Renwick’s “Something of Splendor” offers a rare inside look at White House decorative arts

The coverlet that first lady Grace Coolidge spent two years crocheting for the Lincoln Bedroom is one of 95 objects in the Renwick Gallery’s exhibit “Something of Splendor: Decorative Arts from the White House” that opens Saturday.

Coolidge was hoping the 1927 bedspread she embroidered with eagles and shields and her name would start a tradition among first ladies.

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Former residents discuss what it's like to live in the White House as part of a new exhibit at the Renwick Galley entitled \

Former residents discuss what it's like to live in the White House as part of a new exhibit at the Renwick Galley entitled "Something of Splendor: Decorative Arts from the White House."

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It didn’t.

The domestic agendas of subsequent spouses in that role have been more in the line of “Just Say No” or “Let’s Move” than artsy-craftsy. But, as the exhibit attests, every White House family leaves something of itself behind.

The four galleries of national treasures at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, on view until May 6, represent more than 200 years of presidential history. Most, from gilded soup tureens to silk draperies to mantels, have never been seen outside the White House. Organized in honor of the 50th anniversary of the White House Historical Association, the exhibit showcases the presidential mansion as a residence, an office, a museum and the site of a lot of great parties.

The White House and its contents have long been a subject of national fascination. For years, Washingtonians and their house guests lined up for public tours; now they must apply for tickets through a member of Congress. This exhibit will allow them to examine many antiques that are not even part of the official tour. “It’s a different feeling to see these things as art objects. You are used to seeing them as part of the decor,” says White House curator William G. Allman. He and White House assistant curator Melissa C. Naulin selected the pieces for the exhibition. “People will be able to see everything from more angles,” he added.

There’s a great sweep of history, from sections of the 1817 French gilded bronze table plateau where James Monroe dined by candlelight to a 1951 B. Altman mahogany gentleman’s chest where Harry S. Truman likely kept his socks. A bit of pink wallpaper Dolley Madison selected for the White House lines the inside of a box; the rest of the paper burned in the great fire of 1814. A wooden armchair is one of a set bought by Theodore and Edith Roosevelt in 1902 for use in the West Wing; every president since then has used the chairs in their office. Six of the chairs are still part of President Obama’s Oval Office decor.

“A chair in the White House is not just a chair,” says Naulin. “Because the White House is imbued with such symbolism and importance, people pay attention to what’s there and like to debate things like: Is it too fancy? Where did it come from? What does it say about the family that picked it?”

Though many first ladies pitched in to preserve and add to the White House collection, Jacqueline Kennedy plays a starring role in many aspects of “Something of Splendor.” Not only did Kennedy draw attention to the need to preserve the White House and make it a living museum; she was instrumental 50 years ago in the formation of the White House Historical Association, which provides financial support for refurbishment and acquisitions. She helped save the building that houses the Renwick by urging Lyndon B. Johnson to donate it to the Smithsonian for use as a museum of decorative arts. And she established the first White House curatorial office.

In the release of her 1964 audiotapes earlier this month, Kennedy spoke of her restoration efforts and indicated that they made her husband proud.

Allman points out that there are four items in the Renwick exhibit that appeared in the famous 1962 TV special “A Tour of the White House With Mrs. John F. Kennedy.” One is a Monroe Blue Room Chair, one of the original 1817 chairs ordered by the fifth president during his tenure. The chairs were replaced in the 1860s, but this was the first to return to the White House in 1961. The others are two of the seven sections of the Monroe plateau; a rosewood Rococo Revival-style chair upholstered in purple velvet, bought by President James K. Polk; and an elegant Federal sofa that once belonged to Daniel Webster.

Allman says he didn’t want the exhibition “turned into a china show,” but it’s hard to tear yourself away from the gallery dedicated to glamorous White House entertaining. The Reagan red state china is displayed, alongside a photo of Nancy Reagan with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev at a 1987 state dinner where the china was used. The large 1871 Victorian sterling silver centerpiece known as Hiawatha’s Boat has delightful details — a squirrel on the mast and a buffalo skin tossed over the side. It was something first lady Julia Grant just had to have after seeing it at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia.

Don’t miss the 13-minute video in which Lynda Bird Johnson Robb, Susan Ford Bales, Tricia Nixon Cox, Laura Bush and Rosalynn Carter share their memories of living in the White House — the ultimate insiders’ tour. You’ll find out that Amy Carter was spooked by the wild boar handpainted on the Rutherford B. Hayes state china service; that Lady Bird Johnson was determined to get her and Lyndon’s portraits painted early on “before we get worn out”; and that Gerald and Betty Ford decided to sleep in the the same bed in the First Lady’s Bedroom, turning the official President’s Bedroom into a fitness center.

Allman says he and Naulin chose pieces because they were important historically, had important makers and had beautiful style. “We weren’t going to rob the White House public rooms,” Allman said. “We knew we had plenty of things in storage or multiples. We chose things because they had great stories.”

Some of the best stories come from Allman and Naulin. They have encyclopedic knowledge of many of the 50,000 objects in the White House collection, whether in the house or in warehouses in locations that are, of course, undisclosed. Their job titles require them to be discreet and judiciously dispense presidential tidbits.

One of the furnishings Coolidge and Laura Bush both used in their families’ private quarters is a 1904 Gustav Stickley Mission oak cabinet originally acquired by the Teddy Roosevelts. The Bushes placed the glass-fronted piece on the third floor and displayed books and mementos in it. Coolidge, says Allman, used it to store her shoes.

If only they still had the shoes.

 
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