tiffany decorates the white house -- 8/26/16

Today's selection -- from Chester Alan Arthur by Zachary Karabell. President Chester Arthur hired Tiffany to bring a gilded age opulence to the White House. Arthur upgraded the presidential carriage as well:

"At the beginning of 1882, at least one thing was certain: the White House was a mess. Its past two residents had both com­plained about the dowdy decoration and a persistent drafti­ness. ...

"[The president's sister and proxy first lady] Mary McElroy oversaw an extensive remodel­ing of the White House interiors. Arthur's homes in New York City had been marked by their opulence and panache, and he wanted the White House to reflect that sensibility. That incli­nation was not without controversy. Ever since the presidential mansion was burned by the British during the War of 1812, Americans have vested the White House with a certain amount of symbolism. The decorative perambulations of chief execu­tives and their wives not only marked but often determined the style and tone for the houses of the rich and powerful throughout the country. Given that the aesthetic and culi­nary choices could not possibly have satisfied all sensibilities, the decisions were usually met with a mix of celebration and sniping.

"Arthur, however, didn't hesitate to order a thorough remod­eling. And while he was assessing architectural plans, he also worked with Mary to replace the dowdy menus of Hayes and Garfield with something more akin to the offerings at Del­monico's. He hired a French chef from New York to create state dinners, and he installed the personal cook who had been with him for years. ...

"The White House, because it had become a monument of American power and liberty, couldn't be torn down, but it could be torn apart and redone. For that task, Arthur chose Louis Comfort Tiffany, a thirty­-three-year-old former landscape painter whose firm, Associ­ated Artists, was just beginning to carve out a reputation for daring approaches to design that went beyond the overstuffed ecstasies of the Victorian era. Tiffany had grand dreams of changing the way Americans saw beauty, and he was starting to put those ideas into practice. Instead of heavy drapery and sturdy, stuffed furniture, he envisioned light and glass. Though Arthur had been quite comfortable with the Victorian fashions of the 1860s and 1870s, he had always been what today we would call 'fashion forward,' and he gave Tiffany carte blanche. The result was a new entrance and a Blue Room that lived up to its name.

"Tiffany was not yet famous for his lamps, but in 1881 he obtained a patent for a new technique to decorate stained glass. In the Cross Hall of the White House, he installed a large stained-glass screen, which inspired one magazine to rhap­sodize that the only dark things left in the White House were the oil portraits of former presidents. ...

Digital reconstruction of the White House's Blue Room, designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany, circa 1886. Image: Simple Twig 

"Combined with the emphasis on grand meals, elaborate table settings, and entertainment, the Arthur White House easily surpassed its predecessors. [The White House] was rarely filled with such hedonistic grace as when Chester Arthur hosted a dinner party. In that respect, Arthur is unsurpassed. Twenty years later, Theodore Roosevelt removed the Tiffany glass screen and redid the decor. Roosevelt had his own ideas of how to live, and he unceremoniously erased Arthur's traces, just as his were erased by later twentieth-century presidents who wanted the mansion to reflect their times.

"There was one other fashion statement that caught atten­tion: Chester Arthur's carriage. In an era before automobiles and secret service caravans, the presidential carriage was taken as a symbol of the administration. In that respect, it was like a mini-White House. There wasn't much to do in Washington, and speculation and gossip about a new president's primary form of public locomotion could fill a number of otherwise dreary evenings. Arthur took several months to unveil his horse-drawn conveyance, but when he did, everyone under­stood why he had been dubbed the Gentleman Boss. ... 'It is no exaggeration to say that it is the finest which has ever appeared in the streets of the capital,' gurgled the New York Times."


Zachary Karabell


Chester Alan Arthur: The American Presidents Series: The 21st President, 1881-1885


Times Books


Copyright 2004 by Zachary Karabell


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