washingtonpost.com  > Columns > Design
Design

Lincoln Bedroom's Sleepy Look to Get A Wake-Up Call

By Linda Hales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 25, 2004; Page C01

Whatever Election Day holds for her husband, Laura Bush is about to establish her own White House legacy in a bold transformation of the Lincoln Bedroom.

When completed later this fall, the nation's most famous guest room will retain the celebrated rosewood bed bought by Mary Todd Lincoln in 1861 as its centerpiece. Flamboyant rococo revival furniture by renowned cabinetmaker John Henry Belter will remain. And a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation, which was signed in the room in 1863, will still be available for late-night perusal, in a glass case on a polished antique desk.

Add Design to your personal home page.

But, in the first sweeping rethink of the Lincoln Bedroom in at least three decades, the timid lemon walls, celery-green curtains and pale floral carpet are being banished in favor of a blast of Victorian bliss.

Heady hues of emerald green, golden yellow and deep purple will carpet the floor, drape the windows and envelop the massive, six-foot-tall carved headboard. Walls will be papered in a restrained palette of cream tones -- a nod to contemporary tastes -- but the pattern has been derived from the Victorian Age. Two elaborate cornices such as might have topped windows in Lincoln's day have been carved and sent to the gilders. An opulent white marble mantel was commissioned to better complement a rococo-style mirror installed last summer.

The pièce de résistance, both decoratively and symbolically, will be a carved bed canopy in the shape of a crown. It too has been sent for gilding. When affixed to the ceiling, the crown will support yards of regal purple satin over white lace, both trailing to the floor.

White House curator William Allman, who detailed the project Thursday at a White House Historical Association symposium on the decorative arts, describes the decor as "back for the future." He offered swatches of wallpaper, carpet design and historical antecedents to museum curators and decorative arts historians.

On an afternoon tour of the mansion, the second floor was off-limits. But dropcloths covered the stairway leading to the private quarters, evidence that the Lincoln Bedroom is still a work-in-progress.

"It will be very Victorian, very appropriate and very grand," Allman assured.

He did not say how much the project would cost. But he noted that the White House Historical Association was providing funding as it would do for conservation of the mansion's museum rooms.

The only room in the White House named for a president, the Lincoln Bedroom is imbued with historic importance beyond its contemporary status as coveted overnight perk. Bush is the first presidential spouse to take on its refurbishment in a very long time.

Photos from 1976 show a setting marginally different from the room this visitor experienced in 2000. Ornate furniture in dark-toned rosewood was set against pale walls, as if to lighten the decorative load.

At Bush's behest, a panel of experts began two years ago to orchestrate a vivid re-creation of the Lincoln-era look, Allman said. Providing for the comfort of guests was a driving force for change, but because the entire White House has official museum status, decorative decisions present a curatorial challenge. The Lincoln Bedroom, per se, did not exist in Lincoln's day. So there was no option of simply replicating an earlier decor.

"It's a historic room," Allman said, "but not that room."

Today's Lincoln Bedroom was then Lincoln's Cabinet Room. The bed started out down the hall in a "Prince of Wales" guest room. Lincoln never slept in the bed, but other presidents did. Research into the guest room turned up sketches and photographs and a glowing contemporaneous account of "rich purple satin draperies adorned with lace."

As for the Lincoln office, a search of early photographs, engravings, paintings and sketches turned up a faded image, with dignitaries standing before a patterned dark green wall. Evidence of window cornices was found, but the original carvings disappeared in the 1930s. There is no absolute certainty, but the combination "seems reasonable" to Allman. A carpet pattern was extrapolated from mentions of a "G and O" carpet purchased by Mrs. Lincoln, which has now been translated as "green and oak." Touches of bright yellow and purple have been added to enliven the design for 21st-century eyes.

Gilded crowns and royal colors strike an unusual note in a house carefully stage-managed to symbolize the democracy. Neither element would have been acceptable to George Washington, who was advised to surround himself only with things that were "substantially good and majestically plain." Eagles were fine in "the President's House." Allusions to monarchy would have been anathema.

The project involved a subcommittee of experts drawn from the Committee for the Preservation of the White House, which oversees preservation and interpretation of the public spaces and State Rooms and the White House collection. In this case, the group extended its influence to a room only rarely seen by the public.

The committee of experts includes Allman's predecessor, Betty C. Monkman, whose 2000 book, "The White House: Its Historic Furnishings & First Families," contains period photography of the bed crown; Richard Nylander, senior curator for Historic New England, who researched the wallcovering in the Hillary Clinton redo of the Blue Room; the Bushes' personal decorator from Texas, Ken Blasingame, who recently showed off new decorations in the Cabinet Room in the West Wing; and Leslie Greene Bowman, director of Winterthur Museum and a longtime member of the Committee for the Preservation of the White House.

Ironically, Bowman opened Thursday's symposium by recalling the parameters of White House decor established by George Washington. She also noted that the history of decorating at the White House had been one of fits and starts, power struggles, sticker shock and changing tastes.

"Decorating has been a no-win situation," Bowman said, "if one hopes to impress the foreign dignitaries while suiting the tastes of the American public."

It is worth noting that the Victorian taste for heavy furniture, formal fabrics and elaborate trimmings has been out of fashion throughout the 20th century. Whether the Lincoln Bedroom can bring it back is anyone's guess.


© 2004 The Washington Post Company