By Design

Redesigning the White House reflects presidential personalities

by Patricia M. Cove
Posted 10/26/23

Each administration is given the opportunity to create surroundings that are individual to them.

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By Design

Redesigning the White House reflects presidential personalities


A few years back, I was given a fascinating book entitled “An Invitation to the White House: At Home With History” by Hillary Rodham Clinton. The book concentrates on the living environments of the presidents and their families within the White House. The most interesting angle was how each administration is given the opportunity to create surroundings that are individual to them.

On Nov. 1, 1800, the White House was not finished, but John and Abigail Adams made six rooms comfortable, had others prepared for official entertaining, and transferred furnishings from their Philadelphia residence. Congress purchased a full-length portrait of George Washington for $800. It is the only object remaining in the White House from the Adams administration.

Throughout the 1800s, wars and depressions took their toll on the interiors, and each new administration did what it could to keep the White House in a dignified condition. 

But it wasn’t until the early 1900s that President Theodore Roosevelt and his wife Edith hired the McKim, Mead & White architectural firm to expand the second-floor family quarters, with the goal to design and furnish the interior in harmony with the White House’s neoclassical exterior.

Although the following administrations continued this design direction, the incorporation of personal furnishings, combined with the onset of World War II and the repurposing of several of the public and private spaces, the interiors became diluted. Structural issues necessitated massive renovations and the misappropriations of many of the original furnishings. 

Then when Jacqueline Kennedy became first lady. she led a campaign to restore the White House’s historic character. Dismayed to find that so few of the original historic furnishings remained, Kennedy formed a Fine Arts Committee to advise her, as she began the acquisition of authentic period furnishings.

Due to these efforts, President Lyndon Johnson and his wife Lady Bird inherited State Rooms that were furnished with early 19th-century pieces, and issued an executive order establishing an Advisory Committee for the Preservation of the White House. Since the inception of this committee, the interior spaces have maintained architectural integrity, but each new family may add their own individual design markers.

For the Oval Office, President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle selected a color palette of earth tones. A rich, rust fabric was chosen to create simple drapery panels below box pleated valances, adorned with modified jabots at the corners. A camel and beige striped wallpaper complemented the strong architectural trims, which were painted in warm cream. A taupe velvet fabric covered the upholstery pieces, which rested on a neutral wool carpet, highlighting the Presidential Seal.  The overall effect merged formality and comfort and reflected the design directions of the early 2000s.

When President Joe Biden took office, he chose a more formal approach to the aesthetic of the Oval Office. Selecting a navy, cream and gold color scheme, a dark cream-colored damask fabric was chosen to cover the upholstery in a pattern matching a damask wallcovering placed above the raised panel dado.

The window treatments were formalized with a more intricately designed valance with trimmed and gathered swags that accompanied more elaborate jabots at each end. The entire room is anchored by a deep blue carpet, with the Presidential Seal in vibrant tones.

Learning about the long and storied history of the White House interiors is not only captivating from a historical perspective, but it also offers fascinating insights into the personal interests and tastes of each first family. 

So keep in mind that if you are planning on moving into a new home soon, you always have the opportunity to make it totally your own.

Patricia Cove is Principal of Architectural Interiors and Design in Chestnut Hill, which specializes in the renovation and restoration of significant buildings.