The White House
An illustrated Architectural History
Patrick Phillips-Schrock
(McFarland & Co.)
Imagine: you get elected president and you have to figure out how you are going to inhabit all the rooms there at the White House. Bring in friends to muddy the floor (like Jackson), or set aside a few for your gambling pals (Harding), or set them up for the kids to play Cowboys and Indians (Teddy Roosevelt), or open a couple in which to serve martinis and bad food (F. D. Roosevelt), or dim the lights for seances (Nancy Reagan), or whisper and plot wars in them (Bush II). I tried to figure out the exact number of rooms they had to play with and could only come up with an approximate figure: seventy-four (according the "Report of the Commission on the Renovation of the Executive Mansion, 1952" --- page 178). Even that seems excessive. How would you like being stuck with the dolts in the House of Representatives and have to come home to a palace with over six dozen rooms.

The White House is equally ambivalent about the specific facts of size and shape and dimensions because every one of the presidents or their wives that came down the pike seemed to want to put their own imprint on it. Some closed off rooms, or took down walls; others added walls, built swimming pools (FDR, Ford) while others covered over swimming pools (Truman), stuck in ice-houses (Jefferson), put in a billiard room (Grant --- wouldn't you know it!), and tried to find a back-room or out-building where he could hide his slaves (Washington).

Then there was the usual vanity and jealousy when the place changed hands. Jackie Kennedy spent the two-and-a-half months before moving in making plans for "restoring antique decor." She even dug up a board of experts to help her. But then Pat Nixon came along and with the help of a cluck by the name of Clement Conger implemented what the author calls "heavy, fussy redecorations:"

    One by one the tasteful historic chic of the Boudin-Dupont interiors [of Jackie Kennedy] vanished to be replaced with an ultra museum-like setting of high-quality antiques and elaborate hangings and placements.

Better defined, we would guess, as Modern California Gauche. Someone should have taken out a restraining order against Pat Nixon and Conger. Gerald Ford's wife was no better at preserving the tasteful changes wrought in the early 1960s ... and what is now called the "Congerization" of the place continues to this day, with the exception of a room known as the Queen's Sitting Room.

This reference made me scratch my poll to try to recall when we had a queen sitting there in Washington. Perhaps it was Edith White Bolling Galt Wilson who, without being voted into office, managed to run the country for over two years after Wilson's stroke in October of 1919. No one could get beyond the iron lady which, considering the foreign policy of our most recent presidents, might be something we might consider reconstituting ... to get a sitting queen to sit in the Queen's Sitting Room to run the show again. I'd vote for Michelle in a trice.

Galt was a funny one. Wags in Washington said that when Wilson proposed to her in 1915, "she nearly fell out of bed" ... and the august Washington Post reported that --- on the night of his proposal, they were watching a play together --- Wilson "rather than paying attention to the play the President spent the evening entering Mrs. Galt." Woodrow was such a roué.

§   §   §

There are a bunch of rooms here I've never heard of, which is making me reconsider the impossibility of there being so many of them, There is the Ante Room next to the President's Office which I guess is where Bush played Texas Hold 'Em. There is Mrs. Polk's Room, named after Sarah Childress Polk. Wikipedia tells us that Polk had "prominent" teeth and was of "sallow coloring," and she didn't approve of drinking, which resulted in her nickname, "Sahara Sarah."

She may have been an official "Washington Woman" --- she moved there in 1825 --- of which Martin Van Buren said, "I [would] rather have live vermin on my back than the tongue of one of these Washington women on my reputation."

There is also the Wash Room for washing up after a hearty campaign, a Mean Kitchen (!) where you could roast your political rivals, a "Circular Room" for fabricating political scandal, the "Usher's Room" for fans of E. A. Poe, the Blue Room, the Red Room, the Rose Room, the Turquoise Room, the Umber Room, the Burnt Sienna Room and the Alizarin Crimson Room. I just made up some of these.

The Queen's Bedroom, with or without Edith, is quite nice if you are into beds with heavy cupolas on them. I've never been able to sleep in a bed like that since I figure that during one of my more violent dreams the canopy would drop down and brain me. You can have the other rooms in the White House: the Yellow Oval Room looks like a whorehouse in pre-WWI New Orleans, and the Blue Room like one during WWII. The author refers to this last as having "distractingly heavy valances and bobbin fringe with contrasting drapery."

There are a passel of color plates here, and one of the most alarming is a picture of the walls of the Oval Room (I almost wrote the "Oral Room" which I guess, depending on your point of view, might be more correct: since the decor might bring a person of some aesthetics to the edge of nausea.)

If Pat Nixon's add-ons are especially tacky, you should get a load of the furniture they brought in. A presidential chair, "an original gilt beechwood fauteuil," has the same affect as the Oval Room, and the design and fretwork of a rosewood center table that came down from Mary Todd Lincoln is about as dotty as she was.

One of the best wall hangings by far is the "key to the Bastille," sent along to Washington by the Marquis de LaFayette in 1790. The way it is hung in its bronze box makes it appear like something you would use to put out a five-alarm fire. Fire, it seems, did play a decisive role in the history of the White House, and after looking at all the hooliganism inflicted on the building by most of the presidential wives and their consultants got us to thinking that maybe the British had the right idea when they tried to burn the wretched place down in 1814.

--- Roberta Wicker, MA
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