It’s easy to think of the White House as someplace inaccessible. There’s a giant fence between the general public and the lawns. The lawns, streets, sidewalks, and roof are all crawling with armed Secret Service officers. It’s elegant and imposing, at the same time. It’s a symbol of executive power, synonymous with the office of the President of the United States of America. It’s a fortress, guarded by an elite force of men and women who are trained to jump in front of a bullet for the Commander in Chief,and the First Family.
No one would guess that beyond the walls, it’s really just a museum.
Okay, that’s not exactly true– in addition to being a museum, there’s a private residence upstairs for the President and First Family, a series of offices and conference rooms, several security checkpoints, a library, at least two kitchens, a fully-functional ballroom for special events and a gift shop.
But, for most of us, the Ground and State Floors are all we’ll ever see of the massive, sprawling White House complex. Those two floors, for the most part, are really just a mansion-turned-museum, not unlike the Anderson House, Octagon House, or Dumbarton Oaks. However, while those mansion-museums tend to stick to a cohesive theme throughout their respective interiors, the White House’s interiors are all over the place. This isn’t because the former occupants were bad decorators; it’s because every one of the White House’s former occupants made significant impressions on American History, and the building itself.
For instance, the stunning floral arrangements in the White House are all thanks to Franklin Pierce. When Pierce was traveling with his son in between winning the election and inauguration in 1853, their train crashed, resulting in his son’s death. Jane Pierce, First Lady, withdrew from the public, and retreated to the Residence portion of the White House. After months of crippling depression, Franklin Pierce instructed the staff to place as many flower arrangements as the White House could accommodate, in an effort to cheer up the First Lady. Fresh flowers are still all over the State Floor of the White House, largely as tradition, but also in memory of the Pierce family.
It’s also worth pointing out a couple more curious elements of Franklin Pierce and his terrible, terrible presidency: He believed the abolition of slaves and Free Blacks were a menace to the United States. He did more than any other US President to separate the North and South before the Civil War. He remains to be the only incumbent US President to not get his own party’s nomination for a second term. He’s also a relative of Barbara Bush (née Pierce), which means George W. Bush is a descendant.
So, just from this one US President’s conflicted and complicated history, it would be difficult to decide which elements of his stay in the White House should stick around. Now, take that conflict and confusion, and multiply it by 44. Every President has, in some way, left their mark on the White House.
Even some non-Presidents had influence in the layout of the space. Jackie Kennedy hired Stéphane Boudin to decorate the Red Room. Theodore Steinway presented Franklin Roosevelt with the commemorative 300,000th Steinway Piano. Even Abraham Lincoln’s portrait hangs by itself, next to no other President, at the specific instructions of Robert Todd Lincoln’s will.
Over two centuries have passed through the of the White House. Her walls survived the shelling of 1814, two renovations, countless restorations, re-decorations, Teddy Roosevelt’s hunting exploits, and Lyndon Johnson’s interesting shower setup. To say that history runs deep here is an understatement.
Thanks to the Obama Administration, all the complicated history is now open to the public. All it takes to get access is to reach out to a member of Congress for approval. The doors to the Executive Mansion have slowly opened wider in the post-9/11 climate. It will be interesting to see what the next President does with it.