Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Patricia Nixon's Green Room

The Green Room after the Nixon redecoration, 1971.
Photo:  White House Historical Association.
By the time Patricia Nixon became First Lady in 1969, the State Rooms of the White House were beginning to show signs of wear despite the extensive efforts that had been made by Jacqueline Kennedy shown in the previous post of The Devoted Classicist.  For those too young to remember, Richard Nixon was a seasoned Washington political figure, serving a term as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives after a stint in the Navy during World War II, then a term in the U.S. Senate, and two terms as Vice-President under President Eisenhower before bitterly losing the 1960 Presidential Election to John F. Kennedy.  So there was no great interest in preserving the Jacqueline Kennedy legacy as the Johnsons had done, but there was enough public sentiment to prevent a complete change of the State Rooms despite an extensive refurbishing.
Clement Conger, Julie Nixon Eisenhower, David Richmond Byers 3rd,
First Lady Pat Nixon, and Edward Vason Jones.
Following Jackie Kennedy's example of assembling an advisory team of notable leaders in the decorative arts, Pat Nixon hired Clement Conger as Curator.  He had become one of the country's most respected authorities in classical American antiques, fine arts, and architecture after orchestrating the creation of the U.S. Department of State Diplomatic Reception Rooms.  Self-taught, Conger had a small but experienced group of associates that could be called on to execute various special tasks.  One of these experts was Albany, Georgia designer Edward Vason Jones;  though not formally trained as an architect, he had practical construction experience and had worked as a draftsman for the legendary Atlanta firm of Hentz, Reid and Adler.  Both Conger and Jones continued to work on improvements to the White House through the subsequent Ford and Carter administrations as well.  Conger also worked one term with Nancy Reagan, and eventually Conger oversaw the refurbishing a total of 27 of the 35 principal rooms of the White House.  David Richmond Byers, 3rd, was a partner in the well-regarded Atlanta firm W.E. Browne Decorating Company who had also consulted on the Diplomatic Reception Rooms.  (Another member of this team was Berry B. Tracy, but no record could be found of his official involvement in the Green Room).
Clement Conger, First Lady Pat Nixon, and daughter Tricia Nixon Cox. 1971.
Photo:  UPI.
The pair of Duncan Phyfe worktables may be seen in more detail in the Laura Bush refurbishing of the Green Room, here.  The secretary bookcase, showing a display of porcelain instead of books, between the windows was just one of the many acquisitions made between 1969 and 1974.
First Lady Patricia Nixon, December 14, 1971.
Photo:  AP Wirephoto.
Two easy chairs replaced the pair of small settees at the fireplace.  And a large Oriental rug covers the floor;  this was more a symbol of good taste of the time than a historical example of floor covering.  "The Morning on the Seine, Good Weather", 1897, by Claude Monet was chosen by the Kennedy family as a memorial gift to the White House after JFK's assasination and it was hung in the Green Room before Mrs. Kennedy moved out;  however, the painting was exiled to the Vermeil Room on the first floor during this Nixon refurbishing. Green silk moire from Scalamandre, similar to the Kennedy fabric, was used for the walls, but a different scheme was devised for the curtains.
Edward Vason Jones' drawing for the Green Room curtains, circa 1971.
Image via White House Museum Organization.
Edward Vason Jones' design for the curtains, shown with only one jabot and one panel with a gathered swag but probably intending a symmetrical arrangement, was inspired by a document for a historic curtain design.  The new pair of pelmets (or cornice boards, as they are sometimes called) were based on a model found at the Miles Brewton House, a Palladian mansion in Charleston, South Carolina, completed about 1769.
A pelmet in the Miles Brewton House dining room.
Photo courtesy of Mr. Ralph Harvard.
Ralph Harvard Inc
Thanks to Ralph Harvard, Ralph Harvard Inc., who is decorating the still-private residence for the Manigault family, we have a look at the original model, of an unkown date, in the room of the Miles Brewton house now used as the Dining Room.
An exhibition at the Nixon Library features a chair from the Green Room.
(Disregard the curtains, if possible).
Photo:  Nixon Presidential Library and Museum.
A recent exhibition at the Nixon Presidential Library celebrates the 100 years since Pat Nixon's birth.  A chair from the Green Room represents the former First Lady's efforts to build the White House Collection.  According to daughter Julie Nixon Eisenhower in an interview in "The New Yorker", Pat Nixon was responsible for over 600 pieces of furniture and art to be added to the collection.

President Gerald Ford and First Lady Betty Ford came to the White House after being first appointed Vice-President after Spiro Agnew resigned, and then becoming President after Richard Nixon's resignation in 1974.  Although there was entertaining in the White House during the 895 day Ford administration, the decor of the State Rooms saw little change.

First Lady Rosalyn and President Jimmy Carter are interviewed by Barbara Walters, 1977.
Photo:  NARA.
First Lady Rosalyn Carter established the White House Preservation Fund to provide an endowment to refurnish the State Rooms.  But her interests were much more geared towards issues of social consciousness and humanity than decor.  However, art was also a priority and it was during the Carter era that Conger bought the painting that is often cited as one of the most important works of art in the White House;  "Lighter Relieving a Steamboat Aground" may be viewed in a previous post of The Devoted Classicist here. 
The Green Room decorated for a Reagan Christmas, 1982.
Note the replacement Empire ormolu and crystal chandelier.
Photo:  The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum.
First Lady Nancy Reagan was well-known for having conflicting White House staff fired.  According to historian William Seale, who is the author of the two volume set THE PRESIDENTS HOUSE: A HISTORY. President Reagan insisted on personally firing Conger who had grown too territorial, it was thought.  Former Secret Service agent Rex Scouten, who had served as the White House Chief Usher since the Nixons, replaced Conger:  although he had no background in decorative arts, he was a particularly dutiful favorite of the First Lady who named her dog after him.  (He also allowed the Reagan's personal decorator Ted Graber to proceed according to Nancy Reagan's wishes).  Mrs. Reagan was very successful in soliciting contributions for the complete redecoration of the private quarters and for maintenance of the State Rooms.  According to the White House Historical Association, over 150 objects in the collection received conservation attention, along with the marble walls, wood doors and floors in the State Rooms during the Reagan era, January, 1981, to January, 1989.
The Green Room as depicted in a Christmas card by Mark Hampton
for President George H.W. and First Lady Barbara Bush.
Image:  George Bush Library and Museum.
President and Mrs. George H.W. Bush revived the Committee for the Preservation of the White House to recommend acquisitions.  The White House Endowment Fund was activated by Barbara Bush to operate under the auspices of the White House Historical Association.
Paula Zahn interviews First Lady Barbara Bush, 1992,
in the Green Room as dog Millie does not even pretend to be interested.
Photo:  George Bush Library and Museum.
Although Mark Hampton extensively decorated the private quarters for the Bushes (as the Reagans took their furniture), little was done towards the decoration of the State Rooms during the Bush term, 1989 to 1993, that followed the Reagan era.
An exterior view of the gib door to the Green Room
from the South Portico, 1992.
Photo:  HABS.
In the second half of the 1980s, this writer travelled to Washington, DC, frequently for private renovation projects and enjoyed seeing the north elevation of the White House stripped of the paint that had built up over the years to reveal the blocks of Aquia Creek sandstone.  Section by section, the paint was chemically removed, carefully cleaning the carved detailing, and left bare to dry out until being repainted again.  It was a particularly beautiful sight to behold as the slight variations in the stone brought an even more handsome face to the building.  In 1992, the same process was repeated for the south elevation, as seen in the photo above recorded by the Historic American Building Survey.  (For archival stability, HABS photos of the pre-digital age were almost always black and white).
An interior view of the gib door to the South Portico
from the Green Room, 1992.
Photo:  HABS.
Although the term sometimes varies, the consensus of my colleagues is that this is a Gib Door.  (If just the panels were hinged below the double or triple hung sash, it would be a Gib Window).
The Green Room Wainscot, 1992.
Photo:  HABS.
Many architectural details were salvaged for the 1948-52 rebuilding of the White House, but most of the wood and plaster trims are new replicas.
The Green Room Ceiling, 1992.
Photo:  HABS.
Although there is some notation that Edward Vason Jones had improved some of the architectural features in the East Room, no specific documentation was found to support that;  perhaps he designed this plaster ceiling medallion.
The Clinton Christmas card, 1996, by Thomas McKnight.
Photo:  William J. Clinton Presidential Library.
President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton's decoration of the second floor with Little Rock, Arkansas, decorator Kaki Hockersmith is still talked about in design circles. 
The Clinton Green Room, 1999.
Photo:  NARA.
The Blue Room and the East Room were refurbished in 1995; the Entrance Hall, Cross Hall, and Grand Staircase were refurbished in 1997; and the State Dining Room was refurbished in 1998.
The Clinton Green Room, 1999.
Photo:  NARA.
The Green Room remained with few changes since the Pat Nixon decorating scheme until the refurbishing by First Lady Laura Bush seen here.
Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg with First Lady Michelle Obama
in the Green Room, October 31, 2011.
White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson.
There appears to have been little if any changes to the Green Room by First Lady Michelle Obama.  But Devoted Readers can see for themselves as the Obamas have teamed with the Google Art Project to allow a virtual tour of the White House that is available for view on-line.
The Green Room decorated for Christmas for the Obamas, 2011.
Photo:  AFP/Getty Images.
The White House is one of this country's great treasures, undoubtedly the most famous building in the world, and it deserves better treatment than it has sometimes received in the past.


  1. In answer to a Devoted Reader's question sent directly, one of the main differences between the curtains in the Nixon and Bush schemes is the removal of a lot of the contrasting pink. The pink lining of the jabots appears to be a green print (!) and the pink stripe appears to have been deleted in green stripe panels. (Also the jabots are shorter in the Bush scheme). There is still pink trim on the jabots, but the overall effect is somewhat more restrained in both form and color, although the pelmets are brightened in the Bush scheme.

    1. I have to partially retract that statement about the lining of the jabots. They are still punk, even brighter than before, but I still think the pink stripes are missing from the panels in the Bush scheme. (I think the confusion came because of my looking at an iPhone image and was mistaking the fringe for a patterned lining).

  2. Is the Clinton Xmas card by Thomas McKnight? I give thanks to Mrs. Wrightsman for bringing in Boudin to connect the Past of France helping in the Creation of America...thru Marie Antoinette- Louis XVI Court of Versailles to The White House of 2012 and beyond! She is an American Dream and Hero for me!!

    1. Yes, Thomas McKnight is a favorite of the Clintons; he did the design of their cards two other years, too, illustrating the Red Room and the Blue Room. Mrs. Wrightsman is indeed a very interesting person; there is more to be revealed.

  3. A superb series, and a great education for us, your fortunate readers. Bravo DC, this has been a delight to read, pour over, and reflect upon. Thank you for all the hard work and many hours you have devoted to this. Reggie

    1. Thanks, Reggie. The series turned out to be a lot more involved than I originally planned. As it is, the series is merely not much more than an overview. I hope The Devoted Readers will take an interest in at least one of the aspects and study it further on their own.

  4. The history and evolution of the White House has always fascinated me, and the analysis of its rooms could fuel countless blog entries. Thanks so much for this well executed look into the Green Room.

    With regard to the house stripped of its exterior paint during the late 80s and early 90s, I recall photographs of the striped down stone facade at the time. Sans paint, the building is allowed to showcase the beautiful craftsmanship of the stone masons. If not for the scorch marks (let alone the name change from Executive Mansion to White House) it could have been marvelous to bring the exterior back to the original appearance.

  5. APB, the Green Room is not even my favorite, but that new portrait of First Lady Laura Bush was what got me thinking and here we ended up. There probably won't be another room history like this again, but I have some experiences with other spaces that I'll share another time. Although I had always heard that the paint covered scorch marks, apparently the stone was first whitewashed to provide waterproofing for the porous stone. Thank you very much, APB.

  6. It could be name a study in elegance. I like viewing Rosalind Carter; so very lovely, a true depicture of elegance and poise. I think I liked Paula Zhan's interview with Barbara Bush as well. What I did not like is the Nixon's library; that awful yellow. Did they not know of 'butter yellow' by A. Hadley.

    History at time is divine. Keep up with it and thank you for sharing!

    1. Thanks for following my blog. I appreciate all my Devoted Readers.

  7. John,

    This post was most enjoyable. Very well researched and convivial as well.
    Thanks for your time and talents!


    1. Thanks, Dean. The series came to be more than I had originally envisioned, but it had to have enough background information to reasonably discuss the Kennedy, Nuxon, and Bush schemes, no?

  8. Many wanted to have a type of house that is contemporary in style yet have a classic taste in terms of furniture and decorations.

  9. Comments that submitted using the "comment as anonymous" response are not published and usually go to the SPAM folder without being seen. However, I did happen to see one that advised of a typo for the term of President George H.W. Bush, and I am grateful for that notice. Thank-you.


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