Green Room Makeover Incorporates a Colorful Past

By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 20, 2007

In its recent renovation of the Green Room, the White House has given a place of honor to a newly acquired masterpiece by Jacob Lawrence, one of the greatest African American artists of the 20th century.

"I like the strength of it. It's a very, very strong picture. The people in it are strong. He liked the idea of a lot of people working together to build," first lady Laura Bush said yesterday, giving a preview of the Lawrence painting and the completed work in the historic room. "I think that's really just a picture of our country; that's what our country relies on."

The painting, titled "The Builders," is part of the Green Room's first overhaul in 36 years. As Mrs. Bush showed off the changes, she said she had always been drawn to the room on the main floor of the White House, just off the East Room.

She remembers an evening during the inaugural festivities for Ronald Reagan's second term. "We came here for one of the parties early on. I remember actually thinking: Isn't it amazing that we can actually sit on the furniture? We were sitting on this couch with our plates from the buffet, from the big buffet. I remember the Adams silver that's there on the table. So I had a wonderful memory of this room already," she said.

For the refurbishing, which started in late July, the Duncan Phyfe sofa was reupholstered in a green-and-ecru striped silk. It matches new draperies that are a slightly different green from the previous ones, and have a deep coral stripe.

As she worked with the curators and designers, Mrs. Bush decided the room needed a welcoming feeling. In some ways, the Green Room can feel imposing, with its austere portrait of Benjamin Franklin by David Martin over the mantel.

"I like this room to have sort of a clubby feeling. It is not a library but it has sort of a feeling, I think, of a library because of the comfortable chairs by the fireplace, the cozy way the room feels because of the surrounding green and the green floor. I think this is one of the more masculine rooms. The Red Room has always been considered the first lady's favorite room, and it is my favorite room, I'll admit," Mrs. Bush said.

She showed off two Duncan Phyfe side chairs formerly covered in a pink that Mrs. Bush described as "light and insipid." The new color is deeper, more like the red of a sunset. The fabric is a silk damask with a whimsical wreath-and-butterfly pattern first created by Scalamandr┬┐ around 1800.

The room got its name when Thomas Jefferson placed a green canvas on the floor. It's had many makeovers, and the latest didn't try to reproduce a particular period but respected changes made by former occupants.

"There isn't a moment it is supposed to represent," said William G. Allman, the White House curator. "It takes in more than one period."

The green silk wall covering, a deep emerald color with a moire pattern, was selected by Jacqueline Kennedy in 1962. Pat Nixon selected the drapery design, featuring floor-length panels and elaborate valances. But the drapes faded over the years.

Some of the room's embellishments date back to the very early days of the White House, which originally housed President John Adams in 1800 but was rebuilt after being burned during the War of 1812. "The marble mantel is the oldest interior architectural element in the White House, bought by President Monroe in 1819," Allman said.

The renovation included a new plush rug, reproduced from a French Savonnerie floor covering made from an early-19th-century design. It has a green field punctuated by coral, green, blue, red and ecru. It gives the room a contemporary note.

Though it was created 60 years ago, the Lawrence painting is one of the room's most modern elements.

It was purchased for $2.5 million at a Christie's auction in May by the White House Acquisition Trust, a privately funded branch of the mansion's historical association. Mrs. Bush had wanted a Lawrence work since a personal friend lent her Lawrence's "To the Defense." It hangs in the Bushes' private dining room. "And because it's on the wall that I look at from my chair in the dining room, I just grew to like Jacob Lawrence more and more," she said.

Helen Cooper, a member of the Committee for the Preservation of the White House, learned about the auction, saw the painting and recommended the purchase. "So we were so thrilled and I wanted it in a room that the tours really see," she said.

In the Green Room, the painting joins "The Circus No. 1" by John Marin; a portrait of Louisa Catherine Adams by Gilbert Stuart; "The Mosquito Net" by John Singer Sargent; and "Sand Dunes at Sunset, Atlantic City" by Henry Ossawa Tanner.

Lawrence, who died in 2000, has long been a Washington favorite. Phillips Collection founder Duncan Phillips bought part of his landmark series "The Migration of the Negro" in 1942.

The recent purchase and its placement stands out for many reasons. It has a worn wood frame that contrasts with the gilded ones of many of the paintings in the public rooms. The dominant colors are tan, red, beige, black and blue (there's little green). There are few features in the faces, separating it from the formal portraits. And the people in Lawrence's painting are African American.

It shows a group of muscular men, some with jaunty hats, climbing ladders, carrying beams and preparing to hammer.

Mrs. Bush said she found inspiration in the sober work. Her father was a builder in Midland, Tex., and "I guess I had sort of an unconscious connection to it, that made me like it -- the strength of the people, the angles, for instance, of the people working. It reminded me of him and the houses he built."

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