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White House - Public And Private Rooms

( Originally Published 1908 )

COMPARING the White House to a human being, the building itself may be said to be the body, while the home within is the soul. The tangible and visible soul of the White House, therefor, consists of the rooms and the furniture therein, together with the decorations, bric-a-brac and so on, all of which are a part of the home as established by the lady or ladies of the Presidents' families.

In the twenty-six administrations that have begun and ended during the one hundred years of the existence of the White House, the furniture has been changed from time to time, each change depending upon the tastes of the "First Lady" and "First Gentleman." Congress makes an appropriation at the beginning of each new administration, out of which the new occupants of the White House may buy new furniture or repair old furniture, to suit their convenience.

To the public the best known rooms in the mansion are the East Room, and the Blue, Red and Green Parlors. The famous East Room is the one into which most daily visitors are ushered, and hence this room, more than any other in the house, is the one with which the public is familiar. The Blue, Red and Green Parlors known as the State Suite are not open to the public, and hence these rooms are generally known only through descriptions given in the press.

Mrs. John Adams used the East Room in her day "hanging up the clothes to dry." It was not till Jackson's term that this room was completed and furnished, Jackson's furniture expense bill being larger than that of any of his predecessors or successors for many years before and after, all because of the furnishing, at last, of the one great room to which the public was admitted.

The Blue, Red and Green Rooms, have been refurnished from time to time, and have even changed their names by a "shuffling" process by which, on one or two occasions, the Blue Parlor has become the Red Parlor. On the whole, however, the furnishing of these rooms has been in the color, from which they originally derived their names.

In this chapter are given the facts relating to the various changes in rooms and furniture in the White House during various periods, the description including both the public and the private apartments of the Presidential families.

The Famous East Room

Many of the important events in the history of the White House have taken place in its best known apartment, the far-famed East Room, the largest room in the mansion. When the Adamses took possession of the Executive Mansion the east side of the building was not finished, and it is related in previous chapters of the present work that Mrs. Adams was wont to dry her washing in the East Room when the inclement weather prevented the use of the yard. "This now famous room," says a Leslie's Weekly correspondent, "was not furnished until Monroe's term. Then a trip to Paris resulted in the purchase of its furniture and 0rnaments. When Monroe's daughter, Maria, was united to Samuel L. Gouverneur, of New York, the East Room was opened to the public for the first time. Thus the room was dedicated to Hymen."

Up to the time of the restoration of the White House under Roosevelt, the vast East Room, then used principally as a reception room, was frequently described as "bare but impressive." Today it is finished luxuriously and more tastefully than ever before, and although it contains simply the grand piano, the banquettes, the four bronze Roman standards bearing the electric lights, and the handsome window draperies, yet it by no means seems bare. Its own beauty is furniture sufficient.

The most authoritative report on this famous room as it is now, is contained in the report of the architects who refurnished and redecorated it in 1902, thus;

"The walls of the East Room are covered with wood paneling, enameled; the ornamental ceiling is done in stucco, and set in the walls are twelve low relief panels by Piccirilli Brothers, sculptors, the subjects being taken from . sop's fables. On each of the east and west sides of the room are two mantels of colored marble, with mirrors over them and candelabra on the shelves. Three crystal chandeliers form constituent parts of the decoration, as do also the four bronze standards bearing electric lights, which are placed at the four corners of the room. The window draperies are of heavy yellow silk damask; the banquettes are gilded and carved and are covered with silk velours, and there are four new console tables with marble tops. In this room, as in the other rooms on the drawing-room floor (except in the hall, where stone is used), hardwood floors have been laid, and wainscots have been introduced, of which the lower member has been made of marble of suitable color. The concert grand piano, decorated by Dewing, is the gift of the makers."

The Blue Room

As far as Van Buren's time the Blue Room was an apartment of general interest, and was described as "one of the most beautiful rooms in America." From one account of this room that appeared in Van Buren's term, we find the remarks :

"Let us take a view of what is, the present day, called the `Blue Elliptical Saloon', though in former times it was known as the `Green Circular Parlor'. This apartment is nearly oval in form, and is forty feet long by thirty wide. In its beautiful shape, rich French furniture, showy drapery, costly gilded ornaments, and general arrangements the `Blue Elliptical Saloon has frequently been pronounced the choicest room in the palace."

As for the Blue Room of today, we again give facts from the official reports of the architects who "made it over" six years ago:

Rarely beautiful in its proportions, the Blue Room has been made notable by the events that have taken place within its walls ; and in the changes particular emphasis has been placed on this room. The mantel is of pure white marble, the shelf being supported on bundles of arrows carved in white marble with bronze tips and feathers ; the wainscoting is in white enamel ; the wall covering is of heavy, corded blue silk, on which is embroidered at top and bottom the Grecian fret; the curtain hangings, of the same material as the wall covering, are embroidered with stars, and the curtain poles are surmounted by gild eagles. The Grecian fret appears also in the ceiling. The furniture is in white and gold, upholstered in blue and gold.

Blind doors have been cut in the walls near the southern end of the room, and at receptions the guests coming from the Red Room pass the receiving party standing in a single line directly in front of the windows. The guests especially invited to share the Blue Room with the receiving party now face the President instead of being at his back as formerly, and a silken cord stretched across the room from door to door insures freedom of passage for the guests while being presented.

The Red and Green Rooms

It was in the Red Room that President Hayes took the oath of office, on the Saturday evening preceding the fourth of March, the regular inauguration falling on Sunday and the President's advisers suggesting that he take the oath in advance instead of waiting till Monday. Just what the Red Room looked like on the night that oath was taken, the only Presidential oath taken actually within the White House, appears in the following sketch by a writer of that day :

"The Red Parlor in which the ceremony took place is the room which has been used by Mrs. Grant as a private reception room, and has only been thrown open to the public on reception days and evenings. It is situated on the ground-floor, on the west side of the Executive Mansion, between the banquet hall and the violet blue parlor, and communicates with both. The room has recently been furnished in a style known to upholsterers as the English version of the Queen Anne. Many of the ornaments about the room suggest historical reminiscences. On the mantel there is a large gilt clock, representing the residence of Franklin at the suburban resort of Passy, near Paris. Beside it are two rare Meudon vases. A notable feature of the decoration of the room is a large electrotype copy of the Milton shield, modeled by Morrell, the original of which is in repoussÚ work in iron and silver. The copy was purchased by Mrs. Grant at the Centennial Exhibition. The notable features of the other furniture of the room are two small Japanese cabinets, a gift from the Japanese Minister.

The Red Room of today is described in the official report, thus:

"The changes made in the State Dining Room (in 1902) necessitated the removal of the two marble mantels that are contemporary with the house itself. Exquisitely carved in London and imported with others purchased for the Capitol, these mantels were almost the only historic furnishings in the White House at the time when the restoration began. Too small for the spaces where they were placed, they now become the chief ornaments of the Red and the Green rooms, respectively. The wainscoting of the Red Room is in white enamel, and there is a new cornice. The wall covering and the curtains of red velvet, and the furniture is upholstered in red damask. There is a crystal chandelier and side lights; new andirons, a new mirror between the windows, and an antique rug.

"Concerning the Green Room of the present day it may be said that the wall covering and curtains of green velvet are copied from an old piece of Genoese velvet; the marble console table shares with the mantel the distinction of age and grace ; the furniture upholstered in tapestry the rug, the mirror, the andirons, the crystal chandelier and side lights, all are new. "

The State Dining Room

Since the restoration of the White House in 1902, the State Dining Room is more beautiful than ever in its history. Here are eight silver electric side-lights and a magnificent central chandelier of the same precious metal. Two mahogany dining-tables are used one for the family for luncheon and private meals, and both tables for State Dinners and other formal meals, the two tables being then joined together to form a single board.

The chairs in this room match the tables in respect to material, these being of mahogany, with upholstery in dark green. Occasionally, instead of joining the two tables together as mentioned, a crescent-shaped table is formed, particularly for State dinners.

From the architects' report to the President on the redecorating and refurnishing of the State Dining-room, we gain an excellent idea of its present appointments, thus;

"By removing the partition and including the western end of the corridor, the State Dining Room has been enlarged by over sixty per cent., and instead of accommodating, as formerly, between fifty and sixty guests at table, one hundred and seven can now be seated comfortably. A stone chimneypiece, with an antique fire set, has been added. The walls are paneled from floor to ceiling in oak, richly carved ; the chandelier and wall branches are of silver, and heads of American game are used around the frieze. The ceiling, in stucco, is elaborately decorated. There is an India carpet in solid color; the tables and sideboards are of mahogany, and the chairs are upholstered in tapestry. The draperies are in green velvet. Two tapestries, one bearing a text from Virgil's VIII. Eclogue, are of Flemish workmanship of the seventeenth century."

The Roosevelt Bedrooms

The private apartments of President Roosevelt and his family now comprise the whole of the second floor. Mr. Roosevelt's bedroom is the one known as the "Prince of Wales Room." When the Prince of Wales used this room, it was not connected with either bath or dressing-room. Today, bath and dressing-room are adjuncts of this famous bedroom.

Day Allan Willey says that "while the President devotes much time to his family and, as is well known, believes in taking a liberal amount of recreation, some of his most enjoyable hours are spent in the quiet of his bedroom, for before retiring he frequently forgets the cares of the day in a volume of one of his favorite authors, or between the pages of some magazine. He does more reading for pleasure in this apartment than in any other, for the reason that it is one of the few places where he can obtain the quiet which he so greatly covets. At his special request when the White House was renovated, his room was left practically undisturbed. It contains the massively, carved furniture which has been a part of the White House belongings for many years, even the student lamp being of an old-fashioned pattern."

Private Dining-Room and Library

A vaulted ceiling and wall paneling in plaster, a new marble mantel, a wainscoting in white enamel, a mirror copied from one belonging to the early White House period, a mahogany table, chairs and sideboard, all made from special designs, are features of the Roosevelt private dining-room of today.

To Mrs. Fillmore, says an authority, writing in The Christian Herald, the Executive Mansion owes its first library. The place was almost devoid of books when she went there: influenced by her, Mr. Fillmore asked Congress for the necessary appropriation and forthwith a big, pleasant room was furnished with good books.

President Cleveland, while in the White House, gathered a superb collection of children's books, some of which are still on the shelves in the library of the White House.

Cost of Furniture and a Historic Desk

Each new President, as already explained, may refurnish such rooms as need to be modernized and refitted. This duty usually falls to the lot of the mistress of the Mansion, whether she be wife or sister or niece of the President. Congress practically says to such lady, "You may do what you please with the furniture, so long as you keep the expense within the sum appropriated for the purpose."

Andrew Jackson, way back in the very early days of the Republic, attracted some attention by denouncing as "extravagant" a bill to spend $14,000 in furniture for the White House.

Yet strangely enough it fell to Andrew Jackson's lot, when he became the master of the mansion, to spend a larger sum for furniture than any of the Presidents down to Civil War times. The amount of money spent by Jackson ($40,000 for his two terms) was every penny of it necessary, owing to the general desire to have the East Room furnished and decorated, in a way that would at last do justice to the most important dwelling in the country.

In the President's Room in the White House today, stands a massive oaken desk of beautiful design. It was made from timbers of H.M.S. Resolute, and has an interesting history.

The inscription on this desk reads:

"Her Majesty's ship Resolute, forming part of the expedition sent in search of Sir John Franklin in 1852, was abandoned in latitude 74░ 41' north, longitude lof ░ 22' west on May 15, 1854. She was discovered and extricated in September, 1855, in latitude 67░ north, by Captain Buddington of the United States Whaler George Henry. The ship was purchased, fitted out and sent to England as a gift to Her Majesty Queen Victoria, by the President and people of the United States as a token of good-will and friendship. This table was made from her timbers when she was broken up, and is presented by the Queen of Great Britain and Ireland to the President of the United States, as a memorial of the courtesy and loving-kindness which dictated the offer of the gift of the President."

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