William Seale, official White House historian and a restorer of historic buildings, has written a delightfully anecdotal history, lavishly illustrated, of the so-called "People's House" designed originally for occupancy by George Washington, although he never lived there. The John Adamses were the first to occupy the mansion designed by Irish-born architect James Hoban and constructed in Virginia sandstone by Scottish masons.
Hoban, whose work in Charleston, S.C., was admired by Washington, was awarded design of the White House after an architectural competition failed to yield a better design than his. The mansion was sited on an elevation in the new District of Columbia selected by French city-planner Pierre Charles L'Enfant.
Hoban's design had classical roots in the architecture of 16th century Italian designer Andrea Palladio as translated by 18th century Irish architects. Its actual inspiration was Leinster House in Dublin, now the Irish national legislature building. The cornerstone was laid in 1792 and construction continued in the warmer months of the year for seven years.
The White House was rebuilt to its original plans after a fire set by invading British troops in 1814 burned out the interior but left the outer walls intact. That structure has been greatly changed by additions of a pillared carriage portico, plant conservatories (removed in 1902), a third floor (1927) invisible from the ground level, and the post-World War II executive office wing and Truman balcony.
There have been occasional grandiose plans to enlarge the white house with massive domed wings and even an Italianate tower, but fortunately they were not carried out. The principal first floor reception rooms and the First Family's quarters on the second floor remain as originally planned despite the complete restoration of the old house in 1948-52.
At that time, the Hoban core of the mansion was gutted to do away with rotting wooden supports and weakened steel trusswork discovered when Margaret Truman's grand piano broke through floor joists. Most original decorative materials such as fireplaces, sculptured plasterwork, and paneling were saved and replaced in the restored building, which is essentially a new structure with modern steel framework.
The text and some close-up photographs focus on the exterior carvings in stone, the finest in the country up to that time but rarely noticed by visitors.
Of particular note are decorative treatment of windows with fish-scale and acanthus-leaf carvings and the swags of oak leaves, acorns and roses above the north entrance which has a surround of acanthus leaves framing twin griffons. The carved eagle Hoban had intended for the house's main pediment never became a reality.
Seale provides the reader with equally detailed information on interior design of the mansion's public and private rooms that reflected changing tastes over the centuries as well as the size of the budget made available by Congress for redecoration. It wasn't until Jacqueline Kennedy's period restoration of the reception rooms that private funds were raised for redecoration and acquisition of historic furnishing.
President James Monroe, a former diplomat who had lived in Paris, refurbished the interiors and introduced richly gilded French furnishings and ornaments that are still in the house today. Running water was introduced in 1833, gaslight in 1848, and a central hot-water heating system in 1853. A high point of refined living was reached that same year when President Franklin Pierce installed the first bathtub.
The civil war did not deter spendthrift Mary Todd Lincoln from refurnishing much of the White House with heavy Victorian furnishings, now restricted to the Lincoln Bedroom. But by 1881 the house was so dowdy that President Chester Allen Arthur called in New York designer Louis Comfort Tiffany to spruce it up with colorful wallpapers, mosaics, tiles, and colored glass completely out of tune with the neo-classic architecture.
Ida McKinley was the first occupant to begin introducing "Colonial style" décor and the Theodore Roosevelts turned to New York's Herter Brothers and Leon Marcotte & Co. to give the house a Beaux-Arts look that mixed Louis XVI, English Adam, and American colonial styles to the interior which now had an enlarged dining room and grand staircase designed by architect Charles McKim.
President William Howard Taft's architect, Nathan C. Wyeth, transformed the very ordinary president's office from a quadrangle to an oval in 1909 in Colonial Revival style. Subsequent interior alterations were haphazard until Jacqueline Kennedy set he standard for American historical furnishings and the elegance of 18th century French and English- décor.
The rest is history still being written as the Bushes are leave their mark on the old house as all First Families are bound to do.
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