For House Beautiful’s 125th anniversary this year, we’re digging into some of our favorite spaces from our archive—including, so far, decorator Sister Parish’s New York Apartment and the West Hollywood home and studio of designer extraordinaire Tony Duquette, dubbed “the house of a magician.” Here, we revisit a piece about the Clinton-era White House, from 1994, which was first published in our March issue that year.
27 years ago, then-First Lady Hillary Clinton gave House Beautiful an exclusive look at the newly redecorated White House, just over a year after her husband, then-President Bill Clinton, took office. To further explore this historic undertaking, we spoke to Matthew Costello, PhD—the Senior Historian of the White House Historical Association and the Vice President of the David M. Rubenstein National Center for White House History—who provided some background information about the redecoration of the People’s House during the Clinton administration.
In addition to working with Little Rock, Arkansas-based interior designer Kaki Hockersmith on the redecoration of what is arguably the most famous historic house in all of the United States, Hillary Clinton also collaborated with Richard Nylander,who was the Chief Curator and Director of Collections for the Preservation of New England Antiquities in Boston, Massachusetts. Nylander “helped to oversee the project as a member of the Committee for the Preservation of the White House,” explains Costello.
Of course, the Clintons knew that changing the decor of the People’s House “from administration to administration has gotten more and more difficult and more and more expensive,” as Hillary Clinton told House Beautiful in 1994. “We have to try to find a style to stand the test of time. Mrs. Reagan and Mrs. Kennedy’s renovations were built on by us, not discarded,” the First Lady continued. “That’s the way the house should be treated and dealt with from year to year—changed but in a way that reflects the continuity. It’s not necessary to be historically accurate—it’s more the creation of a mood, an atmosphere.”
To see the Clinton-era White House for yourself—and to read more of Hillary Clinton’s insight about this remarkable venture—take a trip back to 1994 through our latest archive dive.
Read the original story below:
A visit to the White House
When the Clintons were ready to show their refurbished private quarters to the public, they invited House Beautiful to take the pictures and tell the story
By Marian Burros
Photography by Oberto Gili
Produced by Margaret Kennedy
The initial photographic glimpse America’s armchair decorators had of the first family’s refurbished White House led them to describe the Clintons as fanciers of Victorian style at its most Baroque—intensely vibrant colors, swags and festoons, tassels and gilding.
But a personal peek at the Clintons’ private quarters provides a different view, one far more reflective of the people who live there—unpretentious and comfortable. There’s hardly a tassel in sight.
“We wanted to create an atmosphere that was warm and welcoming and suited to how a particular family lives and spends its time,” said Hillary Rodham Clinton in an exclusive interview for House Beautiful. “The challenge and the obligation is to sustain the historic significance and integrity of the house because it is a living museum, so you start with some givens.”
The White House was not always treated as a living museum. Until the beginning of the 20th century, first families had generally redecorated in whatever style was currently fashionable. The simple furniture of the early 19th century was later replaced by curlicues, elaborate frescoes, Turkish curtains, even fringe hanging from one of the fireplaces. In 1882 an enormous screen of Tiffany glass was installed in the Cross Hall on the first floor. At one time, Mrs. Clinton pointed out, part of the long center hall on the second floor was used like a conservatory with rattan furniture, swings and big plants.
Efforts to give a period look to the house, which was first occupied by John and Abigail Adams in 1800, began in the early 1900s, but reproduction furniture was used. It wasn’t until Jacqueline Kennedy lived there that museum-quality pieces became the focal point of the public rooms. It was then that the White House Historical Association was formed, along with a Curator’s Office and Residence Staff. Some of the furniture and fine arts used in Mrs. Kennedy’s redecoration had been moldering for years in storage; much else had been sold off because it was considered outmoded.
The Clintons, both history buffs, are anxious to carry on tradition. “We need to have either a timeless or a historical sense of the White House,” Mrs. Clinton said, “because changing it from administration to administration has gotten more and more difficult and more and more expensive. We have to try to find a style to stand the test of time. Mrs. Reagan and Mrs. Kennedy’s renovations were built on by us, not discarded. That’s the way the house should be treated and dealt with from year to year—changed but in a way that reflects the continuity. It’s not necessary to be historically accurate—it’s more the creation of a mood, an atmosphere.”
What is historically appropriate for the public and quasi-private rooms that the Clintons have redone—the Oval Office, the Treaty Room and the Lincoln Sitting Room off the Lincoln Bedroom—is not necessarily what the family wants to live with in the part of the mansion that is called the private quarters. In fact there is a striking difference between the decorating schemes of the two areas.
Referring to the intensity of the colors and the richness of pattern in the Lincoln Sitting Room and the Treaty Room, which the President uses as an office on the second floor, Mrs. Clinton said, “We like color but we don’t always like to have as much vibrancy. We like colors that are strong pastels.”
Fortunately those are some of the colors Nancy Reagan used when she redecorated the private quarters on the second and third floors, because Mrs. Clinton was determined to keep whatever was salvageable from past schemes. For example, the curtains in the West Sitting Hall were retained, but the carpet in the East and West Sitting Halls and the Center Sitting Hall was worn though usable. It was moved to the third floor, where it brightens a smaller space that had been covered in an even more worn carpet of drab brown.
There was one exception to the make-do rule: the hand-painted wallpaper in the master bedroom that was covered with little birds. President Clinton told Kaki Hockersmith, the Little Rock decorator who is responsible for the White House refurbishing, to get rid of the birds. They reminded him of an Alfred Hitchcock movie.
While the Treaty Room, the Lincoln Sitting Room and the Oval Office are done in deep reds and golds with blues or greens, the private quarters are pastel tones of yellow, peach, pink, green and blue. The color scheme of the redecorated West Sitting Hall takes its cue from the old yellow draperies that frame the double-arched window. This is where the Clintons frequently gather and entertain guests, and it contains many of the family’s personal mementos.
In Arkansas the kitchen in the Governor’s Mansion was the gathering place for family and friends. In Washington the small pantry, once Margaret Truman’s bedroom, has been turned into an eat-in kitchen.
“We love the second floor of the White House,” Mrs. Clinton said. “We are left totally alone. We don’t have the Secret Service people following us and we can tell the staff we will take care of ourselves, so it’s like being in your own house when you are up there. I wanted a kitchen because I knew we needed a private place to have our meals. Even though the dining room is lovely, it’s a big formal space. We use the kitchen for breakfast every day and for lots of dinners when we are not entertaining. We heat up lots of leftovers. My husband might come home from a golf game and I throw something together for him. And Chelsea eats there every night.”
The private quarters have florals, chintzes, linens and silks that create what Hockersmith calls an English country feeling. “Chelsea,” her mother said, “wanted a much less fancy room, so we took down the crystal chandeliers and put up brass things to tone it down and make it more of a teenager’s room.”
In addition to having a strong opinion about the master bedroom wallpaper, the President was involved in the plans for the Oval Office and for the Treaty Room. “It’s very important that each president make his own space, and make a statement that reflects his personality,” said Hockersmith, who had many conversations with the President about his preferences. “The President wanted a lot more energy, something patriotic.”
The President’s two offices reflect the youth and vigor of his administration: strong colors and dark, rich words that are in sharp contrast to the subdued feeling that his predecessor preferred. In the Oval Office, pale blue and cream have been replaced by Prussian blue, crimson and gold. There are a number of John F. Kennedy photos and mementos as well as a Benjamin Franklin bust by Houdon and a bronze by Frederic Remington. Mrs. Clinton said the President was particularly anxious to have the famous Childe Hassam The Avenue in the Rain, with its many American flags, in the Oval Office.
The President was equally engaged by the plans for the Treaty Room, which was the Cabinet Room in the last half of the 19th century. The pale green walls are now red; the chintz draperies have been replaced by a deep red linen patterned with trompe l’oeil swags and tassels.
“My husband wanted an office in the residence,” Mrs. Clinton said, “and a library for his books.” Just after the election the Clintons were in the kitchen of the Governor’s Mansion and Mrs. Clinton was talking to Kaki Hockersmith about the redecoration. “I actually got my husband’s attention for fifteen minutes to talk about what he wanted,” she said and laughed. His answer: a masculine, comfortable, historical room.
To find the appropriate period pieces for the White House was a matter of rooting around in the basement and traveling out to the storage facilities in a nearby Maryland suburb. Mrs. Clinton said she “poked around in the basement,” but her decorator spent a lot of time out in Maryland. “That’s what I love about the White House,” Mrs. Clinton said. “There are all these things that go back in time.”
Furniture, fine arts, lamps, even chandeliers were moved from other rooms and, according to Kaki Hockersmith, Mrs. Clinton did some of the rearranging herself. “She loves to move furniture,” Hockersmith said. The First Lady also enjoyed filling the shelves in second-floor Center Hall bookcases with interesting historic pieces that came out of storage: the only likeness on display in the White House of President Buchanan; a bronze sculpture of Calvin Coolidge’s chow, Tiny Tim; a gilt bronze mantel clock with a figure of George Washington. Mrs. Clinton is also planning to bring part of the White House’s new collection of crafts pieces up here. The Clintons brought most of their furniture with them and some of it appears in the third-floor Central Hall, which functions like a double drawing room.
The Lincoln Sitting Room, one of Richard Nixon’s favorite places, was redone in high Victorian style to make it a more fitting companion to the Lincoln Bedroom, which contains a suit of furniture bought by Mary Todd Lincoln. The small room is filled with sunlight that is filtered through silk curtains, giving the room a magical golden glow.
“We took a lot of wonderful pieces out of storage and put them back into play again,” said Hockersmith. “The Clintons love history and wanted to make a comfortable sitting room that relates to the Lincoln bedroom.”
The Sitting Room draperies were donated by Hockersmith, who had used them in a decorator showhouse in Arkansas earlier in the year. The room is filled with objects and paintings from the period: several Lincoln prints, two of Grant, an 1864 print of Lincoln’s New Year’s reception at the White House, a program from the Lincoln inaugural ball.
“People we’ve entertained have been so excited to see what could, within reason, be called a historically correct room,” Mrs. Clinton said, “and if you have an invitation to a Lincoln party on the wall that just makes people’s eyes bug out.”
Mrs. Clinton said that other rooms will be refurbished as they need it. And she continues to search for items that are historically appropriate. She would like, for example, to see more maps in the Map Room on the ground floor where she and the President conduct many of their interviews. “This is the president’s house,” she said, “and we have an obligation to care for it and make sure it reflects well, not just on this president but on this presidency and the country.”
The cost of the refurbishing was $396,429.46, and it came entirely from private donations to the White House Historical Association. The $50,0000 appropriated by Congress was returned to the Treasury.
Both the President and Mrs. Clinton have read extensively on the White House but she said her husband’s level of awareness and historical sense are much deeper than hers. “He has educated himself about this house and the objects of this house. He gives a great tour and never gets tired of it,” a fact confirmed by several people who have been escorted after one of the Clintons’ small dinners.
“He just adores the whole sense of what this house is and represents, so for him it’s a labor of love.”
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