The Most Impressive—and Fascinating—White House Interiors Throughout History

Mary Elizabeth Andriotis
·11 min read
Photo credit: Tetra Images - Getty Images
Photo credit: Tetra Images - Getty Images

From House Beautiful

On January 20th, President-elect Joe Biden will be inaugurated at the United States Capitol. This of course means that after the ceremony, Biden will become the new resident of the most famous house in the country: The White House. While we wait to find out who the new First couple will tap as their White House interior decorator, House Beautiful takes a look back at some of the most impressive White House interiors throughout history, including the famed Sister Parish designs of the Kennedy era and Michael S. Smith’s vision for the Obamas (which can be seen in the designer’s recently released book, Designing History: The Extraordinary Art & Style of the Obama White House).

The White House’s Origins

Before we explore the White House’s most prominent interiors, let’s explore the famed home’s history.

The White House was designed by Irish architect James Hoban in the Neoclassical style of architecture and built over the course of eight years (from 1792 to 1800). The edifice itself is made of Aquia Creek sandstone that was painted white because of the risk posed by the permeability of the stone, which could cause cracking in colder months.

Before the current White House, the President’s House in Philadelphia served as a home to two presidents: George Washington and John Adams. The construction of the White House was completed just a few months before Adams’s presidency ended, so he was able to move into the People’s House before his term concluded.

Until 1901, what we know as the White House was actually called the Executive Mansion, which then-President Theodore Roosevelt didn’t find ideal—given that many U.S. states had a governor’s residence that was also called the executive mansion. Roosevelt subsequently coined the term that we know and still use to this day, which can also be seen atop copies of his stationery.

The Early Years

When President John Adams and his wife, First Lady Abigail Adams, moved into the White House, the residence was lacking in decor, given that it was only recently completed. The East Room of the White House—which is now used for events such as dances, press conferences, ceremonies, banquets, receptions, and concerts—was then used by Abigail Adams as a laundry room.

Thomas Jefferson was the first president of the United States to spend his entire presidency living in the White House, so he set the precedent for the home’s opulent but still livable interiors by having furnishings and wallpaper imported from France.

The Late 1800s and Early 1900s

In 1882, President Chester Arthur enlisted Louis Comfort Tiffany to reimagine the Red Room, the Blue Room, the East Room, and the Entrance Hall, the latter of which soon welcomed the addition of a stained glass screen, in true Tiffany style.

Photo credit: Library of Congress
Photo credit: Library of Congress
Photo credit: whitehousehistory.org
Photo credit: whitehousehistory.org

Much to our dismay, President Theodore Roosevelt had Tiffany’s creations removed only 20 years later, because the designs were seen as dated at this point—and Roosevelt already had a construction crew at work in the White House, to make more room for his sizable family (hence the addition of the East Wing and the West Wing). While there are no colorized photos of these rooms under Tiffany’s direction, there are black and white photographs, and a colorful oil painting of what the stained glass screen likely looked like—so we can only imagine how magical it appeared in real life. It’s believed that after the screen was removed, it was sold at auction and later installed at Maryland’s Belvedere Hotel, which was destroyed in a fire in 1923.

Shortly after the removal of Tiffany’s designs, Theodore Roosevelt hired celebrated architectural firm McKim, Mead & White to restore the White House to its Neoclassical glory.

The Early to Mid 1900s

It wasn’t until 1909—over a century after the White House’s completion—that the Oval Office was created. Then-President William Howard Taft added this room and had it painted in an army green shade, which has since been changed as every president likes to make the space their own.

Given the numerous state dinners at the White House and accompanying serveware required for them, First Lady Edith Wilson (wife to Woodrow Wilson) oversaw the completion of the White House China Room in 1917. Since then, the room has displayed state service china, silverware, and glassware chosen and used by each administration (a selection traditionally made by the First Lady).

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

The majority of the presidential china depicts some variation of the Great Seal, which features a bald eagle and a shield that resembles the United States flag, but most administrations have come up with their own unique designs—most of which are produced by Pennsylvania-based porcelain manufacturer Lenox. One of our personal favorites? James Polk’s charming floral dessert plate, which features a mint green hue, breaking from the usually neutral color palette of other presidential china. (Heads up: You can buy reproductions of this plate and others on eBay!)

Many may not know that the White House was once home to an indoor pool. (Yes, really!) In 1933, an indoor pool was installed in the People’s House, at the request of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who used swimming as a form of therapy to help with his polio. On the walls overlooking the pool was a mural by artist Bernard Lammotte, who painted the Christiansted Harbor from the island of Saint Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands. 36 years later, Richard Nixon nixed the underground pool and turned the space above it into a press briefing room to host televised broadcasts.

Photo credit: Abbie Rowe/National Park Service/Harry S. Truman Library & Museum
Photo credit: Abbie Rowe/National Park Service/Harry S. Truman Library & Museum

Following the Great Depression and World War II, the White House was in desperate need of repair, so much so that it was deemed unsafe for occupancy in 1948, after architectural and engineering investigations. Harry S. Truman, his family, and the White House staff had to live elsewhere during a three-year-long reconstruction project in which the People’s House was completely gutted, enlarged, and reconstructed. The Trumans spent this time living at Blair House—also known as the President’s Guest House—which is located across the street from the White House. (Two members of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party attempted and failed to assassinate Truman while he was living in this house.)

The Kennedy Years

First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy was very passionate about historic preservation, and it was her efforts that led to the formation of the White House Historical Association, a non-profit organization that aims to preserve the White House’s history and make the home more publicly accessible. She was also the reason the White House was declared a museum, thereby ensuring its preservation for decades to come.

During Mrs. Kennedy’s first year as First Lady, she oversaw a $2 million renovation of the White House. Following the completion of the project, Jacqueline Kennedy gave a televised tour of the White House, which aired on NBC and CBS to over 80 million viewers on Valentine’s Day of 1962. This was the second televised tour of the White House (see Harry S. Truman’s 1952 tour here), and the first ever First Lady-led televised tour of the iconic house. The broadcast went on to win both an Emmy Award and a Peabody Award.

Mrs. Kennedy's renovation focused on reincorporating historic furniture and decor. “It just seemed to me such a shame when we came here to find hardly anything of the past in the house, hardly anything before 1902,” she explained in the broadcast. She cited Colombia’s Presidential Palace as a site where “every piece of furniture in it has some link with the past. I thought the White House should be like that.” Kennedy was so passionate about allowing the public to access the People’s House that following the suspension of tours after her husband's assassination in 1963, she requested that the tours resume just one week later.

Photo credit: The John F. Kennedy Library
Photo credit: The John F. Kennedy Library

The Kennedy-era White House restoration would not have been complete without the interior decorators who helped make it possible: Sister Parish, and later, Stéphane Boudin. Parish designed the Yellow Oval Room and the Kennedy’s private quarters, but was later replaced by Boudin (reportedly following an occurrence in which Parish advised a young Caroline Kennedy to keep her feet off of the furniture; in Parish’s own writing, she revealed that someone told Mrs. Kennedy that Parish kicked Caroline—but this was never confirmed). Parish’s granddaughter Susan Bartlett Crater once told the New York Times that the rift was sparked mainly by “a problem over money.” Regardless, Parish’s influence on the interior design world remains indisputable to this day, and much of the popularity of her style can be traced to this high-profile project.

Boudin was soon hired to decorate the Blue Room, the Treaty Room, the Red Room, and the Lincoln Sitting Room. He would later add his own touch to the private rooms of the White House as well, with more French-style decor than was previously in place.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

Jackie Kennedy also famously oversaw the completion of the White House Rose Garden, at the behest of her husband. She tapped socialite, philanthropist, and horticulturalist Rachel Lambert "Bunny" Mellon to design the project.

The Late 20th Century to Present Day

The White House interiors have been reinvented numerous times over the 220-year history of the building, and the decor tends to perfectly encapsulate both the time period and the First Family living there. Dorothy Draper protégé Carleton Varney served as Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter's "design consultant," styling state dinners and overseeing Christmas decor. Famed American decorator Mark Hampton also contributed Christmas decorations in 1977.

Photo credit: The Ronald Reagan Library
Photo credit: The Ronald Reagan Library

In the 1980s, the Reagans hired Ted Graber, a decorator from Beverly Hills, to bring their vision to life. In the process, many antique furnishings were replaced with 20th century decor, straying from typical White House decorating traditions.

At the beginning of the next decade, George H.W. Bush tapped Hampton to revive the Oval Office during his tenure, while Texas-based Kenneth Blasingame worked closely with First Lady Laura Bush on the decor for the House's private rooms.

By the time Bill Clinton moved in, the hand-painted 18th century-style bird wallpaper that was installed by the Reagans in the master bedroom was still in place. The Clintons’ interior decorator, Kaki Hockersmith, removed and replaced the wallpaper, telling The Washington Post that the room “had lots of all kinds of birds flying and sweeping around. It was not a calming atmosphere.”

As First Lady, Hillary Clinton helped raise the White House Endowment Trust’s funds to $35 million, so that more restoration work could be done to White House. During her time spent living at the People’s House, Mrs. Clinton had five rooms restored: the State Dining Room (which Mark Hampton oversaw), the East Room, Cross Hall, the Red Room, and the Blue Room.

Photo credit: The Ronald Reagan Library
Photo credit: The Ronald Reagan Library

George W. Bush hired Kenneth Blasingame, a fellow Texan, to decorate the White House interiors during his administration. And this wasn’t their first time working together—Blasingame also decorated the Bush family’s ranch house in Crawford, Texas. Then-First Lady Laura Bush told Architectural Digest about her plans for the Oval Office’s redesign, saying “We knew he wanted it to be a sunny office that showed an optimist worked there.”

One of the pieces that she and Blasingame collaborated on was a rug that featured the iconic presidential seal, along with a cheery addition: sun rays above the emblem, which echoed Mrs. Bush’s hopes for a “sunny office.” The rug also includes a depiction of a garland made of laurel leaves, a tie-in to the First Lady’s first name, Laura.

Photo credit: Architectural Digest
Photo credit: Architectural Digest

When President Barack Obama took office, he replaced the aforementioned rug with one that paid tribute to four prior presidents and a civil rights icon. The following quotes from Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr. outline the perimeter of the historical rug:

"Government of the people, by the people, for the people.” - Abraham Lincoln

"The welfare of each of us is dependent fundamentally upon the welfare of all of us.” - Theodore Roosevelt

"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” - Franklin Delano Roosevelt

"No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings.” - John F. Kennedy

"The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” - Martin Luther King Jr.

Photo credit: Michael Mundy/Rizzoli
Photo credit: Michael Mundy/Rizzoli

Barack and Michelle Obama worked with decorator Michael S. Smith to make extensive updates to the residence, creating spaces that merged formality and comfort—and incorporating plenty of modern and contemporary art by American talents.

With the help of decorator Tham Kannalikham, current President Donald Trump replaced the Obama-era beige striped wallpaper in the Oval Office with a light grey damask option. In the years since Trump took office, at least $3.4 million has been spent to revamp the White House to better suit his aesthetic—including a highly controversial revamp of the Rose Garden.

With just a matter of days until the Bidens move into the People’s House, we look forward to seeing what changes will be made to the historic residence in the years to come—and who will be hired to create these amendments!

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