What I Learned At The White House: Chapter Three

A Memoir

It's time to answer the question I get asked the most: how did a paperhanger from Western Massachusetts find his way to the White House? 

The story starts in 1972, when Richard M. Nixon approved the installation of a French reproduction wallpaper, changing the Blue Room walls from fabric to paper. This elaborate wallpaper replaced a silk stripe fabric topped by a fabric drapery border which was installed by Stéphane Boudin in 1962, when he returned the French Empire furniture to the room, setting the tone for an 1820s interpretation. Just prior to these changes, overseen by Jackie Kennedy, the room had been covered in a deep blue silk with gold emblems.  For those who want to follow the changes year by year, this site is recommended.

That site also shows the changes to the appearance of the Scenic America panorama installed in the Diplomatic Reception Room by Mrs. Kennedy. I am surely not the only one to notice how much bluer and healthier the wallpaper grew as it aged. 
One facet of Nixon's personality is not well known. He was, if not an antiquarian, very knowledgable about antiques, especially furniture. Certainly the wallpaper he chose was stunning. An original set was found in a New York antiques shop by Ed Jones. A reproduction of the design was created by Nancy McClelland, Inc. for the 1972 refurbishment of the Blue Room. However, some punches were pulled.

The top and bottom borders were reproduced line for line, but the elaborate sidewall, with outrageously detailed lyres and shields, was judged too busy. Instead, only the simple dotted background would be used. Au revoir, lyres & shields!  

Another change was made by studio artists: instead of having a separate border overlay the sidewall, as in the original, the bottom border design would be screened onto the sidewall. This was done to simplify the installation. Unfortunately the reverse happened, as we shall see. 

It helps to know some of the history. Quite a few early nineteenth-century French wallpaper decorations had “set borders.” That is, separate draperies or other continuing designs were printed to fit over the top and bottom of sidewall designs. See the photo below for an example. This early-nineteenth century French set border ensemble was used to create Damietta Panel by Brunschwig. Another well-known example is the Morning Glory design at the Morris-Jumel Mansion in New York. 

The Morning Glory pattern at the Morris-Jumel Mansion. 

I mentioned in a previous installment that it was the men of the paint shop, led by Cletus Clarke, who did most of the paperhanging and painting in the 125-room White House complex. In 1972 workers were delegated and the paper went up. But, there was a small problem, which grew, as the installation proceeded across the wall. Don't forget, the bottom border design had been screened onto the sidewall, and the top border had been printed separately to be hung over the sidewall. The problem, in a nutshell, is that wallpaper printed across the grain, like a sidewall, expands after pasting by about 1%. Paper printed against the grain, like a border, does not. 

The paper didn't mismatch enough to be truly distracting. But those who worked in the house noticed. It's my hunch that a vow was made by house managers that the next time a room of complicated French paper had to be installed, it would be done by experienced professional paperhangers.

Fast forward to the late 80s and early 90s. By then I had started the WRN newsletter (Wallpaper Reproduction News) and was traveling more and more to historic homes for consulting and installing. There was one job in particular that now looks like a dress rehearsal for the Blue Room. In 1991 Bill Seale called about re-installing some original scenic wallpaper fragments of a Chasse de Compiègne scenic found behind a bookcase at Riversdale, Maryland. This mansion built by Belgian nobles fleeing the Napoleonic wars was much admired by Jefferson (though because of political differences Jefferson was never invited to the house). The installation at Riversdale was fleshed out with more of the scenic obtained from the Metropolitan Museum. 

Some time later, I led a workshop at Riversdale as part of the Interiors II conference (1992) organized by the National Park Service. The audience included Betty Monkman, then-associate curator at the White House. What I didn't know at the time was that the planning for a re-do of the Blue Room based on the French document at Brunschwig had already started. 

On another track, I had hung a block-printed drapery paper from Mauny with set borders in an oval room in the New York area, and shared some photos with wallpaper aficionados. The job included much balancing of motifs on architectural elements. One of the people I sent photos to was Richard Nylander. I knew that Richard was on the Committee for the Preservation of the White House, but that's not why I sent the pictures — I just thought they were interesting.

I don't know if that was the tipping point, but anyway, one fine evening I returned to my desk after a day of paperhanging and found a message on my answering machine. The caller identified herself as from the "curator's office," and asked me to call back in the 202 area code. I assumed that this was a museum. I called back the next day and was put on hold. I waited for about three minutes. Dead air. I hung up. About five minutes later I got another call: "This is the curator's office. In the White House"! 

After I picked myself up off the floor I found myself talking to Betty Monkman about whether I'd like to be involved in the installation of wallpaper in the Blue Room. Of course I would! What paperhanger wouldn't? My first visit came on October 26, 1992. I was nervous driving down, and in the subway, and getting through security. But once I was in the room measuring walls and writing dimensions, I was not nervous. I felt at home.

The Blue Room is remarkably symmetrical: it's an elongated oval, with three doors at one end and three windows at the other. It is large — the walls are over a hundred feet around and the base, dado, fill, cornice and crown add up to around twenty feet. The plan was to use the drapery-sidewall-bottom border ensemble in all of its French Empire glory. In other words, a re-do of the 1972 installation, except that the lyre & shield elements would be reinstated. This sounded fantastic, and we began visualizing how the three parts of the ensemble would play out on the wall. Matching and balancing the wallpaper designs would be daunting, but this could be managed with careful math and plenty of double-checking. All the figures at the top would have to be full figures, since it was a continuous ceiling line.

But, the Committee For the Preservation of the White House was still in session and ideas continued to percolate. Soon, an alternate idea began competing and gaining ground. The alternate scheme would be appropriate to the 1820s, but it would be entirely new. A large drapery border and sizable bottom border would be based on French models from the Smithsonian Museum collections, and the sidewall would be adapted from an early American wallpaper from Historic New England. There was a moment when block printing by the then-new Adelphi Paperhangings company was considered, but this was ruled out. Adelphi did eventually supply blockprints for the Lincoln Bedroom and another room, but let's not get ahead of ourselves.

The alternate plan (the interesting combination of French-inspired borders with an American sidewall) was worked up by Brunschwig artists through 1993 and into 1994, and printed up by the Chambord  handscreening company in Hoboken just in time for the installation in January, 1995.

After all the planning 1992-1994 (I had visited the screen-engraver, Jacques Cluzel at Tavernon, and the design studio at Brunschwig as well) the installation seemed almost anti-climactic. As noted, this was carried out with fellow paperhangers Jim Yates and Barry Blanchard. But, there were several design issues with the newly-created borders that had to be decided on site. 

How should the lower edge of the drapery be cut? Should it follow the horizontal border line? Or should it be hand-cut to follow the curve of the drapery along the shadow line? The latter was adopted since it produced the most realistic look. Another question was about the crescent of dark brown above the folds of the drapery. It seemed too heavy, but what could be done about it? An ingenious solution was found: cut it out. The result was that the sidewall (already hung) peeked through. This added a touch of realism — and interest. Documentation from French precedents helped to settle this question. 

The final problem was that the drapery as printed hung from the top border by the slenderest of threads. It didn't look like it was hung up on a support, like a real drapery fabric. This became a huge topic of discussion among the ad-hoc advisors that Mrs. Clinton had assembled. My role was to prepare several mock-ups and tape them to the wall for examination. 
Finally, she decided that an important decision-maker was missing. A day later Richard Nylander was in the room, a quorum assembled, and the decision made. We were soon separating out the lower drapery and hanging it up about an inch and a half into the top border. This provided just the right illusion of support. 

(to be continued) 


- see Mistress of Riversdale, by Margaret Law Callcott (1992) for a superior account of everyday life at Riversdale.

- The President's House, by William Seale (2008, 2nd edition); see Volume II, p. 1055 for acquisition of antiques during the Nixon administration. 

- photo credits: President Barack Obama talks with religious leaders in the Blue Room of the White House prior to the Easter Prayer Breakfast, April 5, 2013. (Official White House Photo by David Lienemann)

- First Lady Michelle Obama participates in the “Let’s Move!” Google+ Hangout in the Blue Room of the White House. March 4, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

- the image from the Morris-Jumel Mansion is in the public domain:

- top border appears in “Wallpapers of France 1800-1850” by Odile Nouvel (1981); bottom border in “Paper Magic” by Jane Gorden Clark (1992); the image of the early 19th century set border ensemble and the watercolor diagram are copyright 1994 by WRN Associates. 

Copyright: © 2014 Robert M. Kelly

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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