When listening to a BBC radio documentary recently about Jackie Kennedy”s restoration of the White House, I was intrigued to learn about the process that she undertook and her interest in and dedication to its history. I decided to look into this remarkable story a little more deeply.
When Jacqueline Kennedy and her husband, the new President, took up residence in the White House in 1961, it was a far cry from the grand mansion it had been at its height during the administrations of Monroe and Madison. The previous tenants, Bess and Harry Truman, had redecorated and renovated, but partly due to a lack of funds and partly to inclination, their alterations were far more casual than Mrs. Kennedy felt was right for an edifice that held such a central place in both American history and American hearts.
Intelligent, well educated and blessed with exquisite taste, Jackie possessed a firm conviction that the White House should be restored as accurately as possible to its former grandeur. Early in her husband’s administration, she worked to have the White House declared a museum, set up a trust to administer what would necessarily be an extensive (and expensive) restoration and renovation, and undertook exhaustive research into its history and the interiors of earlier periods. During the restoration, she also produced a book that helped fund the renovation, which is still in print.
Henry Francis du Pont of the Winterthur Museum helped her to acquire and recover hundreds of furnishings, paintings and other artifacts that had either once been housed in the White House and sold or discarded, or were sympathetic to the great house’s history. She also worked closely with Stephane Boudin, of the Paris atelier House of Jansen, to undo ill-considered earlier alterations, rehabilitate areas that were badly in need of repair, and to generally restore the French-inspired grandeur of the early 1800s White House.
Knowing that a building as old and storied as the White House could not be frozen in one particular era, she and Boudin opted to create period themes for several of the major rooms, labelling them by colour (the Red Room, the Green Room, the Blue Room, etc.), each reflecting a particular time in the great house’s past.
Sadly, President Kennedy’s assassination brought a halt to the project before it was completely finished. But Jackie’s spirit still infuses the modern-day White House, and while every subsequent Presidential family has redecorated the private quarters and sometimes updated public areas as well, her painstaking work and attention to detail have left the American people a priceless legacy.
Jackie, intentionally or not, brought about a revolution in the world of design as well. She hated the term “decorating” and forbade people from even using it around her; for many people at the time, “decorating” was largely considered the province of dilettantes. She viewed the White House restoration as more meaningful, more historically important than the term implied. In this sense, it may be argued, she was instrumental in launching the modern-day profession of interior design.