A Look Back at White House Décor

Catherine Davin
Jan 26, 2017

One of the most iconic homes in the country is no doubt the grandiose white one that sits at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Surely, a house of that importance and national grandeur is any designer’s dream project. However, for many years, decorating the White House was not as prevalent as a task for each incoming First Family. It wasn’t until Jackie Kennedy teamed up with iconic American designer Sister Parish followed by French designer Stéphane Boudin in the early 1960s that these wonderfully proportioned (but shabbily decorated) spaces received a much needed upgrade.

Under her direction and guided by her appreciation for American art and history, the White House was transformed into a source of pride and inspiration for its visitors. I have always admired Jackie Kennedy’s style, her smarts and her vision.

Jackie Kennedy began an extensive restoration of the mansion, funded mostly by the sales of a Guidebook sold to visitors for $1 – ultimately raising $2 million in two years – donors, and other fundraising initiatives. Historically, Congress has been in charge of allotting funds to each First Family to make any updates and complete any refurnishing to the House. This amount has steadily increased over the years, and any money exceeded is paid for out of the family’s pocket.

Around the time the Kennedy’s took their place in the White House in 1961, Congress enacted a law that declared the furnishings of the White House to be inalienable property of the White House, which legislates the White House’s status as a museum. Eventually in 1988 the American Alliance of Museums officially accredited the White House as a museum, so Presidents and the First Family are unable to make any changes without first going through the museum process to do so.

Jackie and Sister Parish worked with many great items that were procured throughout the years, like some of the furniture and furnishings that President Monroe purchased from France in the early 1800s that are still in use today. Working with curator Lorainne Pearce, Jackie explored all 54 rooms and 16 baths for antiques to be catalogued and restored, many dating back to the presidencies of Teddy Roosevelt, John Quincy Adams, and James Monroe. This was the start to her initiative to restore historical prominence to the House.

One of the upgrades Jackie did make to the White House was replacing the crystal, which had long been European-made or influenced by European design. Championing the notion to buy American-made, Jackie acquired a stemware set from Morgantown Glass made in Morgantown, West Virginia after inquiring about the crystal at their favorite hotel, The Carlton in New York City. She chose a simple set to complement the many intricate and ornate preexisting china and crystal sets.

For the master bedroom (then the first lady’s bedroom), Jackie wanted to replicate the bedroom in her Georgetown home, which Sister Parish helped the family design. The room was dusted in a powder blue palette with daisy printed curtains.

Even the West Sitting Hall was designed to resemble the family’s Georgetown living room in nearly a duplicated fashion.

Thanks to First Ladies such as Jackie Kennedy, the incoming President and First Lady will have to follow the same rules and guidelines for decorating the White House and maintaining its integrity, prestige and esteemed historical value. I am excited to see what style the White House will adapt moving forward.

– Cathy