As British troops reached Washington on August 24, 1814, Dolley Madison was emptying the President’s House. As she packed up the silver and drapery, the object she most wanted to rescue was causing trouble: Gilbert Stuart’s full-length portrait of George Washington. So firmly was this fastened to the wall that the White House doorkeeper and gardener had to chop its frame to pieces before it could be ingloriously carted away to safety.
Not long afterward, the British arrived. They found the house deserted but the table still set for President Madison’s meal. This they ate before pilfering some small objects—including a sword, a shirt, and a chair cushion which (as a British admiral later wrote) would remind him of Mrs. Madison’s seat. The dinner over, they burned the house and all its important furnishings, but its prize possession, the iconic portrait of Washington, had escaped their clutches.
Mrs. Madison insisted on saving the portrait above other objects in the residence because it was something entirely new in the world, something essential for the fledgling nation’s success: a striking image that not only depicted the first president but, more important, the presidency itself. This was not an easy task for Gilbert Stuart. There were many archetypes of rulers—of kings and emperors and princes—but none of these would do. What was needed was the image of a citizen elected by his equals, not the trappings of inherited aristocracy. To create this from scratch was a daunting challenge. And Stuart’s solution was brilliant: He depicts Washington as an aged, unidealized civilian wearing a plain suit bereft of rank or insignia. Set amidst classical columns with the founding documents of the new United States before him, and a rainbow behind, he is not a king or prince but the First Citizen, an American primus inter pares.
While they sought to define the institution of the presidency, Americans also grappled with the idea of the official residence of the presidents. As in the Gilbert Stuart portrait, there could be no hint of the monarchy that they had just jettisoned, so a palace or other large, sumptuous building was out of the question. What was needed was something more than a private residence, something substantial, ample—but still fitting for the home of a democratically elected leader. When, in 1800, John Adams moved into the nearly completed house, he found a handsome structure, impressive and appropriate in its well-proportioned neoclassical style, a place where both presidents and citizens could feel equally welcome. An edifice owned not by the president but loaned to him by the people of the United States.
The White House, or “executive mansion” as it was known until the 20th century, was for most of its history a familial dwelling, continually expanded, reconstructed, and redecorated by its occupants as they sought, like many other citizens, to keep up-to-date. Some of the old furniture and decorations were kept, but occasionally they were auctioned off as used goods. In the late 19th century some attempts were made to return the White House to the style of its earliest years, but there was no systematic plan for a historical reconstruction until the Kennedy administration.
It was Jackie Kennedy who famously transformed the public rooms of the house into a museum and art gallery by the acquisition, through purchase and gifts, of furnishings and paintings that were exemplary objects of their type but rarely belonged to the first families.
A selection of these and other treasures from the White House collection is on display at Washington’s Renwick Gallery, a museum that, perhaps because it devoted itself to the hard-to-politicize decorative arts, has been mercifully free of the postmodern revisionist history of some of its larger Smithsonian brethren. The Renwick, just across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House, has elegantly displayed and explained these objects, which are of interest both as decorative arts and for their historical associations with the presidents. And happily, with few exceptions, they and their families acquired objects of unusually high quality.
The earliest article is a scrap of wallpaper from the “drawing room,” one of the few things to survive the 1814 fire. It, too, was saved by Dolley Madison, who gave it to Mary Latrobe, wife of Benjamin Latrobe, the architect who worked closely with the Madisons on the WhiteHouse interior. The task of refurnishing the building (after it was rebuilt in 1817) fell to Madison’s successor, James Monroe, who spent copiously, justifying his purchases by writing that “the furniture in its kind and extent is thought to be an object not less deserving attention than the building for which it is intended.” (As George Washington’s ambassador to France, Monroe was familiar with the classically inspired French Regency style purchased to refurbish the empty White House.)
The high standard set by Monroe is demonstrated in the exhibition’s silver, furniture, and especially in the dining-room table plateau, a fantastic 14-foot-long centerpiece of mirrors and bronze ornaments, still in use today and one of the most famous objects in the White House collection. And while we don’t necessarily associate Andrew Jackson with this sort of rarefied taste, on display as well are the elegant coffeepots and creamers (each engraved with “The President’s House”) that formed part of a 464-piece second-hand silver service which Old Hickory bought from proceeds of an auction of old furniture. Even though acquired with these funds, members of Congress still objected to the lavish purchase—not the last time that presidents and Capitol Hill faced off over how much money was being spent on the White House.
Some of the most expensive and extensive changes came during the administration of Theodore Roosevelt, who approached the task with his customary energy. He hired the firm of McKim, Mead, & White, whose major transformations included the State Dining Room, which was fitted out in a faux baronial manner complete with wooden paneling, elaborate furniture, and stuffed animal heads festooning the walls. But presidents did not always rule the roost. A number of items demonstrate the important role of the first ladies, including a hand-made coverlet by Grace Coolidge, a table from Eleanor Roosevelt’s Val-Kill furniture shop (which the catalogue calls an “early precursor” to the WPA), and a number of acquisitions from the Kennedy era.
Each object tells its own story about the various tenants of the White House. And because they were part of the everyday fabric of life—touched, admired, and used by their owners—they give us a rare and immediate connection with domestic life at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Bruce Cole, who served as chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities during 2001-09, is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.