Thursday, November 17, 2011

Splendid 'Splendor" exhibit tells White House stories -- Nov. 17, 2011 column


An angry email flew around last year, charging that President Barack Obama had changed the red, white and blue color scheme in the Oval Office to one of Middle Eastern décor.

It was totally false – the Oval Office hasn’t had anything approaching a red, white and blue color scheme since Bill Clinton, and there’s nothing Middle Eastern about Obama’s office. The bogus email was a reminder that presidents come and go, but controversies over White House décor, along with squabbles over spending, are forever.

Ever since President James Monroe sent his agents to Paris in 1817 to buy furnishings for the rebuilt White House -- the British burned it during the War of 1812 -- presidents and first ladies have taken heat for their decorating choices.
Monroe wanted mahogany chairs for the Oval Room, now the Blue Room, but his agents said mahogany was out of fashion in France and bought instead a 53-piece suite of gold-gilded beechwood furniture.

The agents snapped up ornate silver soup tureens, gold vermeil flatware and an elaborate gilded bronze and mirrored centerpiece called a plateau with classical female figures that hold candles as well as urns and baskets for flowers and fruit. With all seven sections in place on the banquet table, the plateau stretched 14 ½ feet. Just another night at home, sweet, home.

“Something of Splendor: Decorative Arts from the White House,” an exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery steps from the White House, displays two sections of the plateau and other jaw-dropping items seldom seen outside the White House. The exhibit runs through May 6.

On display are 95 pieces of ceramics, furniture, glass, china and textiles chosen for the stories they tell about the White House as a home for families, a venue designed to impress visitors and the office of the nation’s chief executive.

After Monroe’s high style and budget-busting overseas spending spree brought boatloads of criticism, artist Samuel Morse, who later invented the telegraph and Morse code, defended Monroe. Morse wrote in 1819 that “something of splendor is certainly proper…for the credit of the nation.”

Congress though passed a buy-American law in 1826, requiring that furniture bought for the White House be made in America.

A few decades later, first lady Mary Todd Lincoln stirred up a hornet’s nest when she spent money on furnishings for the White House during the Civil War.

“Something of Splendor” was organized as a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the White House Historical Association. First lady Jacqueline Kennedy, who made restoration of the White House her project, formed the association to publish a White House guidebook. She also pressed Congress to pass a law making donations permanent White House property and created the curator’s office.

The exhibit uses a winning technique of pairing a chair, table or accessory with a picture or photo mural showing the item in use in a bygone era at the White House. Seeing the objects in context helps make them come alive.

A photo of Teddy Roosevelt’s elegant silver breakfast tray in 1903, decked out with a linen cloth, silver teapot and cut-glass jar, is next to the actual teapot and jar.

The breakfast tray picture provides “a rare glimpse into the more intimate side of living in the White House,” says the exhibit catalogue, which quotes a letter TR wrote his son Kermit on Nov. 1, 1905, about his morning routine:

“Of course I am up to my ears in work. The mornings are lovely now, crisp and fresh; after breakfast Mother and I walk around the grounds accompanied by Skip and Slipper, her bell tinkling loudly.” Skip was TR’s favorite dog and Slipper one of the family’s cats.

As for Obama, he did make some changes in the Oval Office. Every president does. He got new striped wallpaper from New York and a rug from Michigan. Fabric for new couches was woven in Pennsylvania and has red, white and blue threads.

Donations – not taxpayers -- paid for the new décor, the White House said.

© 2011 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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