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White House Objects

Things that make a home in the president’s house.

Feb 13, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 21 • By BRUCE COLE
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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.

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