Did you know that before former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy lived in the White House, the first families took their furnishings with them after their terms were over?
Mrs. Kennedy thought better of that practice, and believed it was important for the “People’s House” to preserve American history and showcase the best of American culture. In 1961, she was instrumental in the founding of The White House Historical Association — a private, nonprofit organization with a big mission — to enhance the public’s understanding, appreciation, and enjoyment of the White House.
Working with the National Park Service, the curator of the White House, the White House chief usher, and the “first family” — the WHHA is responsible for the care, conservation, and interpretation of the historic staterooms of the White House Executive Residence and larger White House Complex.
We are thrilled to interview historian William Bushong, the chief White House historian and VP of the WHHA since 1997. Scroll down for our Q&A. — Hope Katz Gibbs, executive producer, and David Bruce Smith, founder of the Grateful American™ Foundation.
Hope Katz Gibbs: Take us back to 1961, when Jackie Kennedy decided there needed to be a White House Historical Association.
William Bushong: First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy’s belief that the White House should represent the best of American history and culture was the catalyst for the founding of the Association. Her plans for a “restoration” of the executive mansion were underway — it was not a redecoration in her view — and this inspired Nash Castro of the National Park Service, the White House liaison in those days, to suggest forming an association to assist the first lady with her restoration initiative. Most people don’t realize that the White House is a unit of the National Park Service within President’s Park, as directed by FDR’s executive order in 1935.
Mrs. Kennedy embraced the idea of the Association, at least in part because she had ambitions to publish an authoritative guidebook on the White House. She also saw the importance of a nonprofit historical organization that could raise funds for acquiring fine art and furnishings.
The correspondence and minutes of the founding of the association reveal the remarkable breadth of Mrs. Kennedy’s vision and the depth of her research. She was even considering proposals for establishing a White House research library. Today the Association is working on developing a digital library of White House history with the hope of fulfilling Mrs. Kennedy’s dream.
David Bruce Smith: What are some of the objects that have been preserved in the last six decades thanks to Jackie Kennedy’s vision?
William Bushong: Mrs. Kennedy’s call for donations led to a great influx of authentic furnishings to the White House. Most important were three original Bellangé chairs from President James Monroe’s Oval Room and a chair made for the East Room in 1818. Five armchairs, two side chairs, and one sofa from the Monroe era now have been returned to the White House since 1961. The two side chairs are the only pieces at the White House to bear traces of the maker’s stamp. A group of reproductions (seven armchairs and four side chairs) was made in 1962 to supplement the three original chairs acquired in 1961-62. An Act of Congress in 1961 extended legal protection to these and all White House objects.
Hope Katz Gibbs: Which first ladies have been the most active in preservation efforts?
William Bushong: Pioneers such as Caroline Harrison, Ida McKinley, Grace Coolidge, and Lou Hoover revered the history of the White House and began the preservation and display of china services. This really was the beginning of the recognition of the White House as a museum. In fact, Lou Hoover might be called the first curator; she directed a project to catalog all of the historic objects, furnishings, and art in the White House. Still, Mrs. Kennedy’s effort to establish the White House as a cultural icon and to obtain public recognition of its special historic character was a watershed moment. Since the 1960s, all of our first ladies have been stewards of the preservation and interpretation of the White House.
David Bruce Smith: Tell us more about the collection. What does it include?
William Bushong: The White House collection of fine and decorative arts encompasses historic objects associated with the White House and the presidency, and significant representative works by a variety of American and European artists and craftsmen, generally consistent with the historic character of the house.
Hope Katz Gibbs: How much of the collection is on view to the public?
William Bushong: Although the White House is an accredited historic house museum, it obviously is not a traditional exhibition setting. As the official residence of the U.S. president, objects from its collection are used to furnish the public and private rooms.
Still, the public is able to see a multitude of historical works of art, furnishings, and light fixtures, as well as silver, china, and glassware on the ground level and the State Floor public rooms. About 100 historic objects are on display in the White House Visitor Center at 1450 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, in Washington, DC.
David Bruce Smith: The presidential china collection is extremely noteworthy. Tell us about that.
William Bushong: The history of the presidential china is a major story and an area of special expertise. There are 18 full state services prior to the 2015 Obama China. A few selected services illustrate that collection’s rich history:
- 1817: James Monroe ordered the first dinner service created specifically for official use by an American president. Dagoty and Honor of Paris manufactured the 30 specially decorated place settings and matching dessert service, which cost $1,167.23. A handsome eagle with wings spread, designated in the shipping list as the arms of the United States, is at the center of each plate.
- 1879: First Lady Lucy Webb Hayes wanted to commemorate North American flora and fauna in her new White House china and commissioned artist Theodore R. Davis to create 130 designs for the set. Cost for the order came to $3,120. Davis’ designs were so lifelike that Washington socialite Clover Adams observed that when she dined at the White House she could hardly eat soup peacefully if she had to watch a coyote leap at her from behind a pine tree.
- 1918: In March, President Woodrow Wilson commissioned Lenox of Trenton, NJ, to produce the first American-made state service. All services in the past had been manufactured in England or France. Wilson’s 1,326-piece china set had a dark cobalt border framed by a heavy gilt line of stars and stripes at the shoulder and featured the presidential arms in raised 24-carat gold in the center.
- 1968: When Lady Bird Johnson requested the first new china set since 1952, for use at ever-increasing state visits, an anonymous donor funded its purchase through the White House Historical Association, setting a new precedent for the private funding of state services. The 2,208-piece Johnson china was decorated with American wildflowers. Tiffany and Co. of New York City executed the design, and the set was manufactured by Castleton China of New Castle, PA. The cost was $80,028.
- 2015: There are 320 place settings and 11 pieces in the Obama service, including seven plates, a tureen with saucer, and a cup with saucer. First Lady Michelle Obama designed the service with inspiration from the china of Presidents Madison and McKinley. The White House Historical Association purchased it for $367,258.
Hope Katz Gibbs: How about the presidential portraits? Are they part of the WHHA collection?
William Bushong: Well into the 20th century, commissioning and acquiring portraits of presidents for the White House was a haphazard affair.
In 1857, Congress commissioned Chicago artist George P. A. Healy to paint portraits of several presidents, some of whom had sat for him in the 1840s. The portraits, completed from life or Healy’s replicas of earlier life portraits, were of John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren, John Tyler, James K. Polk, Millard Fillmore, and Franklin Pierce. Finished by 1859, the portraits were stored in the White House attic, as no funds had been provided for framing them. After the Civil War, President Andrew Johnson obtained funding to frame them and hung the portraits in the Cross Hall. Rutherford B. Hayes and Mrs. Hayes commissioned paintings of Ulysses S. Grant, Andrew Jackson, John Adams, James Madison, James Monroe, Zachary Taylor, and William Henry Harrison in the 1870s.
Twentieth century presidential portraits, some by such internationally renowned artists as John Singer Sargent (Theodore Roosevelt), Anders Zorn (William H. Taft), and Sir William Orpen (Woodrow Wilson), were painted from life during their administrations. However, since no government patronage had been established for presidential portraits, presidential families or friends often donated portraits to the White House years after the president’s term of office.
Presidential portraits were not consistently commissioned for the White House collection until the founding of the White House Historical Association in 1961, which since then has funded the acquisition of portraits of both presidents and first ladies for the White House. The Association and generous private donors have also made possible the acquisition of life portraits of earlier presidents to complete the presidential collection or to replace previous copies or replicas.
David Bruce Smith: If the first family has an artifact they want to purchase or donate to the organization, what do they do?
William Bushong: Requests for expenditures for acquisitions by the Association, the White House Endowment Trust, and the White House Acquisition Trust for the public rooms of the White House and its collection of fine and decorative arts originate with the White House curator and chief usher, with the approval of the first lady and the Committee for the Preservation of the White House. All expenditures must be approved by the board of directors of the Association or the trustees of the endowment and acquisition trusts.
Hope Katz Gibbs: You have a new director, Stewart McLaurin, who was appointed in May of 2014. What are some goals for the future of the organization?
William Bushong: We are a historic organization with tremendous resources, but limited reach. We will be expanding the reach of the organization through partnerships and increased dialogue with media and authors, and we are enhancing and expanding the digital face of the Association. We are honored to be able to reach individuals and organizations around the world with the history of the White House.
David Bruce Smith: What are your favorite pieces in the collection?
William Bushong: The spectacular Monroe Plateau. As part of the refurnishing of the White House after the fire of 1814, President James Monroe in 1817 ordered a large gilded bronze plateau for the dining room. Made in Paris, it is set with mirrors and has garlands of fruit and vines, with figures of Bacchus and Bacchantes and pedestals on which 16 figures present wreathes for receiving lights [candles] and 16 cups. Altogether, it’s more than 14 feet long and over 2 feet wide. It’s steeped in history — just think of all the state dinners where that plateau has been the centerpiece!
I also am drawn to Childe Hassam’s painting ‘Avenue in the Rain’ from 1917, which depicts a series of American flags on Fifth Avenue in New York. The colors and power of the patriotic statement in this impressionist painting are striking. It is no wonder many of our presidents have hung it in the Oval Office since its acquisition in 1963.
Here’s to restoring enthusiasm for American history!
About the Grateful American™ Series
The Grateful American™ Series is an interactive, multimedia educational project created by the Grateful American™ Foundation. Founded by DC-based author and publisher David Bruce Smith (shown here), it is designed to restore enthusiasm in American history for kids and adults.
Its website, which launched on July 4, 2014, is updated each month with articles, radio podcasts, and TV episodes featuring interviews with the directors of popular presidential and historic homes, including George Washington’s Mount Vernon, James Madison’s Montpelier, and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.
Learn more about the Grateful American™ Foundation at www.gratefulamericanfoundation.com.
Disclaimer: The photos of the historic figures pictured in the videos have been provided courtesy of the presidential and historic homes and museums depicted, as well as from the authors and historians, and / or are under Creative Commons usage. The Grateful American™ Series understands that these images are in the public domain and have no known copyright restrictions.