Lincoln Never Slept Here

A new gilded corona over the bed reproduces one that has been missing since 1926; at left, the bedroom as it appeared in 1999.
A new gilded corona over the bed reproduces one that has been missing since 1926; at left, the bedroom as it appeared in 1999. (By Bill O'Leary -- The Washington Post)
By Jura Koncius
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 15, 2007

It's legacy time inside the Bush White House.

On a blustery winter afternoon last week, Laura Bush ushered a reporter and photographer through the newly redecorated Lincoln Bedroom and Sitting Room, the nation's most historic A-list guest accommodations.

For 30 minutes, a relaxed and chatty first lady padded across the diamond-grid English Wilton carpet that now links the adjoining rooms, pointing out the pair of 1860 John Henry Belter sofas donated by the Winterthur Museum and a Haviland & Co. porcelain fruit basket from the Lincoln china.

"I love houses and history," Bush said as she led the way in her leopard-print ballet flats past the famous Lincoln bed, now topped with a gilded corona that replicates the one she said was "discarded" by the Coolidges.

Since moving into the White House six years ago, the president and first lady have lived more privately than many of their predecessors. And behind-the-scenes glimpses into their lives are hard to come by.

Last week's visit was not exactly on a par with Jackie Kennedy's breathy 1962 TV tour of her refurbished White House, which charmed 56 million viewers and catapulted her to icon status in the world of style and historic preservation.

It was, instead, a quiet glimpse into the upstairs rooms of the Bush White House during a presidency mired in an unpopular war and dogged by sinking approval ratings. But events of state don't stop the constant swatching and swagging that goes on in a 207-year-old house with 100 rooms and 35 bathrooms.

Laura Bush, White House curator William Allman and the Committee for the Preservation of the White House took on the refurbishment of the two rooms in 2004 with the goal of making them more representative of Lincoln's time. During the Lincoln years, the larger room had actually served as the president's office and Cabinet room, not as sleeping quarters. It was Harry S. Truman who in 1945 had the idea of gathering and displaying historical items associated with the 16th president in the two rooms on the second floor of the residence. For this refurbishment, curators combed historical drawings, photos and news accounts to help them reproduce the Victorian decor of the time of the Civil War.

"Don't you love these?" Bush asked, touching the satiny bumpers trimmed in bold six-inch yellow and purple bullion fringe covering the bed's side rails. The massive rosewood bed is framed by new hangings -- 17 yards of Scalamandre purple satin and 15 yards of French lace -- and that gilded corona. There are elaborate new curtains, wallpaper and upholstery. Neoclassical mantels have been replaced with those of period design.

The total bill for the two rooms was $530,000, paid by the nonprofit White House Historical Association.

The White House has been home to 41 families. Every first lady since Abigail Adams has left her stamp on the house in a continuum that churns up desks, settees and framed portraits from White House storage, then often banishes them again when a new occupant takes charge. (The late decorator Mark Hampton, who designed for George H.W. and Barbara Bush, once said he was horrified by the Oval Office rugs that were stacking up in a warehouse because every president seemed to want his own design.)

Some first ladies attend to decorating and historic preservation more than others. Laura Bush regularly dips in and out of antiques stores in upper Georgetown and rural Virginia with girlfriends or with Ken Blasingame, her media-shy Texas decorator.

But different first ladies have different tastes. Pat Nixon installed the first, somewhat utilitarian, White House beauty salon. Nancy Reagan and her Beverly Hills decorator, Ted Graber, famously glamorized the space with glazed chintz and leather. Rosalynn Carter's designer put up re-milled pine logs from a family barn in Georgia in a third-floor guest room. The Clintons covered large expanses of that pine with mirrored glass.

During the Clinton presidency, Hillary Clinton and her Arkansas decorator, Kaki Hockersmith, conducted a decorating marathon through more than 25 rooms of the executive mansion. Their 1993 makeover lavished the Lincoln Sitting Room with coffer-patterned wallpaper on the ceiling and burgundy silk curtains worthy of "Gone With the Wind." (Hockersmith had recycled the curtains from a Little Rock decorator show house.) Soon after George and Laura Bush moved in, the room was stripped of ornamentation, and the ceiling and walls were painted white until plans for this makeover were completed.

The Bushes have been leaving their mark on other spaces as well. The Oval Office, the Cabinet Room and much of the second-floor private quarters have been redone. The President's Dining Room walls went from pale green silk to yellow damask. Two rooms on the ground floor, the Library and the Vermeil Room, have been freshened with new paint colors and draperies. A refurbishment of the Green Room on the State Floor is in progress, with plans to replace a faded moire silk wallcovering, originally chosen by Jackie Kennedy, with the identical Scalamandre green fabric. (Jackie, it seems, never goes out of style.)

The Bushes have overnight guests in the Lincoln Bedroom about twice a month, according to Laura Bush. (She said the last ones there were George's brother Jeb and his wife, Columba.) So despite the priceless antiques and museum-like setting, modern amenities must be provided: A 19th-century walnut wardrobe morphs into a media center for a flat-screen TV. In the sitting room, a glass-topped dressing table displays a 19th-century mirror. "We bring in a modern lighted makeup mirror when we have a guest in here," Bush said with a laugh.

One space has escaped all the tides of change. Overnighters in the Lincoln rooms have the use of a well-preserved 1950s bathroom -- installed during the Truman presidency -- with pale green opaque glass tiles and a mirrored dome ceiling light. Thick white towels and Aveda hair products are provided. The spacious tub has an elegant sandblasted etching of a presidential eagle.

Bush said she is pleased with the restoration. "I would never pick those draperies for my own house," she said, eyeing the opulent cornices and folds of gold fabric ornamented with cording and tassels at the bedroom windows. "But it's fun to have them here."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company