America’s House



The Red Room, one of the diplomatic reception rooms on the first floor of the White House, during the Clinton administration.

The Red Room, one of the diplomatic reception rooms on the first floor of the White House, during the Clinton administration.


In honor of inauguration week, I thought I’d post a few fun facts about the White House:

*  “A house, for president” was authorized by Congress in March of 1792.  Washington chose a Georgian townhouse as a model – not a palace – and that was significant. John and Abigail Adams were the first to live there, and Jefferson first opened the house for tours.   It became known as the Exectuive Mansion.

* In 1814, the President’s house was burned by the British during the war, leaving only a shell, but James Madison rebuilt it rather than starting anew.  The building became a phoenix rising up out the ashes.

* The distinctive curved south portico was added in 1824 and the grand entrance portico at the north was added in 1830.

* Andrew Jackson held a public reception in the mansion on inauguration day, and the event turned into a drunken mob scene.  Jackson fled, and several thousand dollars’ worth of china was broken.

* By 1886, the White House was so badly in need of renovations, President Chester Arthur felt it would be less costly to build a new house.  He tried to get $300,000 appropriated by Congress for that purpose, but the amount was refused, and the Army Corps of Engineers noted that the house could not be torn down, “its sentimental value is too great for Americans.”

* Theodore Roosevelt had McKim, Mead and White make interior changes in a classicist style, and added a West Wing with an oval office, separating the work and living spaces.  Roosevelt officially changed the name of the building to the White House.

* In 1948 one leg of first lady Bess Truman’s piano fell through the ceiling and Congress finally appropriated money for renovation.  The White House was gutted and rebuilt, with the first floor reserved for diplomatic functions, the second as living quarters, and the West Wing as offices.  The two porticos were virtually the only architectural elements left intact.

* It has only been in the last generation that the interiors of the White House remain stylistically stable.  Throughout the 19th century the White House went through short spasms of redecoration interspersed with long periods of rooms full of cast-off and worn-out furniture.  Finally, beginning around 1960, Jackie Kennedy responded to the “federal” aesthetic imposed on the interiors by McKim and re-imposed by Truman renovations, and turned the White House into the American showplace it is today. She solicited donations of decorative arts, set up a curatorial and conservation programs, and established an endowment.  Her work made the White House less like a working hotel that housed a family mandated to move every 4 or 8 years, and more like a museum.

More to come … the private lives of the presidents.


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At a recent art fair I discovered the work of Ann Toebbe, who makes paint-and-collage images of domestic spaces.  I found them strangely satisfying, for all sorts of reasons.  The images are constructed out of tiny, colorful slips of paper and meticulously-rendered passages of paint or pencil or ink.   The craftsmanship drew me in, and I lingered over all the details, enjoying the way the image coheres out of so many small points of near-abstraction.  Then, I began piecing the room together, following the various viewpoints the artist depicts: bird’s-eye; 45-degree; straight-on.   You can’t see the whole room at once – you have to cast your eyes around, taking it all in.  Of course, this is how we always perceive a space.  Finally, I realized I spark to all this precision in the service of capturing the ineffable.  I love that we see Jim’s toy car collection and the nubby sofa cover and the notes scattered on the desk.  All these objects furnish Jim’s Studio – these are the components of creativity.


"Jim's Studio," by Anne Toebbe.  Collage with elements of drawing and painting, approx 2 feet high by 3 feet wide, c. 2012

“Jim’s Apartment,” by Anne Toebbe. Collage with elements of drawing and painting, approx 2 feet high by 3 feet wide, c. 2012

Is anyone home?

“Not at Home,” by Eastman Johnson, 1874, Brooklyn Museum of Art

In this painting, the woman sneaks upstairs to avoid a visitor.  She is taking advantage of the elaborate conventions  of the late 19th-century surrounding the custom of calling.  Ladies would establish “at home” hours and therefore were duty-bound to receive all callers who came during the appointed time.  Callers were paying their respects to the hostess and her household, and by receiving them, the hostess acknowledged a a formal tie to the caller.  In Eastman Johnson’s painting, however, the hostess has determined that her caller does not merit her attention.   She is withdrawing upstairs, so she can have her servant declare that the mistress of the house is “not at home.”  We do not know if the caller has presumed a social connection that does not exist in the hostess’s mind, or if the hostess is rudely snubbing her caller.   To me, her hunched shoulders suggest anxiety.  In contrast, the rest of the scene suggests domestic bliss.  A lovely parlor done in yellows, blues and reds, bathed in a warm light from a bay window.  Paintings, ceramics and other bric-a-brac, and a cast of the Venus of Milos, as well as deeply-upholstered furniture — this is a home of culture and comfort.   The pram in the lower right corner tells us that the hostess is a mother.  She is responsible for upholding the social order and raising children in it.  All things considered, it seems to me that the hostess finds herself reluctantly bound by a set of conventions that she has helped spin.

Pilgrim Hospitality

What does hospitality look like?  This photograph was taken in 2002, but it depicts a meal in 1627.  This marvel of time-travel is made possible by Plimoth Plantation, a museum that recreates the settlement established by the people who came to North America on the Mayflower and other ships.  Houses were among the first structures built.  These timber-framed plastered buildings followed models known from England.  The houses were furnished both with imported goods and things the colonists made themselves, like furniture, ceramics and textiles.  In the photograph, a 21st-century man sits down at table with a colonist and his wife.  At Plimoth Plantation it is always 1627, because the museum has chosen to recreate that year.   When you visit, you see crops grown as they were in 1627, you see the carpentry methods, charcoal making, cooking, weaving, etc etc etc.  And, the people wearing the clothing of a 1627 agricultural village speak English with the vocabulary, diction and cadence of 1627.   When you enter their houses, they offer hospitality and conversation.  It’s all based upon extensive research.  But can we ever truly know the past?  Can a fiction get at truth?    I think Plimoth Plantation is a bold enterprise in depicting domesticity.