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

Style On The Mississippi: Villa Louis


A four-page bill from the John J. McGrath Company dated October 7, 1885 shows how big city decorating was carried far into the countryside. It records charges for paperhanging and other services at the Villa Louis, a grand mansion near Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin.

The house sits on an island in the Mississippi River, over 250 miles from McGrath's Chicago-based supply house. All was done at the behest of H. Louis and Nina Dousman, the second generation of the Dousman family, who were preeminent during the early settlement of Wisconsin. The house now belongs to the state of Wisconsin. The surviving wallpaper, billing records, and family photographs played important roles in bringing the Villa back to its rich late-19th century appearance.

During its restoration in the late 90’s I made many trips to the Villa to hang reproduction wallpaper. While driving the river road up to La Crosse on weekends it was impossible not to imagine 18th century fur traders paddling down from Canada. The towering bluffs along this stretch have witnessed many things. Among them: the Battle of Bad Axe, the last campaign of the ill-fated Blackhawk War, which took place under a melancholy sky on the first of August, 1832. Before and after the war, treaty negotiations took place up and down the river. Some were between the United States government and native Americans and others were between the tribes themselves.

One of those gatherings is memorialized in the “Dance of the American Warriors," part of the scenic wallpaper Views of North America” designed by Jean-Julien Deltil and produced by Zuber & Cie. The treatment is fanciful (the natives are clothed wrongly and dance in front of the Natural Bridge of Virginia). However, the ceremony is real.

Peter Rindisbacher, a young Swiss artist, captured a dance of the Sauk and Meskwaki tribes in 1829 during a treaty gathering near Prairie Du Chien. The warrior scene in the wallpaper is based on it, just as the scenes of Niagara Falls and West Point are based on the sketches of Milbert. It was Jean Zuber himself who ordered picturesque "cameos" of the warriors to be placed into the foreground of the topographic views. His decision was based on an earlier suggestion by Deltil, who wrote: "NB: If there is room we will put in a dance of American warriors or a frontier settlement."(1)

It was in 1826 that Hercules Dousman, having worked for John Jacob Astor in Canada, came to Prairie du Chien. Dousman stayed with Astor until 1834 and became a partner when the American Fur Company reorganized under Ramsey Crooks. Dousman invested in lumber, land and transportation, becoming one of Wisconsin’s wealthiest men.

His son H. Louis Dousman was born in 1848; Louis married Nina Sturgis in 1872. By then the family home had been recast as an Italianate villa by Milwaukee architect E. Townsend Mix. The newly-marrieds left the area and settled downriver in St. Louis, where they started a family.

In 1884 Louis and Nina Dousman returned to Wisconsin and outfitted the mansion in an artistic manner. Renovations were completed just before Louis’ death at age 37 in 1886. After his passing the family home was christened the Villa Louis. The Villa stands today as a testament to the Dousmans’ vision. They created a busy homestead that was also a showplace for the nascent British Arts and Crafts aesthetic. Many of the fine furnishings were supplied by the McGrath company.

McGrath's bill reveals much about working methods and costs. Twelve rooms are named. The Halls, Dining Room, and South East Room are easily identified. Some rooms can be linked to the personalities of the genteel household. Thus, we know that “Louis’ Room” (that of the butler, Louis LeBrun) took 5 pieces of ceiling paper, 2 ½ pieces of frieze, and 14 pieces of sidewall. More important, we know from the remaining scraps that he had a taste for pretty gilt flower patterns. On the other hand, the upstairs bedroom of the formidable Mrs. McLeod, longtime housekeeper, was not feminine in tone, judging from the surviving wallpaper. 

McGrath was no ordinary dealer. He styled himself “interior decorator” in his advertising and staged an exhibition of 300 fine wallpaper samples in 1879. These were the proud work of over 35 designers and manufacturers, and many were household names (if you happened to belong to an artistic upper class household).

The exhibition was recorded in the March 8, 1879, issue of American Architect and Building News 5: “Mr. McGrath exhibited a number of his own private patterns . . . he is one of the few dealers who have employed American artists to make special designs for wall-papers.” The article states that the samples were collected by Joseph Twyman on a recent trip to France and England. This is apparently the same Mr. Twyman listed as "salesman" on the Dousman bill.

Twyman seems to have been an important part of McGrath's success. A native of Kent, England, he visited Morris at Merton Abbey and came away with a deep admiration for his work, and, it is said, a few unauthorized wallpaper design samples. He continued to champion British Arts and Crafts in Chicago and was probably the point man for McGrath on a number of “away” decorating projects like the one at Villa Louis.

McGrath offered more than wallpaper: he provided tapestry, fabric, and stained glass, as well as interior design services which included frescoing and decorative painting. He offered to send artists to “all parts of the United States to arrange and give estimates for every class of decorative work.”(2)

That's exactly what happened in Prairie du Chien on the evidence of the bill. It records not only minutiae like “ ½ gross 2 ½” picture hooks” but also administration: “10 hours labor taking measurements for carpets curtains grates and etc.” The most expensive entries were for “2 grates and fittings,” and “8 wood sashes with beveled glass” at over 300 dollars each. These beveled glass panels — for each end of the main hall — still throw prismatic jewel tones onto the floors and walls on sunny days.

The total for time and materials was $3,582.60, of which $1,363.66 was spent on twelve rooms. The remaining $1,468.04 went toward other painting and decorating. No doubt there were many more bills; no fabric, carpets, drapes, or decorative accessories are included in these costs.

The panel, angle, and picture moldings are still in the house and constitute thousands of linear feet. 2” and 3” widths of molding form an unusual “grid” system overhead. The grid sizes are most often 18” by 18” or 24” by 24”. Some ceilings are arranged with differently-sized rectangles, or with diamond patterns.

Almost always, soft felt ingrain papers were used within the grids. Wide wall friezes, too, were bounded on their lower edges by rails and inset with ingrains. A few of the frieze areas received patterned paper. Picture rails of walnut and pine were either 1 ½” or 2 ½” in width. They cost about six or seven cents per running foot.

According to his obituary J. J. McGrath was born in Ireland in 1833 and died in 1895. It seems he came over when he was around 22 years old. A listing for “J. J. McGrath, paperhanger,” appears in Hall’s Directory (Chicago) in 1855. The obituary records that he stayed in close touch with his countrymen.(3) By 1862 the firm had assumed its mature form: “J. J. McGrath, importer and dealer in paper hangings, decorations, and window shades, 78 Randolph Street…..n.b., competent workmen sent to all parts of the city and country to do decorating and Paper Hanging in all its branches.”(4)

McGrath was not the only wallpaper seller setting up out west. George B. Michael served exactly the same function as McGrath in St. Louis; his shop was a fixture from the 1850’s, selling high style decorations to the likes of Henry Shaw at Tower Grove. Michael is known to have traveled east to replenish stock and renew his contacts. He may even have started back East—there is a possible connection to the Golders: dealer Robert Golder of Philadelphia and paperstainer Abraham Golder of Baltimore. But, while McGrath specialized in artistic English paper at Villa Louis, Michael rode an earlier wave: his ads carry vivid descriptions of French decors and scenics. 

Manufacturing wallpaper was quite a bit more difficult than distributing it. There's a solitary reference to a John Hoban setting up a mill in St. Louis in 1868 after working as a foreman back east, but it's not known if the “St. Louis Wall Paper Manufactory” prospered.(5) M. A. Howell, who moved his factory to the Chicago area from New Brunswick, New Jersey, is better known. He came from an illustrious wallpaper family and bought a Waldron 8-color printing machine early in his career, in 1854. After his arrival in 1869, Howell aspired to manufacture “only for the Chicago market and the west.”(6) And yet, offerings like Howells’ seem to have been passed over by the Dousmans. Most wallpapers seem to have come directly from England.

The highest priced paper at Villa Louis was the Lincrusta. It was used not only in the dining room, where it received a gorgeous grained mahogany finish, but also in an upper-floor bathroom. This can probably be read as an endorsement of its "hygienic" appeal, often touted in contemporary advertising. The dados of the dining room and bathroom cost $6.00 per piece.

The prices of the sidewall papers ranged from .75 to 1.50 per piece. The ingrains always cost .50 a piece. The softness and neutrality of the ingrains made them a perfect foil for the Arts and Crafts papers. Some of the colors of the sidewall papers are carefully modulated, but many are not, and all of the historic patterns look bold (if not strident) to our eyes. It seems that clashing patterns were not just tolerated by the Dousmans, but positively enjoyed.

Ingrains were patented in 1878 by James Monroe of Lexington, Massachusetts. The name is explained by a trade magazine: “it may be washed without injury to the colors, which are ingrain, instead of simply upon the prepared face of the paper, as are the colors of ordinary wallpaper.” Monroe’s patent asserted that “this paper presents to the eye a soft appearance, and many prefer it to the elaborate or showy figures commonly found on wall-paper.”(7) In fact, ingrains are true non-wovens. Dyed rag and cotton fibers are pressed together to create felt substrates. Whatever the claims, its clear that ingrains were popular in upper-class decorating. Even Edith Wharton, no fan of wallpaper, used them in her homes in Europe and the U. S.(8)

The bill shows great regularity in labor prices and it would be no surprise if they were the union rates. Regular sidewall hanging (one-edge work) at Villa Louis was done at either .18 or .25 per piece. In one-edge work, one side of the selvedge was trimmed to pattern and hung, overlapping the untrimmed edge already on the wall. Paperhangers usually worked away from the light. This avoided any shadows that would otherwise be cast by the overlapped seam.

Hanging charges escalated for work on ceilings (.36), and were higher yet when ingrains were hung on ceilings (.46). The higher rates are no doubt due to the greater care required for overhead work. Ingrains were also known to stain if not handled carefully. McGrath’s men earned a premium for hanging closets with ingrains. This work was invariably charged out at .60 per piece. The men were likely challenged by trimming and hanging the extra-wide papers to a butt seam in tight quarters. The thick ingrains, unlike regular sidewall paper, were ordinarily trimmed on both sides.

Another material worthy of an up-charge was the Lincrusta, which was hung at 1.25 per piece. There are references in the bill to extra cost for wallpaper that was “cut close.” This almost certainly refers to sidewall paper that was trimmed on both sides and butt-seamed on the wall. The extra charge was .05 per piece.

The Paper-Hanger’s Union of New York maintained these prices. In 1889, their price for hanging machine prints, one-edge work, was .20 per piece, while “plain or printed cartridge paper [ingrains]” cost from .35 to .40 per piece, depending on where it was hung.(9)

Paste was not charged out by McGrath, but time spent on glue sizing was. The cost was .05 per piece. Lining paper appears only in the more important bedrooms, where it cost about .10 per piece. The charge for pearlashing in the butler’s room is interesting because it documents the treatment of painted walls with a caustic solution before papering. According to a trade manual: “…there’s only one correct way to prepare a painted wall for papering, and that is to give it a good coat of potash, or a strong washing powder solution, and then wash it off with clear water…”(10)

If this were not done, the wallpaper might not adhere to the slick surface of the paint. Other labor charges are equally consistent. Taking down old moldings, scraping off wallpaper, replastering, sandpapering, and preparing walls were done at the rate of .40 an hour. A rate of .50 per hour was charged for “repairing & hanging brass work, pictures, shades & etc.” These last two categories totaled close to 200 hours, so the charges were not trivial. Estimates for carpets, shades, curtains and grates took 50 more hours, and these, too, were charged out at .50 per hour. 

The bill is irrefutable proof that McGrath followed through on his offer to “arrange and give estimates for every class of decorative work.” No doubt he and his crew carried style to many more outposts in the countryside around Chicago in the late 19th century.

(1) Emlen, Robert. "Imagining America in 1834." Winterthur Museum 32, no. 2/3 (1997): 189-210.
(2) The ad, from the New York-based Decorator and Furnisher of May, 1883 is illustrated in Catherine Lynn's Wallpaper in America, 403.
(3) A copy of the obituary recorded by the Chicago Historical Society is in the files of the Cooper-Hewitt Museum.
(4) Halpin and Bailey city directory of 1862-3, p. 170.
(5) Letter of John Hoban to Westover, Foster & Co., February 15, 1868 (private collection).
(6) Howell’s purchase of a Waldron is documented in Wall Paper News and Interior Decorator magazine (August, 1911); his ad mentioning the Chicago market appears in Edwards' Chicago Directory, 1869, pg. 1119.
(7) Monroe’s patent is No. 204,446, dated June 4, 1878.
(8) Old House Journal, Jan-Feb, 2006.
(9) House Painting and Decorating, Vol. 5, p. 89.
(10) One Thousand More Paint Questions Answered, The Painter’s Magazine, New York (1908), p. 343.

Acknowledgements, Sources and Recommended Reading:

Teams of paperhangers worked under Michael Douglass, site administrator, and design consultant Gail Caskey Winkler at Villa Louis in the period 1996-2005.  I am indebted to Mr. Douglass for information about the Dousman family and Joseph Twyman.

Villa Louis is a property of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin. Two strokes of fortune attended the Villa Louis restoration: many public and private donors (above all the Jeffris Foundation) underwrote the costs of it; and, a huge percentage of the original furnishings were acquired through estate sales and liaisons with Dousman descendents.

The rag-based “ingrain” papers were created by master papermaker David Carruthers at the St-Armand mill in Montreal. Many original wallpapers were identified from historic photos and some were reordered from traditional houses such as Cole & Son and Sanderson when they had retained the original blocks. When this was not the case, reproductions were created, several by Laura McCoy.

The Lincrusta was provided by Crown Decorative Products of Lancaster, England, holder of the Lincrusta-Walton patents; a new cylinder was created for the dining room pattern; the pattern was put into their line as RD1903, "Villa Louis", and remains available. The decorative painting of the Lincrusta in dining room was done by Ron Post of Galena, Illinois.

Photo Credits: The lead photo is copyright Jeff Dean:

The closing photo is from Jonathunder:
All other photos: Wisconsin Historical Society.

The output of the short-lived Swiss painter Peter Rindisbacher was little more than a hundred paintings, but collections of his work are in several museums. He was an important artist of the native people of the Great Plains, preceding George Catlin by about ten years. For more:

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