Despite my interest in American History and interior decorating, until today I knew basically nothing about how the White House has been decorated. I knew, of course, that Jackie Kennedy spearheaded a redecoration of the White House that focused on quality art and antiques, celebrity decorators and historical accuracy. I more or less supposed that the Kennedy decorating schemes were so famous that they haven't been touched since, but it turns out that every First Family has redecorated to greater or lesser extents. I have even come to the conclusion that the Kennedy decor is not (gasp!) necessarily the best.
Much of my new found knowledge of the White House comes from an online White House Museum, a testament to how one man can gather knowledge and put it on the Internet. Check it out to see floor plans (particularly of the third floor that I never knew was there) and photos of practically every room. Here are some highlights:
The wittily named Yellow Oval Room is on the second, private, floor of the Residence directly above the Blue Room. It is used as a formal living room, to receive foreign dignitaries (for example, before a State Dinner) and other important guests. The room was given its yellow color scheme under Jackie Kennedy, whose decor is shown in the picture on the left from 1964. On the right is a view of the room from 1991 after a few minor changes. A darker rug (which I prefer) has been substituted and a few more red chairs have been added to break up the overwhelming yellow, and more elaborate curtains (which I don't prefer) have been hung outside the window trims. This emphasizes the height of the room but hides the charming Federal-style trim work.
Between the President's bedroom suite and the private kitchen and dining room lies the real Living Room of the place, the West Sitting Room. It used to be a stairwell before the stairs were moved to a more central location. At left is a view of the room in 1963 as decorated by the Kennedys; not much to write home about compared to the view on the right from 1999. The Clintons have gone for more of an English county-house look, with more flowers, throw pillows, and a richer color scheme. Although it's still formal it seems infinitely more comfortable.
Mirroring the West Sitting Hall is the East Sitting Hall, which lies between the Lincoln Bedroom suite and the Queen's Bedroom suite. On the left is a view of the sitting room in 1960, before the Kennedy redecoration and on the right is the room in 1962, just after it. I love the delicate chandelier and window treatment, which makes the most of the fabulous semicircular window, but more color please! The Nixons, of all people, obliged. They redecorated the room in cheerful yellow, as you can see in the picture, below left, from 1975. On the right is a view of the room in 2002, as it was redecorated by the Clintons. The yellow has moved to the walls, to tie the space in with the West Sitting Room and Central Hall that lies in between them. I dislike the overly grand window treatment but love the Federal furniture.
The President's Bedroom suite consists of a sitting room, a larger bedroom, dressing room, and bath. Sometimes the sitting room and bedroom were used as two separate bedrooms, with the First Lady actually getting the larger "President's Bedroom" all to herself. This was the case during the Kennedy administration, and above are two shots of the main bedroom in 1962 as it was decorated for Jackie. Of course, we probably shouldn't read too much into the practice of separate bedrooms. Jackie Kennedy insisted on two twin beds pushed together so that JFK, who had back problems, could sleep on a hard mattress. This is probably my favorite Jackie Kennedy room, but although I love the serene blue and white color scheme in the bedroom, it feels a bit icy in the Dressing Room next door, where the walls are pale blue instead of pale yellow. I prefer the room as it was decorated by Lady Bird Johnson, shown on the right, who used the space more as a study. I like what I can see of the Chinese wallpaper, and I love that sofa.
But it's the Reagan administration that wins the great wallpaper contest, hands down. On the left is a view of the same Dressing Room as decorated for Nancy Reagan. I love that cantaloupe color and the cane daybed. On the right is a view of the President's Bedroom (used by both Reagans) in 1981. They chose an absolutely beautiful antique Chinese wallpaper of flocks of birds, and for some reason the Clintons replaced it!
Across from the President's Bedroom is the Private Dining Room, with a small (i.e. normal) Family Kitchen next door. On the left is the room in 1963 as redecorated under Jackie Kennedy. Antique panorama wallpaper depicting imagined scenes from the Indian American War and federal furnishings, including an excellent example of a convex mirror, create a harmonious whole. Later First Families, however, found the murals too dark and depressing. The Fords, shown on the right with Queen Elizabeth and Prince Albert of England in 1976, covered the murals with a bright yellow wallpaper, but the murals were quickly uncovered by the Carters, shown entertaining guests in 1978, below left. Then the historical look was too much for the Clintons, who had the walls covered (very carefully this time) by panels hung with a lovely cream silk. The cream silk remains today, but those panoramic scenes are just waiting to be uncovered yet again. They were the inspiration for the Mural Room, which lies across from the Oval Office in the television show The West Wing.
On the other side of the Yellow Oval Room is a space known as the Treaty Room. Jackie Kennedy chose the moniker and gave the room a Victorian decor, as shown in the photo, above left, from 1963. At the center of the room is the table used to sign the peace treaty ending the Spanish American War. A painting that memorializes the signing was also placed there. The painting and table have been in the room ever since, although it is now used as the President's private study. Above right is a view of the room in 2000 as it was decorated for Bill Clinton. I love all those reds! George W. Bush kept the rug but repainted the walls a dull cream, as you can see in the picture, below left, from 2002. You can also see the aforementioned painting "Singing of the Peace Protocol Between Spain and the United States" hanging above the table, now used as a desk, that the painting depicts.
The Treaty Room was originally used as the President's official office. Although the West Wing was built as a temporary structure by Teddy Roosevelt to relieve the overcrowding caused by his large family, it was FDR who first set up permanent offices there. FDR's New Deal programs and fighting WWII required more office space that was close at hand to the President's. Below right is a picture from 1935 of FDR in the modern Oval Office. I love those curtains, which have an eagle on each valance.
The Oval Office has probably gone through more changes than any other room in the White House. Above left is a picture of Ronald Reagan in his Oval Office, decorated in a warm color scheme of pumpkin and cream. Although I love the colors, the absence of red, white, and blue seems downright unpatriotic. Men, above right, look out of place in George H.W. Bush's Oval Office, which sports a horrendous powder-blue carpet and sofas in white damask. The need for stronger color was soon met. Below left is a view of the Oval Office as it appeared during the Clinton administration as well as on the television show The West Wing. Now that's a patriotic color scheme! In this photo, below right, from 2005, I'm not sure who looks more out of place. Bono stands in George W. Bush's Oval Office, which has been redecorated in taupe and beige with the occasional colonial blue. The sunburst rug is based on the one used by Ronald Reagan.
An overhead view of the current oval office, below left, shows off its beautiful flooring around the edges. The photo, below right, shows the entire floor just after it was refurbished in 2005. The design consists of alternating boards of oak and walnut in a chevron pattern.
I'll close with a couple of my favorite views of the White House. Although there are small kitchens on the second and third floors of the residence, the main kitchen is an industrial powerhouse on the ground floor. Below left is a view of the kitchen in 1948 during the Truman administration, just before it was remodeled. Check out those diner counter stools and the retro industrial cabinets! Today the kitchen looks just like any other restaurant. On the right is a view of the Central Hall on the second floor of the Residence as it was decorated in 1997 for the Clintons. Now that's my kind of White House, modern art at last!