Text from “Dream House: The White House as an American Home”

Dream House

The White House

as an American Home
Ulysses Grant Dietz and Sam Watters

History of the White House Architecture by Thomas Mellins


NEW YORK : 2009






Country House Planners and Residents 26
The President’s Palace as a Country House 28

Villa Dwellers 68
The President’s House as a Villa 70

Mansion Furnishers 104
The President’s House as an Executive Mansion l06

Palace Builders 146
The White House as an American Palace 148

America is a land of monuments, both natural and man-made.
We designate, build, and venerate them-Plymouth Rock in
Massachusetts; Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming; Grant’s Tomb
in New York; the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles; Alcatraz Prison in
San Francisco; Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine, Florida.
Monuments-national treasures pulled out of our history as
talismans-mark our progress on the road to fulfilling the promise
of democracy over two centuries of hard work and ingenuity.

Among the most beloved American monuments are the places
where men and women have lived: George Washington’s Mount
Vernon; Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello; Brigham Young’s Beehive
House in Salt Lake City; the Unsinkable Molly Brown’s mansion in
Denver; Mark Twain’s mansion in Hartford. These houses are
treasured because they offer a voyeuristic look into the lives of the
people who inhabited them. Whether rich or poor, famous or
infamous, the builders of historic houses were like all of us. In
diverse and inventive ways, they participated in the evolving drama
of American history.

The greatest American residential monument is the White House.
National and international antiquarians, novelists, and journalists
have defined the president’s house as a home unique and apart from
any other in the nation. Today’s established chronicler of the White
House, William Seale, writes of being “irresistibly attracted to the
ultimate house.”1 First ladies have likewise described the allure of
the nation’s first home. Lady Bird Johnson, beautifier of the nation’s
landscape, wrote: “When I walked through the rooms of the White
House … I knew I had walked through history.” Similarly, Hillary
Rodham Clinton noted that not only is the White House “a
repository of America’s storied past, but history is being made
within these walls every day.”2 To Michelle Obama, the White House
is “awe inspiring,” as every monument should be.3

Words help to build monuments, and any author of a book about
the White House participates in the tradition of veneration that
has made it a monument at the expense of its legacy as a home. At
a time when America’s place in the world is uncertain, we revere the
White House as an enduring symbol of democracy’s illustrious
history. But we also treasure the long history, marked by invention
moderated by common sense, of the American home. This book
seeks to join these two streams of American culture to create a new
history of our “first home,” one that restores to the White House
its place in the story of the American house next door.

At first the White House was unique in all America, both in scale
and in aspiration. With time and the increasing prosperity of the
world’s richest nation, it became just another very large house. In
purpose, however, the White House has always been exceptional.
Part home, part office, part hotel, part national reliquary, it has had
to adapt continually to the increasingly complex and public life of
the American president.

The White House has accommodated its many roles by tapping
into the rich culture of American architecture, landscape design,
and interior decoration. The nation’s finest designers have addressed
not only the demands of a public residence, but the ideas of home
that each presidential family has brought to 1600 Pennsylvania
Avenue. The designers’ solutions, usually good and sometimes
exceptional, were always distinctly American. Until the Kennedy
administration, when the White House became a museum with
hotel amenities, changes in its design paralleled developments in
American domestic design at large.
Of course the White House has never been a typical American
home, which only makes its parallels with mainstream domestic
culture more surprising. At first the White House was too big to live
in properly, and today it is too famous to be just another house.
But in design and conception, the president’s residence was
historically allowed to be another American home.

Born into a democracy, we believe in independent thinking. But
when we build and decorate houses, our choices reflect an
acceptance or rejection of what our culture at large believes is right.
We all aspire to live in a dream house, one that expresses our
personal and cultural ideals. But the perfect living room overlooking
the perfect lawn eludes us. We aspire to perfection; we live with
acceptance. As American citizens participating in American life,
first families from the Washingtons to the Kennedys envisioned the
perfect American home, idea1 both for themselves as residents and
for American citizens looking to the White House as a model of
American taste and manners. The political and social history of the
president’s house has influenced the choices of first families, but
this history has always accommodateded the personal likes and dislikes
of first families and their advisors.

Key moments in the design of the White House coincide
broadly with shifts in the history of the,American home. Only the
earliest and the most recent incarnations of the White House seem
disconnected from domestic design history, the first being the
idealistic vision of the White House in 1800, the other the present
status of the house as a museum-cum-hotel. The antebellum
concept of the villa in a garden suburb was the first deeply
American model to influence presidential design. This was
followed by the mansion phase of the White House, when
industrial America became rich and confident in the post-Civil
War years, now known as the Gilded Age. Before income taxes and
progressive politics cut into upper-class enthusiasm for display and
ostentation, the White House participated in America’s palace-building
era. Booming suburbanization from the 1920s on-and
especially after World War 11-influenced how first families lived
and decorated the White House, with tasteful neutral interiors
and patio-style exteriors.

This volume looks at the White House according to its evolving
identity and appearance: as a country house; a villa; a mansion; a
palace; a suburban home; a shrine. Each historical phase considers
the house’s architecture, its gardens, its interior decoration, and its
furnishings. Not all aspects of the house developed consistently or
at the same pace. Its house architecture ceased changing in the early
decades of the 20th century, but the expansion of the executive
offices on both the east and west sides has since altered the
appearance of the house and garden as originally envisioned by
George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. The state rooms no
longer change, but interior design of the second-floor private rooms
accommodate the taste of each new administration. Furniture that
was fashionable in one era is used in lesser roles decades later,
although most of what filled the White House during its 200-plus
years has long since been lost. We begin here with an overview of
the four disciplines that have made 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue both
a house and a home.


Despite its importance as a symbol, the White House has been
overlooked and underanalyzed as architecture. The preeminent
architectural historian Vincent Scully neglected even to mention the
White House or its first architect, James Hoban, in his landmark
1969 survey American Architecture and Urbanism. Although the White
House’s original design is still immediately apparent, over time it has
undergone extensive changes that reflect an inventive American “do-it-
yourself” spirit and connect the house to distinct phases in
American domestic architecture.

The initial vision of the White House was as an aristocratic dream
house modeled on the noble British country house, familiar to
America’s self-appointed gentry largely through books. It started out
as a house that was not only the largest residence of any kind in
the United States, but possibly the largest building of any sort in the
new nation.4 Its stylistic conservatism was echoed throughout the
young nation as it updated Georgian forms in the Federal houses of
the late 18th century and again with the Greek Revival in the 1830s,
foreshadowed by the north and south porticoes added to the White
House in the late 1820s.

As America prospered under independence, a new kind of home
appeared as an American icon: the semirural villa. The villa was the
dream house of a prosperous, refined democracry and a solution to
the evils of urban life. Through the mid-1840s, the Greek Revival
villa popped up all over the country, echoing the White House in

form and color. Beginning in the 1840s, the ideal villa was not
supposed to be painted white, nor was it supposed to be classical
in style. The connotations of Greek democracy suggested by
classical buildings had become uncomfortable reminders of
paganism for Protestant America. Romantic styles emerged as
appropriate for the villa dream house, placing the physical envelope
of the White House at odds with the American home. With no
intention of demolishing what was already an icon, presidential
families did the best they could on the inside and with the grounds
to make the White House a home in line with contemporary
domestic ideals.

After the Civil War the nation seemed to outgrow the genteel
limitations of the villa, as new industrial wealth gave some
Americans spending power the likes of which they had never
known. A more luxurious dream-house model emerged, consciously
separate from the homes of average Americans. The forms and floor
plans expanded in size, with new rooms having specialized
functions, along with more bedrooms and more elaborate
accommodations for servants. Architectural styles grew more
exuberant and eclectic, loosely mimicking aristocratic models from
Europe, and lavish materials were imported from abroad. The
romantic, vaguely literary aesthetic of the villa gave way to a
glittering imperial dream house that paralleled America’s growth as
an international power. Stylistically, the White House was still at
odds with the new American mansion, but at last its large scale
seemed appropriate for what was happening in the world around it.

In the last decades of the 19th century and the first of the 20th,
a self-proclaimed American aristocracy surpassed all previous
standards of residential opulence and scale. American palaces
rivaled their European counterparts in size and grandeur, to the
extent that the White House came to be perceived as small and
inadequate to the demands placed on it. Yet at this moment, the
president’s house paradoxically took on renewed relevance as a
model of typically American elegance. The European aristocratic

roots of its design were suddenly in tune with the pretensions of
America’s palace builders. McKim, Mead & White’s interior
transformation of the White House in the first years of the 20th
century brought its stylistic relevance full circle, making the White
House as urbane and sophisticated as America’s new palaces and
simultaneously fostering a renewed interest in America’s
architectural past focused directly on a key exemplar of that

After World War i, suburbanization began to transform the
country’s image of the dream house. Although the architecture of
the White House did not largely reflect this process (though aspects
of the house’s interiors and landscaping did), the house’s iconic
status encouraged the profusion of Colonial Revival suburban
imitators. Porticoes were designed as the frontispieces to countless
Georgian-style houses during the 191Os, 1920s, and 1930s. This
stylistic trend rendered the architecture of the White House both
more accessible and more revered, elevating the structure to the
status of a national icon.


The White House gardens began in 1800 as 82 open acres
extending from the northern boundary of today’s Lafayette Park
south to the marshy banks of the Potomac River. The residence
was barely finished in 1804 when Thomas Jefferson designated five
acres immediate to the White House as the president’s private
garden. These walled grounds, later expanded to 18 acres, reflected
the development of American landscape design for more than a
century before being enshrined as naturalized park in the grand
American tradition of Frederick Law Olmsted and his followers.5

The English aristocracy of the 18th century derived its power
from inherited property, so it is no wonder that American citizens
shuddered when land, hard-won during the American Revolution
was allocated to a presidential estate. William Thornton, architect
of the first Capitol building and commissioner for the new
Federal City that in 1871 became Washington D.C., wrote by
1797: “Gardens and extensive walks are proper appendages to the
House of the People…Avoid palaces and the gardens of palaces.
If you build a palace I will find you a king.”6 As a result of this
enduring sentiment, the traditions of the English landscape style
and Jeffersonian ideals of public property informed the
development of the presidential grounds from a country-house
pasture to an urban oasis.

The president’s park has proved to be democratic in its
accommodation of both public and private needs. The White
House grounds were a supply yard during the Civil War and a
rallying place for modern political demonstrations. A kitchen
garden provided food for early administrations, and numerous
animals, including sheep, cows, a possum, and a turkey, have lived
at the White House. When the demand for presidential security
increased after Lincoln’s assassination, General Grant fully enclosed
the grounds immediate to the house. Public enjoyment of the
president’s garden became almost exclusively visual. Today, only by
observation from the south fence and through photographs does
the president’s garden remain open to the public.

Even though the White House garden was carefully planned by
leading American designers of both public parks and private estates,
their work was rarely carried out consistently. Congressional budgets,
politics, security concerns, and short executive terms prevented
ongoing development and timely completion.

From the earliest years, garden plans have resisted the classicism of
capital city planner Pierre-Charles L’Enfant while preserving the
essential symbolic relationship of the executive White House to the
legislative Capitol building the the east. In 1851 America’s early
advocate of naturalized gardens, Andrew Jackson Downing, provided
the first comprehensive landscape design for the White House and
National Mall. Though never realized, landscape architects turned
to Downing’s plan for guidance and continuity. Later in the 19th
century, the urban and national park movement gained momentum
and the White House grounds themselves became a semiprivate park
with trees shading a rolling lawn.

Downing’s belief that every house, nor just the houses of the
rich, should reflect an owner’s unique identity was fulfilled at the
White House, where the flower gardens close to the house evolved
with changing administrations. As gardening and the study of
plants became acceptable occupations for women in the 19th
century, the care of these gardens became the province of first
ladies. Working with White House gardeners and a staff that grew
in size and sophistication over the decades, presidential wives saw

the the beauty and gentility they sought for the interior were made
manifest on the exterior. The choices they made for the White
House gardens reflected what was fashionable in American
landscape design.

At the house of democratically elected presidents, it is not
surprising that presidential botanical collections requiring expensive
care were hidden from public view. The first White House flower
gardens were closed to the public by a locked gate in a wood fence.
This south garden was replaced in the 19th century by a greenhouse
built on the site of today’s west wing. This modest structure became
a sprawling conservatory before being razed 1in11 1902. The east and
west garden terraces created then are now the elaborate parterres of
the rose garden and Jacqueline Kennedy Garden, memorials to JFK’s
royal Camelot.

At the behest of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Frederick Law
Olmsted Jr. reviewed the conditions of the White House garden
within its historical context. The resulting 1935 Olmsted plan,
drawn up as America sought inspiration from its past to recover
from the devastation of the Great Depression, called for preserving
the historic White House landscape. This plan and related
commentary have guided administrations since the FDR years.
Olmsted’s preservationist pride in the White House foreshadowed

the Kennedy vision of the residence as a monument to America’s
upper-class colonial heritage.

Today the design of the White House garden does not evolve
with contemporary taste as it did throughout the 19th century.
Instead, it belongs to the Anglo-American White House vision that
champions preservation over fashion. Though they are but a
fragment of Washington’s dream for capital city gardens, the
presidential grounds remain iconic and unchanging. With Colonial
Revival flower beds and commemorative presidential trees, the
White House garden is a reassuring symbol of conservative
American values-tradition, endurance, and simplicity.


The earliest interiors of the White House reflected occupants’
attempts to come to grips with its grand spaces by using the materials
available to the elite in America’s major cities. The first presidents and
their wives adapted their provincial understanding of English gentry
life to the unfamiliar, aristocratic scale of the house. The Madisons had
only begun to accomplish this task when the house was gutted by fire
in 1814. With the Monroes, Washington’s impossible dream house
began to be less alien, and its late classical interiors echoed the
increasing sophistication and interest in French taste that began to
pervade American homes in the 1820s. Andrew Jackson was the first
president to fully decorate the vast interior spaces, an undertaking that
represented both the maturing self-confidence of the American
consumer and the rise of the nation’s commercial furnisher-
manufacturers. Americans learned how to shop for what was
fashionable and socially expected, and presidents were no exception.

The rise of the villa in America saw a cultural shift in decorating
responsibilities from the president to the first lady, in line with the
evolving cult of domesticity, which charged women with making
the home into a place of comfort, convenience, and beauty.
Women, as the primary domestic consumers, knew where to buy
the latest styles and the finest materials. Sarah Polk first
transformed the White House into a modern villa with a
prosperous middle-class homemaker’s budget judiciously spent on
the rooms of a gargantuan home.

By the time Julia Grant ensconced her family in the White House,
Gilded Age social pressures demanded that the richest citizens live
111 drc.1111 hnu,e, cn11srdcr.1bh l.rrga .ind more bn,h th.111 tho,c of
in dream houses considerably larger and more lavish than those of
ordinary Americans. Accordingly, Mrs. Grant began the
transformation of the White H ouse from villa to mansion, with
no more experience than a sharp eye for what was going on around
hrr. W hile M rs. Grant was still bound by politically imposed
budgets, she made the first forays into high-style custom interiors
with her East Room renovation, which was carried even further by
rhe widowed Chester A. Arthur in the early 1880s. Arthur brought
the first truly upper-class interiors into the White H ouse with the
calcnts of Louis Comfort Tiffany.

Teddy and Edith Roosevelt transformed the White H ouse into
a palace, acknowledging that the president’s house needed to be
imperial in its grandeur and function to reflect the international
presidency. Their [902 renovation by M cKim, M ead & White
crc;ited a dtvision between the state floor and the second-floor
private quarters char allowed the first family to live a comfortable
suburban life upstairs and an official life downstairs.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the White H ouse went through a

transmonal phase. The first serious movement coward decorating

the house as a museum began in this period, but in a romantic,

unscholarly war, Embarrassed by the anachronistic splendor of the

main noor, first ladies sought ready-made goods acquired under

the watchful ere of increasingly intrusive advisory groups. T he first
floor mtenors were dominated by department-store interpretations

of America’ colo111al heritage, while the first families lived

mcrcasmglr isolated suburban lives on a second floor designed for

comfort and modern convenience. The culmination of the

suburbanization of the White House was its total gutting and
renovation during the Truman administration, which left it

completely modernized, decorated, and furnished but rendered it
JUSt as lackmg m personalitY as when it was first completed in l 800.

It took Jacqueline Kennedy to create the final dream house,
bringing the upper-class caste of the modern American millionaire
into the diluted suburban colonial interiors of the mid-20th century.
Gathering upper-class advisors and elite decorators about her, Mrs.
Kennedy created a paradigm that irrevocably split the house into
three spaces (public, private, administrative) and established a model
for its interiors that strictly limited the ability of subsequent first
ladies to make further substantive changes. Under Mrs. Kennedy.
the White House became something it had never been before but
that most Americans now imagine it always has been.

Almost all evidence of its early interiors was tragically lost when the
British burned the White House in 1814. The furnishings initially
allotted to George \Vashington’s dream house were probably
inade<juate to the task, simply because no country house of its scale
had ever been furnished in America before; nor had a central
gO\∑ernment ever been charged with maintaining such a house for a
democraticallr elected leader. From what evidence sunïi,∑es, it seems
that the first presidential families made do w1th what they knew
about modest American country houses. The first occupants who
began to understand what the vast rooms of the president’s house
required to fill chem were the Madisons.

From the late I 810s Lo the Civil \Var, \Vh1te House furnishings
evolved in a way that appears to have closely followed general
patterns of consumption among increasingly afOuent and styleconscious
Americans up and down the eastern seaboard. The
president; and their wives ,hopped for their furni,h111g, at major
retailers in the main style centers of cw York, Ph,l.1drlphia, and
Baltimore, while abo patronizing local manufacturer, and retailers
in the grow111g Cll)’ of Washington. The dominance of the Engl,sh
classical style in the I 8 I Os and 1820s gradually gave way to a taste
for French-style furniture and objects as the concept of the villa
matured in the I 830s and I 840,.

The villa decades brought with them a vaneiy of new styles–the
rococo, the Gochie, the Renaissance. The White I louse followed
the furnishing trends that typified the emerging American villa of
the pre-Civil \Var years, with different styles associated wllh
different rooms. The White House’s oversized I 8th-century rooms
didn’t actually correspond wrth vrlla-s,zed furniture; e,ïen so, the
presidents’ wives in the I 840s and I 850s continued to purchase
what their peers all over the coumrr were buying, adapting it co che
scale and mixed public-private function of the rooms.
After the Civil War, White House furnishings continued to follow
trends of style and consumption chat predominated all over the
expanding country. As wealthier Americans bought more novel, ornate,
and expensive furnishings to set themselves above average homeowners,
the first ladies followed suit, mixing ready-made commercial objects
with custom-ordered pieces when budgets allowed.

At the very end of the 19th century, the White House was again
partly refurnished under the Theodore Roosevelts to reflect a new
palatial caste, echoing the heavily European-style furnishings seen in
industrialists’ palaces in major cities and in resort towns. At the
same time, a selective retention of old historic pieces chat had
survived in the house contrasted with the last wholesale dispersal of
outmoded and used furnishings in 1903. As the 20th century
unfolded and a more focused historic interest in the White House
developed, new furnishings that reproduced past sryles began to
appear, paralleling a similar explosion in the use of new Americanmade
department-store reproductions at all socioeconomic levels in

U.S. suburbs. As the era of palace building faded into the era of

income tax and, finally, depression, the White House furnishings
grew even more like those of suburban Americ.1, dominated by the
comfortable familiarity of Colonial Revival and Early American
styles. This suburbanization of the White H ouse furnishings was
at odds with the rooms’ lingering grandeur and culminated in the
house’s drastic renovation after the end of World War 11.

In its final phase, the White H ouse moved dramatically away
from developments in the American home. With its transformation
into a historic shrine in which the presidenL’s fami ly lives, the
emphasis for its furnishings turned quickly and irrevocably to real
antiques and pieces of historic importance. While Americans in
general, encouraged by museum installations, had developed a taste
for anLiques, mainstream American homes continued to depend on
reproductions as well as new, modern-style furniture. Except for
the introduction of a collection of contemporary American crafts
in the I 990s, the only modern-style furnishings in the White
H ouse have been in more utilitarian contexts and have not formed
part of the public image of the president’s house.


We have organized the six chapters chat follow-Country House,
Villa, Mansion, Palace, Suburban Home, and Shrine-according to
a str;iightforward formu la chat we hope allows you to see clearly
parallels between the White H ouse and the type of American home
explored in each section.

To place the White House in its design context, we open each
chapter with houses that exemplify each chapter title. These are
followed by images of key figures in the life of the White House.
They are not the only presidents and first ladies discussed in the
story chat follows, but they are the men and women who made

changes emblematic of American house history. Finally, in order to
remind the reader of the ongoing importance of room size and
arrangement, each chapter includes a plan of the White House at
the period in question, compared with chat of a contemporary
private house. These plans are presented in the same scale so chat
the reader may compare the White House in each period with a
house of comparable social ambition. For the final chapter, we
have not offered such a comparison because the White House in
the 1960s ceased being an American home and became a museum
with a residential apartment.

Yet the significance of the President’s House goes beyond its historical meaning. Jc suggests
a way of life in which we all take pride. We want it to be an example of excellence.
-John Walker, The White House: An Historic Guide, 1962

The changes made to the White House in the first half of the 20th century reflected a broad cultural
dynamic. As the nation went through two wars and a depression, Americans simultaneously embraced a
modern world freed from the inequalities of the Gilded Age and continued to look back to their early democratic
heritage for reassurance in the face of an unknown future. The struggle intensified as pose-World War II urban
renewal leveled old neighborhoods in the face of an expanding preservation movement.

At the White House itself, the conflict between wanting to be new and to preserve the past manifested itself
in Harry Truman’s radical renovation. The president himself signed into existence the National Trust for Historic
Preservation in 1949 and considered historic issues before gutting the frame of the president’s house. 1 But
Truman, and then Dwight Eisenhower, saw the White House first in practical terms, and only second as a
historic building-just as all their precursors, except James Madison, had done.

The longing fo r America’s past was reflected in the movement to preserve 18th-and 19th-century houses.
American museums participated by installing period rooms. The Brooklyn Museum, the Philadelphia Museum,
and the Metropolitan Museum all created groups of American period rooms in the I 920s chat became
immediately popular. John D. Rockefeller Jr. funded the reconstruction and restoration of numerous buildings
and interiors at Colonial Williamsburg in the 1920s and 1930s. This work was done with a loose mixture of
scholarship and upper-class ideas of good taste, encouraged by private collectors of American antiques.

Antiques collecting accompanied building preservation. le began as a craze in the wake of the Centennial
Exhibition of I 876. In the early decades of the 20th century emerged a powerful community of rich and
socially prominent collectors, from Boston to Houston, from Detroit to Los Angeles. At a more modest level,
suburban middle-class Americans also collected antiques, having embraced museums as arbiters of taste. These
collectors ignored cultural leaders who were antihistorical and pro-modernist. In 1944, designer Thomas
Robsjohn-Gibbings published a sly little polemic called Good-bye, Mr. Chippendale.2 On the surface it appeared to
be a humorous overview of America’s obsession with antiques, but in face it was an uncompromising manifesto
calling for Americans to throw out anything and everything old-architecture, gardens, interior decoration, and
furnishings. The book singled our traditional decorator Elsie de Wolfe as the villain who had turned Americans
away from respect for everything modern and toward a perverted love of the antique:1

In chis world of revering antiques and preserving old houses, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy came of age. With
a deep attachment to the legacy of America’s historic ruling class, Mrs. Kennedy ignored modernism and took
up the preservation of the White House using the curatorial approach of the house museum movement.