. This wallpaper drapery, which is based on early nineteenth-century French models, has a fairly deep vertical design (27" or so), and a large horizontal repeat (22" or so), and it needs to be that large, since the walls are about twenty feet high.

(to be continued)

photo credits: 

- the 3 floor plans are from Wikipedia: original designs by Jim Hood (Hood Design), revisions in SVG by ZooFari using Inkscape, and are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

- the photo of the White House Christmas tree is from www.whitehouse.gov ("The Blue Room Tree") and appears here under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License: http://www.whitehouse.gov/copyright

Copyright: © 2013 Robert M. Kelly

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