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. This is why you’ll never see Jackie’s pink Chanel suit in a museum.
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.
The Red Room
The Red Room was almost completely designed in a French style. Revamps included pinkish-red silk upholstery for the wall. The room held a gueridon, a small table with a circle top that is supported by columns or by human sculptures or mythological figures. There are sofas that belonged to Dolley Madison and George Washington’s granddaughter, Nelly Custis. Jackie brought in a French empire chair that was in White House storage and carpet woven in France was donated after Andre Meyer funded it in exchange for a meeting with Jackie. A French chandelier from 1820, French bouillotte table lamps and French torch lamps were also brought in. Window treatments of straight panels of cerise silk suspended from a gilded wood rod and rings got added, too. Don’t miss these 6 strange-but-true stories of White House Christmas ornaments.
The Green Room
The refurbishing of the Green Room in the White House turned out to be one of the few places the Fine Arts Committee, du Pont and Boudin found agreement. The wall coverings Jackie chose were a moss-colored silk with a moire pattern.
A mirror from George Washington made its way to the Green Room as did many other pieces of antique furniture. A sofa once owned by Daniel Webster became part of the room. Maurine Noun from Des Moines, Iowa sent the First Lady a Baltimore lady’s desk. There were only four like it around and it was the first unsolicited piece of furniture the committee received. It was later learned that the desk was not authentic, it had been constructed around 1880. The desk was later removed from the Green Room. An 18th-century English Axminster carpet in a Neoclassical pattern that was donated got placed in the room. You’d be stunned to find out how much some antique tools have fetched at auction, including the most expensive one in the world.
The Lincoln Bedroom
The committee added a picture of Andrew Jackson to the Lincoln Bedroom, which used to serve as Lincoln’s cabinet room. The committee discovered an engraving of the cabinet room showed a portrait of Andrew Jackson in the room. Lincoln admired Jackson, Kennedy said in her televised White House tour, and the portrait was placed in the Lincoln bedroom in the spot where it previously hung. The mirror was previously in the Blue Room. Here’s the one trick to making wood look old if you want to add some age to your home.
The above photo shows what the Treaty Room looked like in 1960.
Kennedy decorated the Treaty Room (formerly known as the Monroe Room) to represent Victorian-era history. The room included dark green, burgundy, and gold. Kennedy and the committee reintroduced a table and chairs that belonged to President Grant and brought in an electrified gas chandelier that used to stand in the East Room. A large, gilded Rococo Revival mirror over the mantel that once hung in the Green Room was brought to the Treaty Room. The room had drapery based on a design during Lincoln’s era.
A table desk that once belonged to Julia Grant, the wife of Ulysses S. Grant, was also placed in the room after the committee received it as a gift. The committee also found the chair that Lincoln sat on for the Healy portrait and placed it in the room.
The committee also placed Theobald Chartran’s painting Signing of the Peace Protocol Between Spain and the United States, August 12, 1898, in the room along with copies of framed treaties signed in the White House.
This is how the room appeared in 1960.
Boudin had the China Room’s paneling glazed in three shades of gray. Corner brackets in the display cabinet doors were removed and the interior was lined with red cotton velvet. The floor was carpeted with a snowflake pattern and gray velvet drapes, trimmed with red and white silk fringe were hung. These 100 before and after home makeovers will floor you.
Family Dining Room
The Kennedys had the molding removed in the above photo, which is from 1952, and had the walls organized into a series of upper and lower panels. In the next photo, the window height was lowered and coupled with the molding removal, made the room feel bigger. These 15 tips can make a small room feel bigger, too.
Family Dining Room
The walls got painted a soft yellow and yellow silk curtains were added. A late Louis XVI green marble mantelpiece with white marble festoons and an eagle was installed. The baseboard trim was painted to match the green marble of the mantel. The table and chairs came from the Federal period and early 19th-century furniture pieces got placed in the room.
Jackie decorated the master bedroom in powder blue and white. She added a portrait of Caroline and a terra-cotta bust of a child on the mantelpiece. She also had the double beds pushed together. We can only imagine what her closet looked like but here are 12 gorgeous walk-in closets that will get you jealous all the same.
President’s Dining Room
Jackie transformed the Lincoln Bedroom into the President’s Dining Room. It’s one of the few rooms where she didn’t use Boudin’s design ideas. She picked the design Dorothy “Sister” Kinnicutt Parish developed. She wanted a smaller, more intimate dining space for her and her young family. An old dressing room became a kitchen.
The wallpaper came from France and is known as “Scenes of Revolutionary America.” The wallpaper has since been removed. Blue and green silk drapes were hung to match the wallpaper and the window treatments were green silk with gold bullion fringe.
A rug from Turkey covered the floor while an Empire-style chandelier hung from the ceiling.
Federal-style antiques furnished the room and the family sat at a Sheraton pedestal dining table. They ate with silverware purchased by Andrew Jackson in 1833. Bet you can’t guess the kind of pet Jackson kept around and what it did at his funeral.
The Vermeil Room in the White House holds the vermeil along with portraits of First Ladies. While Jackie was First Lady, she used it to display flowers and fruit. This picture shows the room as a work in progress in 1963. Boudin scrubbed down the walls with wire brushes to bring up the grain of the wood and create an aged look. He painted it off-white and added a coating of blue paint. The shelves were the vermeil were displayed were covered with white velvet and a neoclassical Caryatid mantel was installed. That mantle is still in place. White damask drapes with blue and off-white fringe trim were added and blue and white patterned carpet was chosen. The room also got a gilded chandelier and became more of a gallery room. See how far chandeliers have come in the time since and what’s new for 2018.
Yellow Oval Room
The Yellow Oval Room is on the second floor of the White House is used to for small receptions and to greet heads of state before state dinners.
While the Kennedys were in the White House it was used as a drawing room. Jackie had it painted a soft yellow and brought in a pale yellow oval carpet. Oriental rugs topped the carpet. Sister Parish designed the room initially and then Boudin added some touches to it. Boudin replaced the furniture with French antiques from the 18th and 19th centuries in the Louis XVI style. Two green marble columns were made to hold antique, electrified candelabras. Next, don’t miss these rarely seen photos of Jackie Kennedy.