What I Learned At The White House: Chapter Two

A Memoir

I mentioned last time that the oval shape of the Blue Room evolved from precedents at George Washington's President's House in Philadelphia. Washington preferred an oval at one end of his reception room, and ordered that a bow window be installed to improve the rectangular shape. But why? The answer brings us to the monarchical traditions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. 

Brooklyn Museum: The Republican Court (Lady Washington's
Reception Day)

In a tradition called the levee, or “public day,” a line of guests would pay respects to the host or hostess of grand occasions and entertainments. In Philadelphia, Washington had political gatherings a couple of afternoons each week, and Martha presided over a social occasion one night a week. The well-known painting by Huntington The Republican Court (Lady Washington's Reception Day) shows her receiving sixty-four distinguished guests while standing on a dais. Behind Mrs. Washington is an alcove, just the type of architectural shape that would highlight her importance. Another clue in the painting is the way that George defers to her. This idealized painting was done in the mid-nineteenth century, and is not to be entirely trusted. For example, each of the rival president's houses in Philadelphia and New York had rounded ends, not alcoves. And, the architectural details of the President's House in Philadelphia paled in comparison to those in the picture, though some townhouses that the Washingtons rented in New York were considered stylish. Yet, the artist did capture what made the levee a special occasion. 

When the so-called elliptical saloon (the future Blue Room) was created, it was for a particular purpose. In Philadelphia, Washington would enter first and stand in front of the fireplace. Each diplomat or politician would enter, bow, and take a place against the oval walls, ending up more or less like the numerals on a clock-face. Washington would then circulate, conversing with each. It was formal, but, so was the occasion. So much for how the Blue Room became oval. In another chapter we'll learn how it became blue, on May 30, 1837. But now, back to personal history. I'm often asked: how did you get there?

The short answer is that I came in through the service entrance. Both Jack Kennedy and I were born Irish-Catholic in Massachusetts, but I grew up without the lace curtains of the Kennedy clan. Did you ever notice that their family home near Hyannis Port on Cape Cod is always a “compound”? Meanwhile, my parents had an upstairs apartment and seven children. It was a great day when we moved into a rambling single-family residence in the late 1950s. This was a better setting for the family we became: ten children and two adults. My father was a butcher and my mother was a nurse who gave up nursing for child-rearing. She returned to nursing later and picked up some advanced degrees.

My father was a butcher but more important, he was a craftsman. I grew up with a love of literature (from Mom) and respect for craft (from Dad). It took me years to figure out what sort of work I was fit for. But why did I get into the business of decoration, of making the world more beautiful? Why was that important?

Thinking now of my childhood in that rented apartment, it's summer again, and eight o'clock: bedtime. I can hear the muffled crunch of pebbles on a dirt road as fat-tired cars snake slowly around the hollows left by the puddled rain. Diagonal slashes of light make a slow ascent up the wall to the ceiling. When they come down the opposite wall they spotlight a witch's head on the disfigured plaster. Every time I looked, it was there. I wonder now, is this why my career is so satisfying? Am I in that room still, covering up an ugly wall with beauty, over and over?

In the first chapter I mentioned the Committee For The Preservation of the White House. About a dozen people are charged with “...preserving the museum quality of the public spaces of the White House...”. The distinction between the State Rooms and the living quarters on the second floor is sharp. New administrations sweep through the living quarters with a fresh broom, most recently wielded by designer Michael Smith, who reports to the Obamas directly (Smith is also on the committee). Decisions about the State Rooms, on the other hand, often take years. The committee's honorary chair is the First Lady, while the official chair is the head of the National Park Service.

During the 1995 refurbishment of the Blue Room, the historian Bill Seale made daily pilgrimages from Alexandria to check on progress. I grew to expect and enjoy his visits. One day I complimented him on belonging to the committee. He smiled and set me straight. “Bob,” he drawled, “I'm not actually on the committee. I'm just a back-stairs child.” Being from New England I had no idea what a back-stairs child was — but I got the drift. It was Seale, enormously knowledgable about nineteenth-century decoration, who insisted on the milky-white French polished woodwork which complements the silk-upholstered furniture, gilt highlights, and Empire draperies of the room.

The arduous French polishing, using only cheesecloth, linseed oil, rottenstone and elbow grease, was done at night by a team of Polish workers under the direction of Brandon Thompson. Each morning before going home they taped off their work, as best they could, and the paperhanging crew (James Yates, Barry Blanchard, and myself) took over. At the end of our workday, the process was reversed. We taped off our work so that the paint crew could work all night. This tag-team approach accelerated from January 14th right up to our deadline of the 24th. A few days later, President Clinton hosted governors from all fifty states in — you guessed it — the Blue Room.

If this schedule seems slightly crazy, welcome to the White House, where decorative shenanigans like this have been going on from the start. Even so, not all interior walls were erected as late as 1803. What is now the East Room was merely walled with canvas. It's a good thing that the occupant was Jefferson's secretary Meriwether Lewis, a man who knew hardship. 

The first occupant, John Adams, wanted to live in some semblance of style. When the countdown for his arrival began, every fireplace belched fire twenty-four hours a day in order to dry the plastered walls so the wallpaper could be hung. The most interesting thing about the wallpaper installation of 1800 were the decisions about the "fitness of the pattern." Although American wallpaper had been in production for over twenty-five years, it was not yet considered good enough. The first choice of the Commissioners was French wallpaper. The second choice: English.

Choice of pattern also played a role in the 1995 renovations of the Blue Room walls and those choices were grounded in the previous renovation in 1972, when the wall decorations were changed from fabric to paper. That one was initiated by Richard M. Nixon.

Nixon approved the installation of a French reproduction wallpaper. The pattern is attributed to Jacquemart and Benard, and dated to around 1800. The elaborate frieze shown above was only part of the decoration. Like many French wallpapers of the period, it had an accompanying bottom border and a sidewall with two alternating motifs; in the case of a lyre and shield (properly, a pelta). All matched perfectly on the wall. That is, they were designed to match perfectly on the wall.

(to be continued)


- The painting “The Republican Court: Lady Washington's Reception Day” (1861) by Daniel Huntington is owned by the Brooklyn Museum and shown here for educational purposes. For copyright policy of the Brooklyn Museum:

- “Reception Day” was the the subject of a hugely popular engraving by A. H. Ritchie in 1865 which was often issued with a program listing the dozens of historic personalities in the scene. “Reception Day” was commissioned by Ritchie. This website puts both images in context:

- The photo of the Kennedy clan is by Richard Sears (public domain). Source:
http://www.jfklibrary.org/Asset Viewer/Sll9S4XSqUObvY9XJNN1wQ.aspx

- The photo of the Kelly clan is copyright Robert M. Kelly 2014.

- The image of the top border is from Henri Clouzot and Charles Follot's Histoire Du Papier Peint En France (1935), pg. 89.

Copyright: © 2014 Robert M. Kelly

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