White House as practical residence

The “Polkarama!” post produced a lively exchange about the livability of the White House. I personally think that any house that is over 200 years old pretty much inevitably becomes a museum. I think that most first families come from backgrounds in which they are used to very large houses with formal sitting rooms with uncomfortable furniture and more casual living rooms with more comfortable furniture. Some even split the difference and put their feet up on 150-year-old historic tables.

I wonder tho, if the WH is coming to a point where it’s impractical to really live there, especially for a younger couple with small children (never mind a pony). I wouldn’t be surprised if its 250th anniversary (in 2050) marked the moment that it gets turned into a permanent museum, with the president working out the the EEOB and living in a new mansion built on some former parkland or replacing some government building (there’s a Postal Service training facility around DC that gets rented to corporations that would be a pretty good site, I think). I’m not advocating it, just speculating.

I do think the WH needs more business-casual rooms. “Map Room”? Bah! Maybe it’s the jet lag talking, but I’d like to see a “Churchill Room” furnished in English club furniture and stinking of cigars and brandy.

47 thoughts on “White House as practical residence

  1. I do like the idea of the Churchill Room, furnished with whiskey and cigars.

    It seems to me that the ground floor is now the place for “in the mansion” photo ops, using the Map Room and the Library primarily. This floor serves a good purpose for letting the media in without bringing them all upstairs all the time.

    Much of the Presidential “routine” goes with the President, wherever. I don’t think that moving out of the White House would change that too much. One of the great things symbolically is that the President actually lives there. I would hate to see that lost.

    In his book, “The White House…” Seale makes the comment that if the White House was only a museum, it would be like a number of the state capitols that have been replaced by modern office buildings and which have lost their historic and architectual meaning.

  2. It would totally loose it’s integrity as a historical building as it no longer serves the very purpose it was buit for, let alone it’s name sake. It will be as good as tearing the whole building down.

    One of the most wonderful aspects of the White House is the fact that despite it’s size, being way smaller and less sophisticated than so many other heads of state’s palaces all over the world, for all these years it has remained a living, breathing house. That significance can come no other way.

    The ultimate symbolism of the Presidency is the knowledge that each of us have come rain or shine, WWII, 9/11 or what nought, the President still sleeps right in there, and no where else.

  3. I have been to one reception at the White House (my 15 minutes of White House Glory…) and I can assure you that – for whatever reason – the place feels magical. The place is really a “state of mind” – more than the sum of it’s parts.

    People have been saying that the W.H. has outgrown its usefulness for over 100 years – impractical, crowded – outmoded. But there it still sits, on its little hill. The President’s House.

    Great idea about the Churchill Room, though. His mother *was* American after all.

    Whiskey and cigars! Mmmmmmmmmmmm…

  4. What has been telling to me have been the interviews with past presidents. They always express such pride and joy with living there. I’m sure it’s a drag when you have SS around a lot, but some book sources I have tell that the SS as a routine don’t follow the first family up into the 2nd and 3rd floors.

    If it were me, I’d be stoked to live in that place. Sit it such historic room. Eat from plates that are historic. Get up in the morning and take that way-cool stroll from the residence to the WW.

    I think the bonus of the WH is that the WW is attached. And the presidency is practically and symbolically under one roof.

    A move to a new building may require helicopter trips and motorcades daily.

    If I have anything to add, I would just say that Lee said it best.

  5. If you move the president to a diffrent house and only use the white house for state functions, people are going to want to see where the president lives. So then you make a part of that house or building open to the public for daily tours. But since the philophy is to show the best furniture that the house has to offer, then you must transform part of that house to a display of unusable old furniture.

    But pretty soon that begins to become unpractical to live in so the president must move out of that.

    Its a vicious cycle. The only real option is to restore the president’s home to its original purpose. A home. And only after that can you really start to take the idea of a meuseam into mind.

    There really is apsolutly no reason why the two ideas can’t be meshed. Its just that this practice of keepeing the place that teh public sees a completly untouchable part of the house is not practical, nor is there any reason why this can be the only option.

    There is no reason why teh white house can’t be set up to provide a nice place for the public to see by day, yet have a look that serves the first family as somehwere to relax by night.

  6. What im saying is, there is no reason why almost the entire house (except for the doctors office, currators office, and ushers office) can’t be thier house at night.

    Look and functionality are not contrasting values unless you let them be.

  7. There’s nothing stopping them from using the map room, the china room or the vermeil room at night. Nobody seems to want to. And even if it were warmed-up, I doubt they would use them. The house is huge for a family. The top two floors seem to be what they prefer to spend most of their time in. I don’t blame them.

  8. There is something that is stopping them. It is sthe same thing preventing them from using the red room, green room, diplomatic reception room, and library. Its the fact that you can’t relax on any of the dining chairs they are trying to pass off as regular ones in those rooms. And even if they could, they would probably break if someone sat in them.

  9. I think what’s stopping them is the fact that the house is almost 60,000 sq ft. and that half of that is a part of the ceremonial part of the house.

    I hear what you’re saying, it’s just never going to happen. There’s a reason why it’s the way that it is, the residence is less formal but still beautiful, as it should be.

    The lower two floors are the most ceremonial, as they should be.

  10. im just saying that there is no reason why it must be

    comfortable= ugly, and tastless.

    There is some equally beutiful furniture out there that just aslso happens to be comfotable.

    Look at the victorian furniture. The victorians produced arguably some of the ugliest fabrics known to man, but they sure as hell could make comfortable furniture.

  11. The White House is the home of the head of state for the nation if the U.S.A. Diplomats, kings and queens will be visiting there. It should be as formal and as fine as any other head of state home in the world yet retaining it’s uniqueness. The WH achieves this by not being the size of a european castle.

    There is more than enough room on the top two floor for any president and his entire immediate family to have a very comfortable and cozy time.

    The american taxpayer has also decided that the lower floors are to support the regal aspects of pleasing visiting diplomats. The state floor and the ground floor are today as they should be.

    If comfort and warmth is what you’re looking for, pay attention to the 3rd floor. They are the mst like home out of all the floors.

    People visiting the WH don’t want a tour of their own living rooms.

  12. I think it’s great that you’re such a fan of the WH BTW anonymous. I really do hear what you’re saying. Don’t agree but I respect your opinion.

  13. Thanks.

    You keep saying that teh white house is regal, so therefore shouldnt be outfitted with common comfortable furniture. To reiterate what I have been saying, there is comfotable furnture that is considered beutiful. french empire is one of many famous styles. It just happens to be the one that is least utilitarian. Im just saying that it doesnt have to bee seen as an either/or situation. You can have beauty and comfort and still have it be top of the line.

    BTW: How much of the third floor does the family have? I only ask becuase there is this mysterious section to the west that doesnt seem to be documented.

  14. Sorry to double post

    I just also want to comment on what you said about “people dont visit thier won living rooms”.

    In a way, people do want that. People diont want to visit just some random mansion with nice furnture. They could go to newport for that and get better. They go to the white house out of an inherant facination for seeing where the most powerful man in the world lives. It would make it alot more facinationg if the rooms that you walked through actually had some connection to him instead of just being the rooms that he lives over and occasionally drops in.

  15. if people are going to the HWite House to see where the prez actually lives then they’re going for the wrong reason. I know books and such like to say “this is where the prez lives” but in reality you don’t get to see where the prez lives. Even today, we get to see very little of the top 2 floors, and we shouldn’t have access. I wouldn’t want people in my living room. Americans aren;t entitled to see that part of the house everyday.

    I don’t really care if people are going to see what they hope would be the prez’s bedroom. His private life is exactly that. Granted he does some photo ops in there, but in general the press stays away. The man needs SOME sanctuary. And as for the furniture, I know that Kittinger supplies the WH with a great deal of what they purchase and the stuff is new, comfortable and historical looking. But it sure ain’t Sears.

  16. (John raises the lid on the Big Piano in the East Room to see if it’s safe to come out yet… cautiously surveys the scene for carnage…)

    Actually, “Anonymous” does have a point about the Library. It’s not a very inviting place for reading. I would keep the incredible suite of furniture that Duncan Phyfe himself made, but try to find a way to incorporate a big club chair or two – perhaps facing each other, flanking the fireplace.

    One thing that bears mentioning here is that I expect that the staff of the White House probably doesn’t WANT people to get too comfortable in the state rooms. Those rooms are in use, by hundreds of people every day – often attending back to back functions – that require setting-up and breaking down and clearing away all sorts of stuff – dishes, flatware, tables, chairs, pianos, lighting equipment, audio equipment and lord knows what else. The furniture they have in those rooms HAS to be fairly light and movable. Rolling the rugs up for the morning tours, putting down the rubber mats, taking UP the mats and rolling the carpets back down. Oh man, the First Lady wants to have a dinner in the Blue Room, so now they have to remove all the furniture in that room and set up the dining tables and chairs – and then remove all of THAT and put everything BACK in its normal place for that evening’s reception…

    I have a feeling that the furnishings – in addition to being the collection of an accredited Museum – are light in scale (for the most part – because 200 years of experience has taught the staff what is required to meet the demands of running the White House on a day-to-day basis.

    I remember that reception I attended – NOBODY wanted to leave when the event was over. I was havin’ a fine time sitting in one of the Bellange armchairs,chatting away, in the Blue Room (quite comfortable, I might add – although the dolphin-legg sofa in the Red Room is a torture device)and it was only when the “Social Aides” formed a cordon and ever-so-politely suggested that it was time to go, that we were finally persuaded to leave.

    So I can certainly see that it would be counterproductive to have furniture that was too comfortable – or too hard to move – in the state rooms.

  17. I think from looking at interior pictures of the White House comfortable furniture abounds. The Living Room on the Second Floor (previously the President’s Bedroom) has had comfortable sofas and chairs (at least during the Reagan and Bush years)as has the Solarium on the Third Floor. All the pictures of it look as if it has very comforatable seating.

    The Second Floor Yellow Oval Room as formal as that room is even has two sofas that look extremely comfortable. Yes, the state rooms may be ceremonial in nature, I don’t think the President and his family have to go far to find a comfortable place to sit. Besides I don’t think I ever heard a Presidential candidate not want to win the election because the furniture was uncomfortable.

    As a last resort the President could always follow President Nixon’s example and put in a “ratty” old easy chair in a state room

  18. How interesting John! You certainly must post a link where we can see you at the reception, and sitting on that historic furniture! My visit to the WH was just confined to that behind the ropes, with SS guarding the rooms… the only thing I remember touching was the wallpaper in the blue room, which happens to look quite faded in real life.

    Perhaps Anonymous should define what is his meaning as comfortable… Perhaps comfortable includes evicting everyone else – Tourist, SS, and staff, the Press, out of the WH? Perhaps comfort will be to tear the whole building down and build a metallic fortress? I’m sure the SS would love that. If something as small as a chair should no longer be there, then what’s the reason of keeping any other part of the house. For some reason, despite all the recent security threats and what else that has fallen upon the President, for some reason he still lives in that house.

    I think again the sanctity of the place, as LOCATION will be lost. If a chair was comfortable in 1820, I don’t see what has changed that today. Humans are still the same aren’t they? I don’t see us growing extra bones or stuff like that that will make sitting on any of those chairs any different today.

    Again, please be reminded, that the Institution of the Presidency takes precedence over the President’s comfort on most parts!

  19. lee, if you would really care to know, my idea of comfortable is a chair that has a back that isnt perpendicular to the ground, with enough amount of padding to make you not even realize the firm backing begind it. It should also be fairly leaned back as to allow you to relax. John said himself that the couch in the red room was torture.

    What iv been trying to say my entire time here is that there is no reason the white house can’t be used exactly like it is now, with tourist coming in by day. But with some better furniture, there is also no reason why the presidnet can’t relax in that room at night. And there is no reason why anything comfortable has to be considered ratty and old.

    Like I pointed out earlier, vicotrian furnture is considered classic, regal, and beutiful (except for some of the fabrics), and is still comfortable.

  20. And you’re so welcome anonymous. Great thoughts. Let’s not give anonymous too much of a hard time here. After all, well have opinions right?

    “But with some better furniture”

    Again, the kittinger furniture is excellent. There’s no reason to assume that it isn’t fine and comfortable.

    “there is also no reason why the presidnet can’t relax in that room at night.”

    Except that no one seems to want to. And even if you put a new counch in there I doubt he will want to. You can’t say to the president, you can’t sit in the West Sitting Hall, you have to sit in the Library tonight.

    “And there is no reason why anything comfortable has to be considered ratty and old.”

    And again, as someone said a moment ago, pretty much all of the furniture on the state floor was quite comfortable in their opinion when they tried them.

  21. The WH can’t be as homey and comfortable as the VP’s residence or Blair House, just because of the level of state entertaining it has to do. But I can see how it could be more comfortable, especially in the ground floor. I think there is a pretty good gradation of stately to casual in the Red and Green to the Yellow Oval to the West Sitting to the Living Room and bedrooms. But I don’t think anyone would really want to sit and read in the Library like Nixon relaxing in the Lincoln Sitting Room. The ground floor has long been a weird mix of working rooms, social rooms, and photo op rooms.

  22. Yeah, I’m sure that dolphin settee is about as comfortable as a powdered wig, waistcoat, and buckle shoes, but… what a piece of art!

  23. Isn’t there a dentist’s chair in the Doctor’s office/Clinic on the ground floor? Now THAT would be a real torture device… Very comfy, though… : )

    That Dolphin-leg sofa in the Red Room? I just had to sit on it – actually I had to wait my turn to sit on it. I just remember it as being rather hard, probably stuffed with horsehair – but it is a major piece of American Art. People were kind of wandering from room to room (but not the “Family Dining Room”,next to the State Dining Room – that wasn’t open)trying out all the iconic furniture. My favorite (in terms of comfort) was the coral-colored easy chair to the right of the fireplace in the Green Room – a real antique, from around 1810. The cushions were stuffed with feathers and down (just like they would have been when it was new) and it was as comfortable as any modern easy chair. I remember the big, curved Bellange sofa in the Blue Room as being very deep (the seat from front to back) and just HUGE. Don’t remember it being comfortable,or uncomfortable, one way or the other.

    Lee, I wish I could direct you to some photos of that event, but as we were going through the security process at the East Wing Visitor’s entrance, they told us that photorgaphy wasn’t permitted. (Bummer…)

    This was a gathering of Historians, Architects, Museum People, Curators, etc., there for a Symposium to mark the 200th Anniversary of the laying of the cornerstone of the White House in October of 1992. I do remember that they had fires going in the fireplaces – and people seemed to be congregating in the Red Room, because it really is cozy and pleasant. For some unknown reason they had the chandelier that is usually in the Library, hanging in the Red Room. It was too small for the space – and of course the regular Red Room chandelier has been back in place for years.

    They had a big, impressive buffet set up in the State Dining Room (dining chairs against the walls to allow people to serve themselves) – and a bar in the corner of that room. I recall having a couple of “Gin and Tonics” on Uncle Sam – my tax dollars at work! I did snag a paper napkin with the Presidential Seal on it as a keepsake.

    The next day, we came back for a garden tour and they herded us back through the house on the way out – back behind the ropes, and on the rubber mats – set up for the regular tours. Back to Reality. *Sigh*.

  24. John,

    Last summer I noticed the coral colored chairs in the Green Room had been removed. I don’t know if that is temporary or permanent. But, last July they were not there and there were other chairs being used in front of the fireplace. I have heard the Green Room is slated to be redecorated, so that may be part of the beginning of it.
    Anyone else know?

  25. Mimlog,

    Ahhhhhh! I had wondered about that. In a recent issue of the White House Historical Association’s journal “White House History” – the issue about Jefferson’s White House, there’s a photo of the Green Room showing one of those chairs gone – and I thought something might be up. Hadn’t heard about the plan to redecorate the Green Room, but it’s TIME! Hasn’t been done since 1972. Maybe Laura will send those chairs to Ebay! : )

  26. John,

    Unfortunately I read the Fine Arts Committee has decided to keep the same Moss Green Watered Silk that has been the color used since the kennedy’s. I don’t know what else they will decide to keep. As you probably can tell most changes to the rooms (Clinton Blue Room being the execption) the changes have been subtle. Compare some to the pictures of the Red Room. The changes are hardly noticable.

    I also noticed on this website the rug that Mrs. Bush has in the Libary (which she redecorated) was once in the Map Room. I picked up on that while teaching a unit on the White House (I’m a high school history teacher), so I’m wondering if the Map Room has been redecorated as well.

  27. Wow. Who would ever have thought that that Kennedy watered silk would have had almost a 50 year run! That’s either a testament to the Kennedy’s decorative scheme, or to the power of inertia…

    Personally, I wish they would simplify the elaborate draperies in the Green Room. They’ve always seemed a little “over the top” to me. Keep the wonderful eagle cornices, but use a treatment something like the curtains in Sargent’s “The Dinner Party” painting at the Boston (?) Museum of Fine Arts.

  28. Wingnut, I really like the Clinton Blue Room too. The old Nixon-era room was really “busy”, visually. Pictures look really good hanging against that wallpaper.

  29. I agree with you all. I think the Clinton era Blue Room is the best! When you look back to the change of the wall covering from blue to cream, the saphire blue chosen by Mrs. Clinton makes the room “pop”.

  30. Yea, Clinton’s blue room is great.

    That great rug really gives it a colorful, bold, and energetic feel to the room. a perfect metephor for the Clinton’s presidency.

  31. I hate to be the wet blanket, but–while I love the Clinton Blue Room rug–I quite dislike the wallpaper, especially the fake bunting border at the top. I’d like to see the walls blue again.

  32. Ya, the fake part is not great, but I do kinda like the goldish wallpaper.

    They must have not wanted to have hign maintenance bunting.

    What’s the story on that decision?

  33. That fake wallpaper border in the Blue Room? Probably put there to save on climbing up tall ladders to vacuum, if it were real fabric.. ha-ha… (sorry…)

    Actually, it's *meant* to look "fake". Sort of like a visual "pun". Meant to be amusing and even "funny". It's a decorative thing called "Trompe l'oeil", which is a French term that means "Trick the Eye", or "Fool the Eye". It's part of the same overall type of scenic wallpaper tradition as the Zuber & Company's "Scenes of the American Revolution" (is that the title of it?) in the Private Dining Room on the 2nd floor – and the "Scenic America" wallpaper in the Diplomatic Reception Room on the ground floor. (By the way, it's still available, if you like the look and want to throw the $$ at it…)

    It’s not meant to really look “real” It’s meant to enhance the architecture of the room – in this case, the oval shape and the cornice, with it’s gilded highlights. (hmmm, sounds like a Mardi Gras costume…)Wallpaper borders like that – and even wallpaper itself that looked like big repeating patterns of draped fabric were very popular in the early 19th. century.

    I’ve read that Hillary Clinton chose that border to pay subtle homage to the cloth border around the cornice of Jackie Kennedy’s 1962 Blue Room. Mrs. Onassis had just died in 1994 – the year before the Blue Room was redone.

    I’d LOVE to have “Scenic America” in my dining room, but until I win the Lottery, I really don’t see that happening…

  34. The “Scenes of the American Revolution” wallpaper in the President’s Dining room is no longer visible. Mrs. Clinton placed a pale green silk “suspended” over the Americana wallpaper. Of course this is the same wallpaper that Mrs. Ford had removed and the room painted yellow. Mrs. Carter returned the wallpaper which remained until Mrs. Clinton covered it over. Mrs. Bush has changed the room again by using an off white patterned wall covering. One can only assume that this wallcovering uses the same technique that would “suspend” the wallcovering protecting the Americana wallpaper underneath.

  35. Right! Those pics of the President’s Dining Room upstairs that Derek has on that page. They show the “Off White” covering. Looks to me like the Bushes are using their own personal sideboard and personal pictures as well.

    Mimlog, I think you must be right – *surely* they have a reversible process to protect the “American Revolution” paper below the current covering.

    As much as I love the American Revolution paper in that room – it’s what I would have if I lived there – I must admit that the room did look very good in Yellow. Very light and neo-classical.

  36. According to Hillary Clinton’s An Invitation to the White House, the fabric is hung on special supports to protect the historic wallpaper underneath. I imagine after being taken down and then put back (during the Carter years) it could not withstand being taken down again without destroying it.

    I too liked the yellow. There is a wonderful photograph of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip having lunch with President and Mrs. Ford in this room and the walls are Yellow. I read somewhere that Lady Bird Johnson and Pat Nixon both disliked the wallpaper, but did nothing about it. Betty Ford said she couldn’t stand to see soldiers dying while she ate, so she changed the room to yellow.

    The current rug in Derek’s pictures of this room looks like one that Mrs. Johnson and Mrs. Nixon had used.

  37. I do like the blue chosen by the Clinton’s, but I’m not wild about the wallpaper either. For me the problem is the lack of contrast between the walls and the wainscoting. JBK had white wainscoting outlined in gold, but now it is just white. I don’t think the Blue Room is as impressive as it could be.

    I did have the oppportunity to sit in a Bellange chair once in the Blue Room. It was quite comfortable.

    One reason for the borders at the top and bottom of the wallpaper probably is to keep the Blue motif very pronounced.

    I’m kinda with Derek, I miss the room being blue. However, it may be better with non-blue walls because otherwise the room may be too dark. Remember, light colors make rooms look bigger!

  38. The Blue Room might be up for redecoration soon, as it’s rich blue is getting more and more faded over the past 12 years since it was redecorated.

    But indeed the Clinton Blue Room is by far one of the best redecorations in the WH, as it has some how managed to look contemporary without loosing it’s historical integrety. After it was redecoraed, all past Blue Room schemes just look so dated!

    Besides the Green Room wallpaper which has remained unchanged in pattern since the Kennedy era, let’s not forget the Queen’s Sitting Room, which has remained untouched. That really transports you back to the 1960s!

    That’s an example of a room with blue walls, and it kinda makes it castrophobic. So it has been a wise choice that the Blue Room does not have blue wallpaper, at lease not in the past 40 years or so.

  39. Hi all, Interesting conversation. John, I too was at the 2000 Symposium, but I was able to bring in my camera and have pictures of myself and friend sitting on many pieces. If someone can tell me how to post a few of them, I will be happy too.

    A few thoughts on this thread…didn’t Mrs. Kennedy have whie walls put in the Blue Room? I recall in Mr. West’s book–or maybe Mary Gallagher’s– a memo from the First Lady saying that she felt that one ended up rather “shell shocked” after walking through from the Red to the Blue to the Green Room and that white wall in the middle (Blue Room), helped to lessen that effect. I also know for certain that the Blue Room walls were very white all through the 70’s and 80’s and that the Clinton paper is at least a softer, beig-y tone and not so bright as the Nixon paper.

    Also, the cornice at the top of Mrs. Kennedy’s Blue Room was also a paper border and not real fabric. It was in the trompe l’oeil tradition of which Mrs. Kennedy was so fond.

  40. Actually, it was real draping around the cornice of the Blue Room for the Kennedy renovation. I have a White House Guide Book for that era and it describes the drapery fabric continuing around the walls.

  41. It was without doubt real cloth draping in the valance at the cornice in Jackie Kennedy’s Blue Room. It’s described in the White House guidebook from the Kennedy era that Dennis mentions and also in the book “Designing Camelot, The Kennedy White House Restoration” (1998, Van Nostrand-Reinhold), by James M. Abbott and Elaine M. Rice.

    It wasn’t the first time such a treatment was used in one of the State Parlors – Dolley Madison’s “Yellow Drawing Room” sported a yellow fabric valance all around the top of the room – (today’s Red Room) in the pre-fire (War of 1812 fire) White House.

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