Inside the Kennedy-Era White House Restoration

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Designing Camelot: The Kennedy White House Restoration and Its Legacy, out today, explores the interior design of the People’s House during one of the most influential presidential administrations in history.

The tome is a new edition of a 1998 book—titled Designing Camelot: The Kennedy White House Restoration—with added components, including first-person accounts, personal and public correspondences, accounts from members of the press, photographs of the many rooms of the White House, insight about the First Lady’s design decisions, and anecdotes about the many people who were involved in this monumental process. The book also features a foreword by Caroline Kennedy. To learn how this fascinating book came to life, House Beautiful spoke to the book’s authors, James Archer Abbott and Elaine Rice Bachmann.

Photo credit: The White House Historical Association
Photo credit: The White House Historical Association

Abbott and Bachmann share a longstanding passion and admiration for the White House, especially its restoration during the Kennedy administration. “Both of us came to love the White House through reading about it and visiting it as children,” Abbott tells House Beautiful. Bachmann, who was born after the Kennedy years, was particularly inspired by her mother's description of the First Lady’s televised tour of the People’s House, “and how much of an impact Mrs. Kennedy's restoration of the White House had on the American public.”

This era influenced both authors so much so that the subject of Abbott’s undergraduate and graduate theses was the Kennedy restoration of the White House, while Bachmann made it the focus of her own graduate thesis, as part of the Winterthur Program in Early American Culture.

When compared to the 1998 edition of Designing Camelot, this version “is really a whole new volume,” declares Abbott. “The original research has been greatly expanded upon, utilizing the recollections of numerous participants not originally willing to share their accounts for the benefit of the earlier book, as well as incorporating archival material not previously accessible.”

One of those participants was the late Jayne Wrightsman, whose own collection of decorative arts is permanently a part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Before her death at the age of 99 in 2019, Wrightsman provided firsthand accounts of the Kennedy-era White House restoration, as she was a close friend to Mrs. Kennedy and a fellow historic preservationist.

Photo credit: The White House Historical Association
Photo credit: The White House Historical Association

Of course, while First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy is most often associated with this restoration, President John F. Kennedy was also involved in the process. “Too often, the project is spoken of as "Mrs. Kennedy's" restoration,” professes Bachmann. “But it also reflects the president's vision to create a grand historical backdrop for his presidency.”

Ultimately, adds Bachmann, the entire restoration was “a master class in diplomacy and public policy.” It was a team effort, with Mrs. Kennedy and the Fine Arts Committee working closely with President Kennedy's advisors, in order “to ensure that their efforts would benefit the public beyond their administration.”

In addition to this book being released on what would have been Jacqueline Kennedy’s 92nd birthday, this year marks the 60th anniversary of the White House Historical Association—which was established by the First Lady herself.

Interested in reading Designing Camelot: The Kennedy White House Restoration and Its Legacy? You can purchase the book through the White House Historical Association’s website, which can be found here.

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