Review by Elisabeth D. Garrett
The White House: Its Historic Furnishings and First Families

Betty C. Monkman. The White House: Its Historic Furnishings and First Families. Washington, D.C: White House Historical Association, 2000; New York: Abbeville Press, 2000. 320 pp.; 260 color and 35 bw illus., catalogue, bibliography, index. $65.00.

The White House: Its Historic Furnishings and First Families was published in celebration of the 200th anniversary of the building’s first occupancy by a president and his lady. In November 1800, a reluctant yet steadfast Abigail Adams joined her husband at the nation’s new presidential residence, which had been under construction for eight years, in the then-stark, nascent federal city, thereby becoming the first first lady to try to make this house a home. It was not easy. Abigail found half the rooms unplastered, and many of them “vastly deficient in furniture.” In this informative and eminently readable book, Betty C. Monkman, the White House curator, chronicles the successive efforts of presidents and their ladies over the next two hundred years as each in turn “struggled, made do, accomplished, enjoyed.” The special significance of the first lady’s role in this endeavor is acknowledged throughout the book and signaled in the foreword where six former first ladies capsulize and personalize the extraordinary experience of living in the White House. While there have been many books written on the President’s House, there had been none which focused on the decorative arts. The objective of this volume, therefore, is to put on display the White House decorative arts collection: French, English, and American furniture, ceramics, glass, metals, lighting devices, clocks, and textiles; while also chronicling the legacy of the successive first families in gathering and building that collection.

To discover and disclose the history of White House furnishings has been a complex task: constant change has been the two-hundred-year leitmotif. Any generations-old house would typically reflect the permutations of evolving taste and technology, but add to that the vicissitudes of enforced change of occupancy every four to eight years. Monkman mines and unravels the entanglements of history and art, people and pieces, as she provides the historical context for examining the decorative arts in this collection.

For those who have been to the White House, or wish to tour again at leisure, or to prepare for an upcoming visit, this volume offers much. The book brings the reader in close to individual pieces and also opens up the rooms for which they were intended—in both their historical and present-day demeanor. Though the state rooms are featured, the reader will have the privilege of visiting more private spaces such as the “Queens’ Bedroom,” the “Queens’ Sitting Room,” or the “Lincoln Bedroom.” (This latter would perhaps benefit from the affectionate hand of a “Victorianist,” for the room lacks the ambiance, the easy layered comfort of its earlier years. One longs to see the éclat of snow-white pillow shams against the polished mahogany headboard and the billowing drama of the original purple satin and gold lace bed hangings.)

The success of the book is in part due to its clear organizing principle. Seven chapters are divided chronologically in an interweaving of art historical styles and presidential administrations. In tandem with presidents, one moves from late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century neoclassicism to the revival styles of the Victorian era to the colonial revival of the early twentieth century, and, in the second half of that century, back to the neoclassicism of the earliest White House years. Along the way, individual pieces in the collection are examined: the specifics of manufacture, details of their original acquisition, their role in the furnishing vision of the time, and their political and cultural context. Each chapter concludes with a pictorial essay on one of the state rooms or other topic particularly relevant to that chapter. Chapter one, for example, looks at “The President’s House in the Early Years, 1789–1814,” encompassing the administrations of Washington through Madison. The pictorial essay visually narrates the evolution of the exterior design of the President’s House from James Hoban’s final design of 1793 through the building’s torching by the British in 1814 and beginning reconstruction. Because of this fire and other transformations of time, few actual White House furnishings survive from the earliest years, but the collection boasts numerous pieces—silver, furniture, porcelains, a presentation saber, etc.—with presidential associations which have been acquired in part from descendants of these first presidents. These objects are easy to study in the stunning, close-up, full-color photography of Bruce White which liberally illumines each chapter. An exuberance of Parisian gilded bronze, gilded wood, polished mahogany, and glittering silver fills the pages of chapter two, “French Taste at its White House Zenith, 1817–1829,” which pays tribute to James Monroe’s extensive efforts to refurbish the President’s House with furnishings and settings that would convey the dignity and grandeur of this resilient, powerful country. Monroe ordered many of the finest pieces for the (red) Oval Room, now the Blue Room, which was the main drawing room where the president and first lady received guests and where foreign dignitaries presented their credentials. Visitors at the time were awed by this “most splendid room,” “designed to impress upon foreign ministers a respect for the government.” The pictorial essay for chapter two, therefore, chronicles the evolution of décor in this singularly important Oval or Blue Room, from the earliest known image, an engraving published in the United States Magazine of 1856, through stereoscopic views of 1870 during the Grant administration, and on through photographs taken in 1900, 1903, 1995, and ultimately a 1999 photograph of its current dignified grandeur. 

Each chapter is rich in documentation. In researching chapter two, to give just one example, Monkman turned to government records in the National Archives including records of the House of Representatives, Congress, Treasury Accounts; records of the General Accounting Office, vouchers, and early appraisals; contemporary newspapers; the James Monroe Papers at the New York Public Library; period correspondence; travel accounts; journals; letter-books; and more recent published scholarship on specific pieces, decorative arts styles, and history. Two hundred years of quarrelsome voices provided the author with lively documentary material, for such a contentious combination as fiscal expenditure, the arts, democracy, and politics always will offer tentative peace at best and more often outright hostilities. A well-intentioned George Washington, at home in the then-presidential residence in New York City, was admonished for living in an aristocratic manner, though the French minister found that same house “squalid.” John Quincy Adams took the heat and the barbed rhymes of a “poet” for indulging in a secondhand billiard table, while Martin Van Buren was skewered by his political opponents for his “regal” life style, and Northern newspapers launched a war-era attack on Mary Todd Lincoln’s shopping trips and purchases “while her sister women scraped lint, sewed bandages.”

The care of these collections—from the earliest years of leaking roofs to the ongoing uneasy balance between public and private, ceremonial and curatorial—has always been a concern. Four months after Benjamin Henry Latrobe supplied James Madison with elegant Greek klismos chairs with fine saber-cut legs for the Oval Room, Latrobe noted that three had been broken by men leaning back in them—a violation of no surprise to anyone who has studied American genre painting or listened to the remonstrances of British and European travelers in early nineteenth-century America, who were shocked by these tasteless Yankees and their perverse and persistent habit of tilting back in chairs. The public’s embrace of the President’s House has not always been gentle. The depredations on the glass and chinaware during Andrew Jackson’s tumultuous “democratic” inaugural reception are legendary, but over the years many more souvenir hunters have stuffed their pockets with tassels and fringes, fabric swatches and gilded ornaments. Open to the public since 1801, this celebrated house, home, office, entertainment center, historical stage, and art museum, today receives more than a million visitors a year. This extraordinary wear and tear on furnishings has of course necessitated regular refurbishing of the rooms. As early as 1797, when George Washington left office, Congress authorized the disposition of “decayed presidential furnishings” through local auctions, and regular sales of outmoded, shabby, unfavored furnishings continued on a regular basis until 1903. The collection today, therefore, is made up of historical government purchases of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, former White House pieces which have been returned, decorative arts associated with the first presidents, and objects which have been donated by an American public intent on ensuring that the White House have a significant collection of American decorative arts.

One of the many interesting sub-themes of the book is the rising historical consciousness that helped to stem this disposal of and increase the regard for White House furnishings. In the 1890s first lady Caroline Harrison began to assemble surviving examples of porcelain from the various state dining services. Some thirty years later Grace Coolidge brought together the first advisory committee to study state room history, and in 1929 Lou Hoover, wishing to learn more about various pieces, instigated the first concerted effort to study historical White House furnishings. The real benchmark, of course, came with Jacqueline Kennedy’s many-pronged initiative to bring America’s history to life in the President’s House. The final chapter, “A Museum Evolves from a Collection,” gives ample evidence of the far-reaching philosophical and physical changes that her enlightened stewardship set in motion. Under her direction many of the state rooms were returned to early nineteenth-century neoclassical splendor, and the final pictorial essay, “Important [furniture] Acquisitions 1961–2000,” underscores the stunning success with which that aspect of her mandate has been met. Further, with President and Mrs. Kennedy’s guidance and encouragement, Congress passed legislation in 1961 to establish the museum character of the public rooms and created a curatorial position. That same year the White House Historical Association was organized to publish educational materials on the White House. This volume is one example of the many worthy projects which have emanated from that curatorial chair and Historical Association. 

The White House: Its Historic Furnishings and First Families includes an informative “Catalogue of Illustrated Objects” by Assistant Curator William G. Allman, and an encompassing introduction by Wendell Garrett. The large-scale format of the volume, the glossy white paper, and the generosity of excellent photographs by Bruce White make this an elegant production worthy of its topic. But it is more. It is a model for integrating history and the arts. Betty Monkman deserves special credit not only for this clear yet complex interweaving, but for sustaining a lively, engaging narrative while at the same time incorporating so much significant documentation, and for her masterful organization of this multifaceted material. This will be a rich resource for students of the decorative arts, those interested in the history of interior design, and political and cultural historians alike. And patriotic Americans can simply take pride in this handsome volume that visually and verbally portrays two hundred years of achievement in this “symbol of a nation.”

Elisabeth D. Garrett
Cornish, New Hampshire

American Furniture 2001