Monday, May 28, 2012

White House: The President's Dining Room

Recent separate discussions on both the Sister Parish White House furnishing for the Kennedys and the use of scenic wallpapers brought The Devoted Classicist to think about the second floor Family Dining Room, sometimes referred to as the President's Dining Room, at the Executive Mansion.  Before the Kennedy residency, the space had been used as a Bedroom or a Family Room;  previously, the First Families went downstairs for their meals, and a room designated as the Family Dining Room occupies a handsome space with a vaulted ceiling just below this room.

The President's Dining Room is the space labelled 'Dining Room'
in this Second Floor Plan depicting the 1962 use of rooms.
Image from The White House Organization.
Mrs. Parish planned the second floor of the White House to be the home for the Kennedy family on much the same terms as she had done for clients for decades whether for grand Manhattan apartments or country estates.  Previous occupants had envisioned the second floor as homey, family quarters, but it was Parish-Hadley (as it was to become as Albert Hadley joined the firm at this time) -- with First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy also advised by another great decorator of the day, Stephane Boudin of Maison Jansen, and a committee of wealthy benefactors to foot the bill -- who made it both comfortable and stylish.
First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy with son John, Jr., and daughter Caroline.
Photo:  John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum.

The neo-classical chimneypiece, presumably from the McKim Mead and White renovation,
is shown in this photo dated December, 1961.  The concealed door can partially be seen
on the left, open to the adjacent space used for the children's meals.
Photo:  John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum.

This view from February, 1962, shows a work-in-progress.
Photo:  John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum.

Mrs. Parish's off-white damask seat upholstery is shown here
along with a Waterford chandelier in a circa 1962 photo
by National Geographic Society.
Source: White House Historical Association.

The room was presented as a showcase Federal period furniture made in Maryland, no doubt acquired with the recommendation of Henry Francis DuPont, another influential advisor to Mrs. Kennedy.  (Mr. DuPont, the wealthy collector and perhaps the country's most revered antiquarian of the day, was the founder of the Winterthur Museum of Decorative Arts and the chairman of the newly formed Fine Arts Committee for the White House with Jacqueline Kennedy as honorary chairperson.  DuPont was major force in introducing quality antiques to furnish the State Rooms on the main floor, replacing the largely department-store-quality furniture with fine examples that were gifted or bought with donations).  The chimneypiece on the east wall was replaced by a circa 1815 mantel by Robert Wedford of Philadelphia.  Silver purchased by Andrew Jackson was displayed on a sideboard adorned with an American eagle portrayed by a satinwood inlay.  Silk curtains in two shades of blue were hung inside the openings so as not to obscure the window trim with an assymetric form based on a historic document design.  The main feature of the room, however, was a spectacular scenic wallpaper, circa 1853, depicting the American Revolutionary War that had come from a house in Baltimore.  The first image shows the more finished scheme, rather than an antique rug, a contemporary carpet with a subtle flamestitch pattern was used, and the damask chair seats were changed to tooled white leather (perhaps both being influences by Boudin) adding to the effect that it was a stylish private residence instead of a museum despite the high quality of furnishings.

President William Henry Harrison, in office for only 32 days, broke from tradition and used this room as his bedroom;  he died of pneumonia here in 1841 and most of the predecessors returned to using the bedroom across the hall.  Along with the adjacent corner room, the suite was used by the Prince of Wales in 1860 during his Buchanan administration visit and became known for a time thereafter as the "Prince of Wales Room".  In 1861, Mary Lincoln installed the furniture from the Philadelphia firm of William Carryl now associated with "The Lincoln Bedroom";  their beloved eleven year old son Willie died in the elaborate bed just months after the decoration of the room was complete and President Lincoln was embalmed in the room three years later according to AMERICA'S FIRST FAMILIES by Carl Sferraza Anthony.
Photo:  Library of Congress.
This 1898 view of the room shows how it appeared when used as a bedroom during the McKinley Presidency, photographed for the first time. First Lady Ida McKinley had it painted pink and spent most of her time during her White House occupancy.  The painting above the two brass beds pushed together is of their daughter who had died two decades earlier.
Photo:  Library of Congress, Harris & Ewing.
Some of the Victorian decoration was removed for Alice Roosevelt's use as a bedroom as seen in this 1902 photo.  During a meal with the Nixons about 70 years later, Alice Roosevelt Longworth remembered that she had her appendix removed in the room. Sister Ethel's bedroom is glimpsed through the open door.
Photo:  Library of Congress, Harris & Ewing.

Photo:  Library of Congress, Harris & Ewing.
A daughter of President Taft also used the space as a bedroom as seen in these circa 1911 photographs.  The idea of stylish comfort is beginning to show in the decoration of the room.
Photo:  Harry S. Truman Library and Museum.
As seen in this 1948 view of the room prior to the reconstruction of the White House, the Trumans daughter Margaret used it as her Sitting Room.  The piano leg's breaking through the floor was one of the factors that contributed to the decision to completely gut the mansion and rebuild it within the shell.
Photo:  Harry S. Truman Library and Museum.
The reconstruction deleted the chimney breast as shown in the 1952 photograph taken as the work was not yet completed. Also the doorway that had been adjacent to the fireplace was removed as that was the First Lady's Study on the other side of the wall.
Photo from the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum.
The reconstruction provided an elliptical end at the entrance to the room that served as a device to visually center the fireplace in the room.  A concealed door on the left leads to a closet.  The corresponding space on the right is also used as storage, but accessed through the hall to the corner room used by Margaret Truman as her bedroom.  The West Sitting Hall, used as a Living Room for the First Family, is seen through the doorway.
President Johnson at the head of the table with his advisors.
White House photo.
President Johnson, right, with his advisors.
White House photo.
Despite the enormous differences between the Kennedys and the Johnsons, there were no widespread changes of the White House decor, as shown in these photos of President Johnson meeting with his advisors in 1967.  In fact, the work that had already been ordered by Jacqueline Kennedy proceeded and was installed during the Johnson Administration.  (The exception was the Oval Office which had furnishings that were installed during the trip to Dallas;  President Johnson kept the curtains by Stephane Boudin but brought in the same desk he had used since his days in the Senate, added a console that held three televisions so he could see all the major networks at the same time, and eventually changed the red carpet to gray).
Photo:  National Archives and Records Administration.
Although it appears that only the rug has changed in circa 1970 photo of the Nixon family dining in the room, the curtains were replaced around 1968, duplicating the previous design.
Photo:  The White House Museum Organization.
At some time later in the early 1970s, the influence of Clement Conger, the new White House Curator, can be seen in the change of carpet, a recreation of a historic document design. Along with Edward Vason Jones and design consultant Sarah Jackson Doyle, who had worked with the Nixons since 1965 (according to The Richard Nixon Foundation), First Lady Pat Nixon refurbished both private family rooms on the second floor as well as public rooms on the main floor.
Photo:  The Richard Nixon Foundation.
This circa 1973 view, again of the Nixon family dining, shows the carpet but few changes otherwise from the Kennedy scheme.
Photo:  National Archives and Records Administration.
When Gerald Ford became President in 1974 after the resignation of Richard Nixon, he became the only person to hold that office who was never elected President or Vice-President by the Electoral Colllege.  Although President Ford may be best remembered for granting Nixon a Presidential Pardon for his role in the Watergate Scandal, this writer associates him with the one who removed the scenic wallpaper;  he just could not bear it and had the walls painted yellow.  Ironically he is shown here raising a glass to the First Lady;  after a long-running battle with alcoholism, she was the founder and first chair of the board of directors of the Betty Ford Center for substance abuse and addiction.
Photo:  Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum.
In Bicentennial Year of 1976, the Fords are shown with guests Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip in the yellow painted room.  That thermostat between the Queen and the President was always there, apparently, but not so prominent with the design of the wallpaper.  The reproduction carpet is replaced with an Oriental rug.
First Lady Rosalynn Carter is at the head of the table with the President's mother, Lillian,
opposite.  Daughter Amy is in the plaid shirt on the right.
White House photo.
By the time of this circa 1978 photo, the Carters had reinstalled the scenic wallpaper.  Rosalynn Carter's decorator was Carleton Varney, known for his bold use of color.

Photo from the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library.
In this photo dating from 1981, the room is set up for a dinner honoring Charles, Prince of Wales.  The second mirror, duplicating the one over the mantle, is too high on the wall, a position especially noticeable with the sideboard removed.  An empire pier table is placed between the windows, now with damask curtains covering the trim, presumably designed by the Reagan's decorator Ted Graber.
Photo from the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library.
The room as it usually appeared during the Reagan years is seen in this 1986 photo.  The rug and chair seat upholstery seems to be the same from when the Fords decorated the room.
Photo by the Historic American Building Survey.
The  1992 photograph by the Historic American Building Survey shows the room as it appeared during the occupancy of Barbara and George Herbert Walker Bush, sometimes referred to as Bush 41 as he was the 41st President.  The Bush's decorator was Mark Hampton who apparently made little if any changes to this room.
Photo from The White House Museum Organization.
When the photos of the redecoration of Hillary and Bill Clinton's White House by Little Rock, Arkansas, decorator Kaki Hockersmith became public, they were a sensation.  But not generally in a positive way.  The consensus was that the design lacked an understanding of the scale and history of the White House and how the residence was used.  This time, the scenic wallpaper was not removed, but covered by a pale green fabric. This photo dates from about 1997.
White House Photo of  President George W. Bush with Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice,
by Eric Draper.
Laura and George W. Bush, Bush 43, employed Fort Worth, Texas, decorator Kenneth Blasingame to essentially erase all the Clinton decor.  In contrast to the previous schemes, Laura Bush's decor was not controversial, but not particularly newsworthy either.  In this room, it seems the shield-back Hepplewhite dining chairs remain, but the chintz upholstery was changed to a more period-correct horsehair with decorative swag nail-head trim.  Also, the reproduction carpet pattern from the Nixon administration returned.  A golden yellow damask is now covering the walls.

White House photo by Peter Souza.
With the exception of photos of the Obama Oval Office, few photos have been released to reveal the interior design schemes of Santa Monica, California, decorator Michael S.Smith. Although Smith is involved in a number of commercial fabric and furniture lines, he clearly had not yet decorated this room as shown in this 2009 photo of Michelle Obama with Nancy Reagan.  The placement of the mid-19th century giltwood mirror above the mantle also dates from the Laura Bush-Kenneth Blasingame decoration.

More information about the White House can be found at the official White House website and the White House Historical Association.  Non-official sites such as The White House Museum Organization and the Facebook Group, White House Fanatics, are also sources of information.  The ground-breaking book DESIGNING CAMELOT: THE KENNEDY WHITE HOUSE RESTORATION by James Archer Abbott is the ultimate reference for the subject.


  1. This is a terrific, information-packed post that was a pleasure to read from start to finish. To see the transformation and evolution of this room through the years was fascinating, and at times gasp-worthy (those Ted Graber curtains!). I hope the Obamas have uncovered the scenic wallpaper again, and I much prefer the 1962 Kennedy work in progress classical chandelier to the much more expected Waterfords. Thank you! Reggie

    1. Reggie, perhaps the Hepplewhite was thought to be a refreshing change from the more formal furniture in other rooms on this floor. But given the wallpaper, the existing millwork, and the existing chimneypiece (which I would have been inclined to keep), I would have preferred early 19th century/Empire furniture; the ormolu chandelier (which apparently has travelled around a good bit) would have good choice. I enjoyed presenting the progressive views of the room, and the changes, sometimes a bit better, but usually worse. And isn't it interesting that curtains can actually mean "curtains" for some schemes?

  2. This was a fabulous post. I can imagine Michael S. Smith whom I admire very much would be a fan of the scenic wallpaper, and I'd love to know if it's back or not. I've noticed that we haven't seen much of the new decoration in the Obama White House. Maybe showing that off doesn't play so well politically... but I am dying to see the result, as I think Smith was a really unexpected choice for a White House decorator.

    1. Nick, I remember that Nate Berkus was the Media's choice. But I, too, am a fan of the work of Mr. Smith, and I suppose we will eventually see it published (but I think not soon). I just hope the consideration to make the decor comfortable for Average Joe was ignored; we need a bit of tasteful glamour in the White House. Thank you for commenting.

  3. Thank you for this round up of the evolution of the White House Family Dining Room. It's interesting to see each president's (wife presumably) stamp on this.

    Why did the Queen's Bedroom become so named? There are all sorts of wickedly wild stories one could interweave, but I suspect it is much more mundane, and is presumably named after Queen Elizabeth II.

    I'm sure you are familiar with the re-naming of the Waterloo Chamber at Windsor Castle as the Music Room for one night during a performance of Les Miserables for President Chirac of France, to spare the Queen's guest the reminder of the humiliation of Waterloo.

    1. Columnist, the Queen's suite, at the opposite end of the second floor from the President's Dining Room, is comprised of a bedroom, bath, and corner sitting room. After the expansion of the White House with additional family quarters on the third floor, First Lady Mamie Eisenhower decided that the space should become an official guest suite. After being named the Rose Room, it became known as the Queen's Bedroom, etc., as several queens had stayed in the room (and avoiding the association with one particular country).

      By the way, the Kennedy era decoration of the Queen's Sitting Room, attributed to Sister Parish by the magazines of the day but probably more the contributions of Stephane Boudin, survived for forty years -- perhaps a record in White House decorating.

  4. A dazzling tour de force sort of post!
    And a course in the history of Decorating packed into one room~
    to say nothing of how it illustrates, so lavishly, the maxim that
    there is no accounting for Taste. Why a scenic wallpaper is loved
    and understood by one administration and reviled by the next,
    only to be restored, then packed away again in favor of a tame
    damask, that is a saga in itself.

  5. Toby, Politics may have come into play concerning the scenic wallpaper depicting war, and the thought that Correctness would not endorse such acts. Never mind that we would not have a nation otherwise. I think it is a matter of taste (or lack of it). It is my understanding that the scenic wallpaper is intact and protected underneath the damask this time, so we'll just have to see if any of my Devoted Readers can provide any information as to the current status. (I can guarantee that no photos of the family quarters of the Obama's White House decor will be published between now and the election, however). Thank you for commenting.

  6. I've always been amazed that the sceneic wallpaper was able to be removed, and survive storage, such that it could rise to the walls once more. How ironic that it was absent during the Bicentennial given it showcases scenes of the American Revolution?

    From what I understand, when the scenic wallpaper was covered over during the Clinton era, fabric covered wooden baffles were used on which the new wallcovering was hung. Pity that when the notion of changing the wallcovering came up again during the Bush 43 era, the scenic paper was not restored. At least it awaits intact, like a buried treasued, for its next glimpse of daylight.

    1. APB, I am hoping one of my Devoted Readers can tell us something definitive about the wallpaper. I am assuming that it was backed with canvas to make it more stable and surely there had to be some manipulation to make it fit the room. But from the photos, it looked great and we can only hope that someone else will think so in the future. Thanks!

  7. Was the re-installed scenic paper the former set, or a reproduction? It has that 'off' color quality I associate with newer scenic wallpapers (the paints and dyes used just do not have the same color resonance).
    Fascinating post. However, I do confess to not being a big fan of the decoration of the White House, especially those gawd-awful excessively fantasy 'period' interiors that the current White House Historical Commission has created. Give me the suggestion of period, by really good decorators, like the Jansen/Sister Paris White house of the sixties. Please.

    1. D.E.D., it is my understanding that same antique woodblock-printed paper from the Kennedy era was reinstalled for the Carters. In 1996, however, there was a desire (K Hockersmith?) to relocate it to another room and wallpaper installation expert Robert M. Kelly was consulted. His findings were that it was not feasible without damaging the paper, but he devised the system to cover it with fabric. For more information, see his site,

  8. D.E.D. I don't know how you do it! The research and the photo resurrections are singular. Yes, and the scenic wall paper should return. Mark Hampton was infallible. Thank you for another amazing post. You make us all so much smarter.

  9. I have the attention span of a 2 yr old and often get bored when posts get too long. In your case, I eat the whole thing up. I don't know if it's the subjects you pick, your writing style or what but I enjoy these educational posts tremendously. You make a wonderful presentation, to say the least, particularly for people like me who have no background in design.

    Another great post, John. Thank you.

    BTW I think the Kennedy redecoration was perfect for the room and although I almost always agree with my friend Reggie, in this case, I think the Waterford chandelier "softened" the look and was a good balance to the mirror over the fireplace.

    1. Julietta, I enjoyed seeing all the decorative incarnations of the space, myself, and who felt the inclination for change rather than replacing in kind when there were signs of wear.

      I personally like the scenic wallpaper, but I would have furnished the room in the neoclassical style of the first half of the nineteenth century and kept the chimneypiece as it was. Therefore the ormolu chandelier would have been a good choice. (I understand it was used in another room). That said, I think the Waterford chandelier is very attractive. What I really do not appreciate is the giltwood mantle mirror in the Geo W Bush scheme; it's not right for the room.

  10. What a wonderful post! I always thought the room was attractive and at it's best with the hand-blocked French scenic wallpaper and Empire ormolu chandelier. I hope one day soon the room can return to this look.

    1. Thanks, Andrew. I agree. In any case, a change is certain.

    2. I have most of the official White House Guidebooks published over the years and a few of the big-deal standard references, but this is the first time I can ever recall so much care & attention being paid to one of the lesser-known rooms.
      The early Kennedy decor is still my favorite. The Waterford is pretty, of course, but it's the boldness & swagger of the ormolu that really makes (or made) the look against the scenic paper, and in a way that couldn't be replicated downstairs against the paper in the Diplomatic Reception room because of that room's low ceiling. Then again, the ormolu could re-appear at any moment, because, as you've shown, nothing at the White House is permanent--and in a good thing, too. Those Graber curtains? Yikes. Nice way to obliterate the architecture, Ted.

      On the other hand, I may be the only one, but I sort of like the Clintons' version of the room. Unlike the scenes of warfare that supposedly bothered some people before the Ford makeover, nobody could have found anything even vaguely upsetting about KH's genteel, polite scheme for the room--other than the fact that it could be absolutely anywhere, I mean. The poor woman was simply in over her head. I'm sure she did her very best, and I certainly wouldn't have wanted to be in her shoes.

      Anyway, thanks for all the work. How, before blogs (and good bloggers) would so many people ever been able to all get together for an aesthetic review of such a relatively obscure room? Your readers are some of the smartest people I know. Who else would even know what I was talking about if I were to admit that, a few years back, I dreamed that I heard on NPR that Michael S. Smith was re-creating the Kennedy/Boudin decor for the Treaty Room? I woke up all excited, which says all you need to know about my life.

    3. Grand, you are correct sir, I DO have the smartest readers in Blog-dom and I am grateful for them all. My Devoted Readers are very appreciated. One of the best things about a blog, is the timely response factor we can have, nothing like the Olden Days when a Letter To The Editor MIGHT get published in the magazine issue a couple of months later.

      The loss of the Kennedy/Boudin Treaty Room is one of the great decorative tragedies in White House history. Let's just hope that some stylish future occupant - and their equally chic decorator - will have the good taste to restore the scheme. Thank you for commenting.

  11. I had to go back a few times to see the giltwood mantle mirror as it is hard to see from the photo. I see it now and you are right. But in my estimation not half as bad as the pastel painting with the tacky flower arrangements of the Clinton years, not to mention the yellow chintz on the chairs. Nice for a sunroom but not a DR, particularly not this one! I don't hold much hope for the Obamas.

    Thanks for the class!

    1. Julietta, although I did not agree with the placement of the portrait over the mantle, I gave leeway for personal touches for a private room. But it is amazing how wrong the flower arrangements are, is it not? Since they are temporary, I gave a pass on those, too. It is a lesson in appropriateness. Thanks for the second look.

  12. Loved this post on the several reincarnations of this room. The scenic wallpaper is by far the best idea in my book. Forgive me saying this about such an illustrious house but the 1981 dinner set up for Prince Charles frankly looks like a dog's dinner. Shame about that oriental carpet with a touch of the boudoir about it but probably perceived as easier to live with than the historic document one. But what do I know?!

    1. Dear Rose, your comment made me chuckle. Not that I disagree but "a dog's dinner" is a way of putting it that was unfamiliar to me. Appropriate though. The Reagans' decorator Ted Graber was more accustomed to parties for Hollywood royalty than the other kind, and it shows. Thank you for commenting.

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  14. Oh, how I love that scenic wallpaper!!! It simply has to be restored!! I am almost certain Michael Smith would be all for it!

    I was lucky to be invited to a party at the "Ambassador's Residence" in London, when our friend Bob Tuttle was the Ambassador to the Court of St. James.

    I seriously almost fainted when I walked into the "Green Room" with its 18th century hand painted Chinese wallpaper that Billy Haines found in an Irish castle! Never have I seen a more beautiful room! Never. It has french doors on two sides out to the garden. The green garden wallpaper,with birds and butterflies, the Chinoiserie carved pine pelmets and overdoors all make the most divinely exquisite room I have ever been in, or even seen! I couldn't speak!

    Bob's wife, Maria discovered there was no book about this exquisite house; so she wrote one (with an architectural historian)! It is an incredibly beautiful book. Gorgeous photography and very well written. Winfield House is the name of it.
    Billy Haines decorated and restored this house when Walter Annenberg was the Ambassador in 1969.

    Not many people know about this gorgeous estate smack in the middle on London on 12 acres! It was donated to the United States (well, sold for 5 dollars) by the heiress Barbara Hutton in 1945.

    How about a post? Is there one??? Oh please!!


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