The holiday spirit has arrived at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The official White House Christmas Tree, a Douglas-fir, dazzles special visitors in the Blue Room. And the National Christmas Tree, a 40-foot Colorado blue spruce, is swathed in LED lights on the Ellipse.
If you’re like me and can’t make it to D.C. this season, then be sure to catch HGTV’s White House Christmas 2010 special. It airs tonight at 8p/7c. Host Genevieve Gorder provides an insider’s look at how dozens of volunteers joined forces with White House staff to carry out this year’s decor theme, “Simple Gifts.”
The lighting of a National Christmas Tree dates back to 1923. (The Easter Egg Roll to 1878.) Annual traditions and Oval Office renovations remind us that while it may look the same on the outside, the “people’s house” is constantly evolving on the inside.
Recently I talked with Ulysses Grant Dietz and Sam Watters about their book, Dream House: The White House as an American Home. They were wildly fun to interview, and their book is a true page turner, for interior design and gardening fans alike. (This is from someone who found high school U.S. history studies to be a complete snore.)
So enjoy this excerpt from my conversation with Ulysses and Sam, pick up a copy of Dream House and don’t miss tonight’s HGTV White House Christmas 2010 special.
AM: I imagine most people assume the White House has always been gloriously decorated, with each administration doing complete renovations. But in your book you describe attempts to decorate the White House as “wrestling a leviathan into submission.” Tell me about some of the design challenges in the first 100 years of the White House.
UGD: It was the biggest house in North America and no one wanted to pay for it. This enormous house was unlike what anyone in America lived in. Everyone wanted the President to live in a grand house befitting the leader of America, but no one wanted to pay for the inside to be kept up to match this ideal. So we had this huge English Country house furnished like a home in Middle America for at least the first 15 years.
AM: I can’t imagine it was comfortable to live in back then.
SW: The ideas of comfort didn’t come into play in the 1860′s, when the interiors shifted from an aristocrat’s home to that of the true American home. It’s fascinating how Presidential wives took enormous rooms full of ornaments and grand-scale pieces and made them livable.
AM: Mr. Dietz, what would you like to share about your great-great-grandmother, Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant, who grew up in a log cabin yet the White House into a mansion of the Gilded Age?
UGD: Julia Grant was always embarrassed about growing up in a log cabin. She represented all housewives who grew up in a humble, rural background and found themselves with money in an urban environment. The millionaires who built the mansions at the end of the 19th century came from nothing. The Vanderbilts, etc. Julia Grant wasn’t intimidated, but it was a shopping challenge. She had just enough money from Congress to pull the White House into the next stage, away from middle class goods.
SW: From Grant to pre-Kennedy, the rooms in the White House reflected the design ideals of the time. They kept with the times. The president lived there, and it was his home. The minute it became a museum, it lost this.
AM: Jackie Kennedy is revered as an icon of style and arbiter of good taste. What is the most important decision she made in terms of interior design in the White House?
UGD: She transformed the White House from a private estate into a museum. The house has always had a public aspect, but people lived in the whole house. When Jackie came in and put the dining room and kitchen upstairs, she stopped this. She declared the first floor a museum. She did the same thing in the gardens, by creating her concept of a beautiful garden and, in a sense, saying, “This is how the White House gardens are supposed to be.”
AM: So first ladies after Jackie Kennedy haven’t been able to radically alter the interior design, because she cemented the look for White House?
SW: That’s what we’re getting at in the book. The White House was a shifting reflection of American tastes, but Mrs. Kennedy stopped the shift. From her time on, the house lost a sense of modernity. You don’t see Charles Eames chairs or other great contemporary examples of American furniture and design. This is completely missing from the house. Before Jackie Kennedy, the White House was filled with contemporary pieces for the times.
AM: Some of the photographs in your book of the “suburban” White House make me chuckle. The Eisenhower family around the table on Christmas Day. Eisenhower grilling on the roof. Wicker furniture in a room.
SW: When you see the White House of Eisenhower, it’s very Leave It to Beaver. The furniture is bigger, but it’s very accessible. Yes, they had the antiques, but they wanted the newest carpet and make it wall-to-wall.
UGD: Mrs. Kennedy was not doing anything radical. She was feeding into a cultural belief at the time. A mission to buy fine, old things that represented American history. It’s a reflection of her historical moment. There were a only few antiques left in the White House before her. They were getting rid of truckloads of old furnishings at the turn of the century. Edith Roosevelt was able to save some of the antiques before they were tossed in the dump. When the Kennedys arrived, it was all about embracing technical modernity, but rejecting modernity in decor in favor of antiquity.
AM: Is the negative reaction to the Obama interiors a continuation of that?
SW: It will take longer to figure out exactly what the Obama’s design is saying. People don’t like it in the White House, but they like in their own home. Michael S. Smith is an acclaimed American designer. Why is the White House’s design separate from that of the rest of America? It makes me suspicious that people are still stuck in this idea that Jackie O’s White House is the way it has to be. What do we expect it to look like? We expect it to look like a Colonial Revival room.
UGD: Which leads people to think that the White House has always looked like George Washington’s White House. But it hasn’t. After it burned in the 19th century and was rebuilt, the idea arose that it’s a public trust — owned by the public. It’s our house. This evolution is part of the democratic ideal that if it is our house, it needs to evolve to reflect who we are as a country.
SW: For all of its changes inside, it’s stayed very consistent on the outside to the way George Washington envisioned it. It’s very symbolic, so whatever changes go on have deep resonance to the culture.