The Incredible History of Jackie Kennedy’s Decorating of the White House
Many of her changes during the extensive White House restoration project in the early 1960s have lasted.
Plans of a Historical Scale
From the time Jackie Kennedy first viewed the White House in 1941 as a child she felt more could be done to capture the history and significance of the presidential home. She famously told Life’s Hugh Sidney, “From the outside, I remember the feeling of the place. But inside, all I remember is shuffling through. There wasn’t even a booklet you could buy. Mount Vernon and the National Gallery of Art made a far greater impression.”
White House Renovation
The White House underwent a significant reconstruction during the Truman administration between 1949-1952. The White House had become architecturally unsafe and so while the structure got fixed, the White House got some more character when the Kennedys entered it. The White House was so bad during Truman’s term that the family had to live outside the White House will repairs took place.
Creation of a Book
Jackie went on to have a book produced about the White House, called The White House: An Historic Guide and it was released in 1962. Funds from the sale of the book went to the continued restoration projects. Find out 12 more incredible facts about the White House you didn’t know.
Du Pont and Boudin
Jackie Kennedy transformed the décor of the White House when John F. Kennedy won the 1960 election. She got help from Henry Francis du Pont, a fervent collector of Americana items and Stéphane Boudin, a renowned designer from France, who also served as president of the House of Jansen, a leading interior decorating firm. Du Pont is seen looking at Kennedy in this photo during a tea for the Special Committee for White House Paintings. You don’t need a fancy French interior designer to make your home pop, check out these 12 interior design tricks.
She felt that the rooms were furnished with pieces of furniture that lacked distinction and the history they should, in a place as special as the White House. In the end, the restoration of the White House cost $2 million, covered most of the family rooms of the second floor, nearly all the public floors on the State Floor and set a precedent of high standards of style for the residence.
The Kennedys established the White House Historical Association and got the White House declared a museum in order to help preserve it. They also added a curator to the White House staff. The Fine Arts Committee was formed with du Pont as the chairman. Jackie originally hoped to borrow antique furniture from du Pont’s Winterthur mansion turned museum and he came on board because of his expertise in American historical decoration. Winterthur is one of the largest homes in the country, check out the other 49.
White House’s First Curator
Lorraine Waxman Pearce, who died in 2017, served as the first curator of the White House. She helped find many of the pieces that became part of the rooms Kennedy and the committee restored. She wrote the first guidebook to the White House furnishings but she also clashed with Jackie. She resigned in 1962. Pearce’s obituary in the New York Times said that Jackie wrote a note after Pearce left to the new curator, William Voss Elder III, that said having him on the job is “paradise.” Mrs. Kennedy also did not enjoy Pearce’s penchant to make decisions without asking for her approval.
The restoration effort led to the collection of more than 500 new acquisitions for the White House. A law was passed during the Kennedy presidency that anything in the White House will go to the Smithsonian if the first family decides it doesn’t want something in the White House. If your home is beginning to feel like the Smithsonian with all the things you’ve collected through the years, find out what you can easily toss out now.
CBS White House Tour
Jackie led a guided tour of the White House after the restoration was complete. The tour aired on CBS and NBC on Feb. 14, 1962, and drew 80 million viewers. She received an honorary Emmy for the tour. It’s considered the first prime-time documentary designed to appeal specifically to women. Don’t miss these 44 facts about America’s first ladies.
The Blue Room
Jackie did some historical research and it helped her determine the placement of the French furniture, which President Monroe ordered back in 1818. The room had cream silk wall coverings, blue silk draperies, and gold paneling.
Jackie came across a 1946 French magazine article that mentioned the White House once held French Empire-style gilt wood furniture built by Pierre-Antoine Bellangé. She asked staff to find any pieces and they came up with a pier table, which was being used as a sawhorse. It took six weeks to restore it.
They also found a bust of George Washington in a men’s room and placed it in the Blue Room. They put both pieces exactly where James Monroe had placed them while he served as president. Refurbishing antiques can be a rewarding endeavor, just like discovering 80 amazing items you can repurpose at home.
Diplomatic Reception Room
Jackie and her group added new wallpaper to the Diplomatic Reception Room. It wasn’t just any kind of wallpaper, though. It was antique French scenic wallpaper made by Jean Zuber et Cie from 1834. The wallpaper is called Scenes of North America and it shows images of Boston Harbor, West Point and Niagara Falls.
State Dining Room
In the State Dining Room there were two portraits, one of Daniel Webster and one of Thomas Jefferson, on loan from the Boston Museum of Fine Art. A third of Abraham Lincoln hangs above the fireplace. All three works were done by George Peter Alexander Healy. Du Pont and Boudin suggested that the State Dining Room emphasize the work of Charles Follen McKim, whose firm McKim, Mead & White did much of the renovation of the White House in 1902.
The room’s paneling was repainted bone white while the chandelier and sconces were regilded. The fireplace mantel was replaced with a replica of the 1902 Buffalo mantel that had been in place prior. McKim’s tables were painted to look like white marble with gold veining. New carpet was added and Chiavari chairs by McKim, Mead & White replaced Chippendale reproduction chairs. Jackie added plain tulip-shaped crystal glasses she liked from the Morgantown Glassware Gild of West Virginia as well. The way the room was set changed, too. The Kennedys moved away from a horseshoe shape of table arrangements to rounds for better socializing. Check out the 11 bizarre things presidents have banned from the White House.