White House Confidential

Everyone from Jackie to Hillary has had their way with decorating 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. When the newest first family moves in this month, they, too, will confront the good, the bad, and the downright ugly.

On January 20, after an unprecedented amount of post-election drama, George W. and Laura Bush will become the 41st family to call the White House home. Although it's the very symbol of the American presidency and one of the most enduring images in our national life, the White House is in fact a typically transient residence in a country where people change domiciles an average of once every six years. Indeed, since the structure's first tenant, John Adams, moved in on November 1, 1800, the median occupancy rate has been only five years, ranging from William Henry Harrison's one month to Franklin Delano Roosevelt's dozen years. And each time the inhabitants have changed, so has the character of the place.

Shortly after Inauguration Day, the new First Family will go to the top-secret government warehouse in Riverdale, Maryland, where the back stock of the White House collection is stored. There they will pick and choose from among a vast selection of furniture, decorative objects, and paintings as a way to put a more personal stamp on their private quarters. That expedition will probably be much like the one Rosalynn Carter recalls in her foreword to The White House: Its Historic Furnishings & First Families (Abbeville Press), a splendid overview by White House curator Betty C. Monkman. "We chose for Amy's room an adorable little sofa and chair set, which had been a gift to Caroline Kennedy," Carter writes, "and Chip brought back a Truman chiffonier. Jeff and Annette chose the greatest treasure of all: a chair that Mary Todd Lincoln had purchased."

It hasn't always been so easy for presidential families to make a tangible link with the past, as John and Claire Whitcomb point out in their gossipy and entertaining new book, Real Life at the White House: 200 Years of Daily Life at America's Most Famous Residence (Routledge). A notorious White House auction authorized by Chester Alan Arthur in 1882 got rid of 24 wagonloads of historic furnishings, some possibly going back to the time of James Monroe, who rebuilt the mansion after it was burned by the British during the War of 1812. The fashion-conscious Arthur redecorated the White House with an extravagant Aesthetic Movement scheme by Louis Comfort Tiffany, effacing almost every trace of the past at a time when Colonial Americana was being rediscovered in the wake of the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition.

To prevent such scandalous sales from ever happening again, Congress in 1961 enacted a bill forbidding the deaccessioning of White House belongings, and the collection has since grown to Xanadu-like proportions. William Seale, the dean of White House historians, author of the classic two-volume study The President's House, and editor of the official semiannual journal White House History, is familiar with the computerized, high-security storage facility. He is certain, however, that one piece will not find its way into the new president's household: "In the bowels of the warehouse, like Rosebud, is an exact copy of the 'Lincoln' bed in bleached rosewood, bequeathed to the White House by Gypsy Rose Lee."

Another prediction is a speedy makeover of the upstairs rooms that were done up by the Clintons' decorator, Kaki Hockersmith of Little Rock, a figure at the time unknown to fellow professionals and followers of the design press. Referred to in some of the more churlish circles of the interiors world as "Tacky Kaki," Hockersmith has been criticized for her elaborate quasi-Victorian schemes in the Lincoln Sitting Room and Treaty Room. According to one White House source who requested anonymity, "Kaki's taste is horrible: mixed metaphors in everything. The new First Family will have to change the Lincoln Sitting Room because you just couldn't sit in it."

On a much grander scale, the National Park Service (the agency responsible for the operation of the mansion) is now proposing a $300 million "Comprehensive Design Plan for the White House and President's Park" that would take 20 years to complete. Calling for an extensive subterranean expansion under Pennsylvania Avenue to the north and the Ellipse to the south, it would provide a new visitor center, entry areas, offices, parking, and "potential First Family indoor recreation." But whether that hugely ambitious construction project proceeds or not, don't look for sweeping decorative changes of the sort wroughtby Jacqueline Kennedy, whose celebrated restoration project began 40 years ago this January.

"The interiors of the White House today are institutionalized images," explains William Seale. "It's a high priority for the White House to look good but a low priority to change it just for the sake of change. Usually the State Rooms are redone only when they wear out. The government pays for the National Park Service people who work at the White House, but allows just $50,000 per administration for decorating expenses. That wouldn't even pay for the curtains in the Blue Room. The presidents have always had to raise private money to do these things, and sometimes it's a case of some rich friend who just can't wait to redecorate a room at the White House."

Photographs (which have been taken inside the White House since 1846) reveal a mad succession of styles as each new occupant (or his spouse) has attempted to convey the prestige of the nation's highest office through curtains, wallpaper, and upholstery. Though the looks are very different, the rationale is always the same: As the nation's number one address, the White House must look fabulous, lest the country be disgraced. Yet the impulse to renew or redo things at the White House has frequently been fraught with peril. Those who think decorating is a trivial pursuit would do well to recall how much time, money, and political capital our leaders have spent on keeping up appearances.

For example, during the election year of 1840, Representative Charles Ogle of Pennsylvania denounced the sumptuous tastes of the incumbent chief executive, Martin Van Buren, in a stemwinder delivered on the floor of the House that lasted for three days. Decrying the White House as "a palace as splendid as that of the Caesars and as richly adorned as the proudest Asiatic mansion," Ogle cited huge sums from itemized invoices with which he mocked the opposition-party president as an effete sybarite. In fact, most of the rich furnishings had been bought by Van Buren's populist predecessor, the frontiersman Andrew Jackson. But the charges of high living stuck more easily to the sophisticated New Yorker Van Buren, who lost reelection to the "log cabin candidate," William Henry Harrison, a few months later.

Perhaps it was that sobering precedent that prompted Abraham Lincoln 20 years later to chastise his shopaholic wife, who during the Civil War ran up huge bills for what he called "flub dubs for this damned old house when the soldiers cannot have blankets." Closer to our own time, Nancy Reagan drew fire for ordering more than $200,000 worth of china (albeit paid for by a private foundation) at a time when her husband's administration was slashing the school lunch program and declaring ketchup a vegetable. As Seale points out, "In politics, you can squander millions on pork-barrel spending and no one cares, but if you put new curtains up, that's a scale the public can identify with."

During the hard times of the Depression and World War II, the politically astute Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt knew better than to live it up. The aristocratic but unpretentious couple's White House took on the air of what one guest called "an old and ultrarespectable summer resort hotel." Indeed, practicality trumped high style as the no-nonsense Eleanor had ten inches lopped off the bottom of damask curtains to make cleaning easier. Yet a yearning for grandeur at the White House has always reasserted itself when times are good, and that impulse reached a peak at the beginning of the 1960s.

Jacqueline Kennedy—who first visited the White House as a child during the Roosevelt administration and came to know it as a senator's wife under the Eisenhowers—was appalled by the mansion's drab interiors and lack of historic artifacts. After Harry Truman gutted and rebuilt the crumbling structure (from 1949 to 1952), he furnished it with reproductions from B. Altman. When John F. Kennedy took office, his wife began a transformation that despite many changes since then has left a lasting legacy. "Everything Jackie did was so serious," says Janet Felton Cooper, a childhood friend who became the first secretary of the Fine Arts Committee for the White House. "She and the president had such a strong sense of history." Seale concurs: "Before then, you toured the White House as the place where the president lived, and these were the things that he lived with every day. But the Kennedys added a new perspective to it by trying to put some historical substance back on the inside."

Soliciting donations from the public—and especially from such rich Democratic and Republican families as the Loebs, Engelhards, Mellons, and Wrightsmans, who made up her core group of supporters—Mrs. Kennedy amassed the beginnings of a collection equal to the importance of the setting. Seeking the best professional advice, she asked the eminent American furniture scholar and collector Henry Francis duPont, founder of the Winterthur Museum, in Delaware, to head her Fine Arts Committee.

But aware that historical expertise and a flair for decorating don't necessarily coincide, Mrs. Kennedy also brought in the legendary Stéphane Boudin of the Paris firm of Jansen to oversee the redesign of the rooms. The acknowledged master of decoration in the grand manner, he had redone the Château de Malmaison, among other commissions. Boudin's schemes for the White House were stunning, and the house reached a level of elegance and sophistication that has not been approached since. Several of the Kennedy interiors, particularly the chic Red Room, the imposing Treaty Room, the cozy Lincoln Sitting Room, and the stately Blue Room—which in a 1980 interview the then Mrs. Onassis told me she considered "Boudin's masterpiece"—are now thought by design historians to be among the most superb ever created in America.

Running the gamut from Federal to Classical to Victorian, the refurbished rooms of the Kennedy White House offered a comprehensive survey of the best American design of the first three quarters of the 19th century. The project not only touched off the widespread revival of interest in such previously neglected periods as American Empire but also made people look seriously at Victoriana once again, and it put the "minor" decorative arts on a par with other mediums. Mrs. Kennedy's efforts were not limited to the inside of the house. She had her friend Rachel Lambert Mellon—better known as Bunny—redesign the gardens to the east and west of the mansion, establishing a new standard in American horticulture. (Mellon did so again when she consulted on the replanting of the Rose Garden for the Reagans.)

Knowing how ephemeral interior decoration can be, Mrs. Kennedy wanted to prevent her less discerning successors from ruining what she'd accomplished. Whatever future presidential families might do on the private second and third floors, she wanted the public ground and main floors to remain sacrosanct. However, since the White House curator and various advisory groups serve at the pleasure of the president, the incumbent and his spouse can pretty much do as they please.

The first White House curator under the Kennedy Administration, the Winterthur-trained Lorraine Waxman Pearce, was eased out of the post after only a year when Mrs. Kennedy felt she was grabbing too much of the limelight. Pearce was followed by two low-key young men, first the shy and scholarly Baltimore aristocrat William Voss Elder III, and then James Roe Ketchum, a 24-year-old National Park Service employee whom Mrs. Kennedy had befriended. Since then, the job has sometimes become highly politicized, no more so than under Clement E. Conger, curator of the State Department collection and a conservative Republican with a hunger for power.

Even the fatalistic Mrs. Kennedy could not anticipate that her lovingly re-created White House interiors would be undone within a decade. As Seale recounts, "In 1970, the Nixons went to the State Department and saw those ghastly rooms and said to Clem, 'Oh, could you do this for us?' which he did. Clem was controversial because he appeared to commercialize the White House, with all that Franklin Mint stuff for sale by the White House Historical Association and other things that made people cringe. He got into the hands of Edward Vason Jones, a Georgia restoration architect whose taste was pure Southern piss-elegance at its most alluring, and a complete change from what Mrs. Kennedy had done."

Although Conger built up Pat Nixon's role—"She did more for the authentic refurbishing of the White House and its beautification than any administration," he said in a pointed jab at Mrs. Kennedy—the egotistical and high-handed curator finally met his match in Jackie's most style-obsessed successor. "Came the Reagans," states Seale, "and they couldn't stand Clem. He had become very territorial and begun to think that it was his house, and would say what goes here and there. The Reagans waited one term, and then the president insisted on personally dismissing him."

In Conger's place, Nancy Reagan installed Rex Scouten, a former Secret Service agent who had served as White House chief usher, or major-domo, since the Nixon Administration. (The First Lady liked Scouten so much she named her King Charles spaniel after him.) Though he had no background in the arts, Scouten was passionate about American history; and more important, he was deferential and efficient. He wisely turned a blind eye when the Reagans' personal designer, Ted Graber—a flamboyant Hollywood decorator whose clients included Joan Crawford—put his hand to the public rooms. "Graber made the biggest mess of the State Dining Room you ever saw," says Seale. "He treated it like some little suburban breakfast room and had yellow paint wiped all over the woodwork. It was just appalling."

Having to carry out distasteful orders is often par for the course among White House designers. George and Barbara Bush asked their longtime decorator, the erudite and historically aware Mark Hampton, to rip out Stéphane Boudin's ravishing and influential Treaty Room decor and replace it with a bland Englishy scheme with pale-green walls and brown-striped chintz curtains. "I remember speaking with Mark Hampton before he died," says James A. Abbott, curator of decorative arts at the Baltimore Museum of Art and author of Designing Camelot: The Kennedy White House Restoration, "and he told me that it was one of the greatest regrets of his career, but he was following his clients' wishes."

There had been hopes, when Bill Clinton took office, of a restoration of the Kennedy restoration. "I was so hoping that we could return it to the way it was when Jackie did it, but it looks just terrible," says Mrs. Kennedy's former aide, Janet Felton Cooper, who revisited the White House a year ago. "It's just crammed with things, and not very pretty things, either. There's no female touch, and it's not very attractive these days. Mr. DuPont had such a wonderful sense of color and proportion. He kept saying that these rooms aren't proportioned very well—with their eighteen-foot ceilings they're much too high for their size so don't put up great huge valances or pictures over the windows. But of course Clem Conger went that other route, and the rooms remain much the way he redid them and look just terrible."

However, James Abbott is more measured in his appraisal of the current state of decorative affairs at the executive mansion. "Personally, I'm somewhat disappointed, and I am not sure if the best of American decor is being presented there," he says. "But the attention the Clintons have given to the interior is in many ways admirable. I like that hints of the Kennedy decor have been revived in the Blue Room and State Dining Room. The Clintons have bridged the gap between the two extremes of the last forty years in the White House—the Kennedy and the Nixon interiors—and have tried to bring the best of both together."

Although acquisitions have slowed to a trickle since the gung-ho Conger years, a few significant pieces have entered the White House collection during the Clinton Administration. At the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis estate auction in 1996, the White House had hoped to snag the Louis XVI bureau plat on which President Kennedy signed the 1963 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, but it had to drop out of the bidding long before the hammer price of $1.43 million was reached. All it could afford was a pencil sketch of an 1860 Blue Room reception, which went for $14,000. Some of the Clintons' choices have had more to do with political correctness than pure artistic merit. Among them are Sand Dunes at Sunset, Atlantic City, a large but dreary canvas by the 19th-century African-American artist Henry Ossawa Tanner; it now hangs in the Green Room, not far from a small landscape oil by the vastly overrated but perennially popular Georgia O'Keeffe.

One problem that experts agree on is the lack of a single vision for the White House interiors, as evidenced by the Clintons' 1995 redo of the Blue Room. "The design isn't successful because it was done by committee," comments one White House observer, who asked not to be identified. "You have to have a dominant voice." Betty Monkman, who oversaw the project with a group of fellow curators, is by all accounts too retiring and fearful of her position to take on an assertive role, and with good reason, given the fate of her predecessors. To the dismay of her publisher, Monkman declined to be interviewed for this article. Was this simply a matter of Clinton Administration stonewalling of the press, or were there other motives at work, such as job security? "Lorraine Pearce and Clem Conger," one source explains, "are the cautionary references for curators not to be too aggressive or to overshadow their boss."

After two centuries, the definitive commentary on the White House remains the famous benediction that John Adams put down in a letter to his wife, Abigail, on the second day he spent there. "I pray to Heaven," he wrote, "to bestow the best of blessings on this house, and all that shall thereafter inhabit it. May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof." Whatever the new inhabitants do to make their temporary residence their own, it remains a characteristically American work-in-progress. Like the great experiment that is the United States itself, William Seale says, "The White House is never finished."

Treasure House

If the White House were to catch fire again—it was burned by the British in 1814 and the West Wing went up in flames in 1929—these are the pieces I'd run to rescue first:

The iconic portrait of the man who built the White House but never lived in it was the first work of art installed there in 1800. The full-length canvas was saved by Dolley Madison when she fledthe mansion in advance of marauding redcoats during the War of 1812. It has hung in the East Room for more than a century and is now accompanied by a much lesser, later likeness of his wife, Martha.

The greatest piece of sculpture in the White House is a white marble bust by the greatest portrait sculptor of his time. The French master portrayed Barlow—a now little-remembered writer and diplomat—during a sojourn in Paris as a defiantly proud representative of his young country. This was before he was sent to negotiate a trade treaty with Napoleon and died from exposure during the disastrous retreat from Russia.

Engraved with their initials, this impressive English Sheffield silver-plate serving piece was purchased by the first White House residents during Adams' ambassadorship to London and was probably used by the president and his wife during their four-month residence in the new mansion. The urn was returned to the White House during the Johnson Administration, and Lady Bird now calls it "the most historic acquisition during my residence there."

Finest of all presidential portraits, this penetrating oil was painted from life and looks it, as the multitalented subject appears ready to break into animated conversation. Now hanging in the Blue Room, it was one of several major gifts from the peerless collectors Paul and Bunny Mellon during the restoration project of their great friend Jacqueline Kennedy.

To refurnish the war-ravaged White House, James Monroe went on a Paris shopping spree and ordered a dazzling suite of gilded Empire furniture for the Oval (now Blue) Room. This mirrored, marble-topped console is the only piece of furniture to remain in the White House ever since. During the Nixon years it was stupidly separated from its companion pieces in the Blue Room and now stands illogically alone in the North Entrance Hall.

Crafted in New York by the French émigré ébéniste, this impossibly stylish guéridon is mounted in gilded bronze, its top inlaid with multicolored marbles. Bought by Treasury Secretary C. Douglas Dillon for Jackie Kennedy's triumphant Red Room, it is acknowledged as the maker's masterwork and would have been the star of The Metropolitan Museum of Art's Lannuier retrospective in 1998, but the Clinton White House refused to lend it.

Best of the American genre scenes in the White House collection, this scene of flatboatmen on the Missouri River is both a visual equivalent of Mark Twain and an evocative emblem of the country's westward expansion. It was bought during the Carter Administration by go-getting curator Clement E. Conger, one of his greatest coups.

Not only did Lincoln probably never sleep in the "Lincoln" bed (it was bought during his administration for distinguished guests in the State Bedroom), but the present Lincoln Bedroom was actually his office. The most extraordinary object on display there is this autographed manuscript of the greatest speech ever written by an American president. Lincoln copied it out as a fund-raiser for a precursor of the Red Cross.

Presented to Rutherford B. Hayes by Queen Victoria and carved from timbers of the H.M.S. Resolute, a ship recovered from the Arctic by a United States whaler, this desk has been used by almost every president since. It was made famous by photos of the toddler John F. Kennedy Jr. underneath it playing hide-and-seek with his father. The hinged center panel, carved with the presidential seal, was added by Franklin D. Roosevelt to screen his crippled legs.

Despite their shock and grief after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in November 1963, his family personally chose this ethereal Impressionist landscape as their memorial gift to the White House, and it was hung in the Green Room before his widow moved out. After moving into the White House in 1969, J.F.K.'s old rival, Richard Nixon, exiled the painting to the ground-floor Vermeil Room, antechamber to the ladies lounge, but the Bushes restored it to an honored place in their West Sitting Hall, upstairs.

Martin Filler has written on the interior design of the White House for The New York Times Magazine and House Beautiful, where he is art and antiques editor.