On the afternoon of Inauguration Day in 2009, the Obamas’ designer, Michael Smith, made his way to the Oval Office, stepping into it for the very first time.
Presidential designers in recent history have concentrated on giving the ultimate power office a one-day Inauguration Makeover to reflect the fact that a new occupant has taken charge. Kaki Hockersmith, the Clintons’ designer, feverishly replaced dozens of yards of Bush blue curtains with gold silk swags and brought back the 1880 Resolute Desk used by John F. Kennedy from storage. Fort Worth designer Ken Blasingame swapped out the Clinton Oval Office rug for the Reagan Oval Office rug, because George W. Bush preferred the way the presidential seal was depicted on it, and a painting of western horse riders, “A Charge to Keep” by W.H.D. Koerner was hung.
But Smith made only one, symbolic, change that day: He replaced the traditional formal flower arrangement on the coffee table with a wooden bowl of fresh apples.
“The world was in crisis,” Smith says. “This wasn’t the time to do anything major.” He spent most of his time making the Obama girls’ rooms comfortable and welcoming. “Outside you could see huge crowds, but inside you couldn’t hear anything. I was making up beds,” Smith says, “but I knew I was in the eye of the storm.”
As Donald and Melania Trump and the rest of the new first family prepare to check out their new digs after he is sworn in as the 45th president, speculation has been rampant — and facts sparse — on who has been helping them plan their move-in.
Although the Trumps have not made public who their designer or designers are, immediate changes are sure to be coming to the Oval Office and private quarters. Donald Trump is extremely image-conscious: He reportedly is very involved with architects and designers for his various hotels, condos and office buildings and knows his way around high-end fixtures (preferably gold) and fabrics.
Style at this White House may be like no other. Consider the current Trump addresses: a glittering jewel-box penthouse of gilded fanciness atop New York’s Trump Tower and private apartments in the palatial Palm Beach landmark Mar-a-Lago. Then there’s the private 757 plane with 24-karat gold-plated seat-belt buckles and bedroom pillows featuring the Trump family crest. Since the Trump Organization headquarters and Trump’s Manhattan penthouse home are both in Trump Tower, he is already living above his office and walking to work, as he will presumably be doing at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW.
In a 2015 interview in People magazine, Trump said, “If I were elected, I would maybe touch it up a little bit, but the White House is a special place.” He added, “You don’t want to do too much touching.”
As well as being the house of the president, the White House serves as an office, a venue for constant receptions and high-profile dinners, and a museum of American history, full of valuable antiques and paintings. It is constantly undergoing renovation and preservation, not surprising for any house dating from 1800.
At noon on Jan. 20 after the swearing-in, the carefully choreographed change of occupants will begin. The Trumps have been working with White House Chief Usher Angella Reid and White House Curator Bill Allman on details.
At some point, the Trumps will get a briefing about who pays the bills. Part of the funds Congress appropriates for repair and restoration of the White House is a redecorating allowance of $100,000. This money is earmarked for the private quarters. The Obamas and other recent presidents declined the allowance, preferring to use their own money or private funds.
The White House Historical Association, a nonprofit educational institution, provides money for projects from two sources: the White House Endowment Trust, used for public rooms and conserving collections, and the White House Acquisition Trust, used to acquire fine and decorative arts.
Changes to the first floor, called the State Floor, and the ground floor, which contain the State Dining Room, Green Room, Blue Room and others, are made in consultation with the White House curator’s office and the Committee for the Preservation of the White House, an advisory group established by Lyndon Johnson in 1964. The committee is a group of experts, including several ex officio members, and others appointed by the president, who are tasked with preserving the “museum quality” of White House public spaces. The president traditionally appoints his own decorator to this committee.
Meanwhile, it’s up to the president and his designers to decide what to put into the Oval Office, the room most associated with the presidency.
“Everyone now personalizes it,” says William Seale, a historian who has written books about the White House. “They usually don’t change much right away. But then they might change the curtains, and everyone eventually gets a new rug.”
The designers who have worked with presidential families all have their stories of how they were able to accomplish everything.
Blasingame says he moved into a third-floor White House bedroom on the Monday after the inauguration and spent 10 days getting things organized and comfortable for the Bushes. The first time he walked into the Oval Office he began playing a video in his mind of the news conferences and addresses to the nation that would take place there. “It was so impressive,” he says. “I was just doing my job, but I was participating in something so historic.” He always stuck to the presidential dress code when working on the Oval Office. “Since President Bush wanted everyone to wear a coat and tie when they entered the Oval Office, I did the same,” says Blasingame. “No jeans.”
Everyone wondered how Kaki Hockersmith, the Clintons’ designer from Little Rock, could make such sweeping changes in one day. She says it was because then-first lady Barbara Bush “was very generous and gave us a lot of access in advance.” But on Inauguration Day, she had to hustle to get to the White House and supervise all the installations she had planned. “Hillary Clinton insisted that I come to the swearing-in and she said she would arrange to get me back to the White House as soon as possible. She told us to go to a certain corner across from the Capitol and look for a military officer in a van. We were then cleared to go through every barricade throughout the parade route. And, oh, my God, people would see the vehicle and start waving at us. I will never forget that ride.”
The design world is waiting to see which decorator the Trumps will choose and is hunting for clues as to what it might look like. There aren’t many photos of the Trump penthouse, originally decorated in the 1980s by the late Angelo Donghia, but more gold has shown up over the years. Margaret Russell, longtime design editor, went to the penthouse in the 1980s when Donald Trump was still married to his first wife, Ivana. “What I can see from recent photos is that not much has changed,” says Russell. “It’s very ornate, very detailed. I believe I recall cherubim on the ceiling.”
Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s exotic Palm Beach property, was built between 1923 and 1927 by cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post, who also owned Washington’s Hillwood estate. Its lavish rooms had the look of European castles and palaces, layered in gold leaf and dripping in crystal chandeliers. Post left her villa to the federal government in 1973 to use as a presidential retreat, but the government deemed it too expensive. Trump bought the house and furnishings in 1985. He and his family used it until 1995, when Trump reopened it as a private club, keeping their own private quarters. Wood paneling, pink marble, gold-leaf ceilings and most of the original architecture remain.
The Trumps clearly are used to living in large houses with staff. But the White House is like no other house in the world. “You move there under public scrutiny and you have probably not seen much of where you are going to live,” says Betty Monkman, former White House curator. “When you walk onto the State Floor, the world is watching. It’s a big adjustment for any family to move in there.”
CHAT : Discuss the history of the White House with Matthew Costello, a senior historian for the White House Historical Association, on Thursday at 11 a.m. Submit your questions here.
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