The White House yesterday released pictures of the remodeled Oval Office. Calm, soothing colors permeate the room with reupholstered sofas and a new rug. Upon the rug are quotes from some of the nation’s most respected leaders: Martin Luther King Jr. (though his quote is disputed), Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy and, lastly, Theodore Roosevelt. It is fitting, then, that we take a moment to look at the first major restoration and renovation project at the White House, undertaken by the Roosevelts in 1902. The Rooseveltian renovation aimed to turn the damp and dark mansion into a symbol of the presidency itself.
During the summer of 1902, the president was forced to find new quarters to finish his business in Washington. The White House had been turned into a construction zone. Edmund Morris described the scene in Theodore Rex: “Carpenters were busy salvaging historic bits of floorboard, and plaster dust floated out of every window”. The president had already told architect Charles F. McKim of the urgency of the project. In a letter dated May 10, 1902, Roosevelt told McKim that the new office building (what would become the West Wing) and the living quarters had to be finished by October first. One of the most interesting things to me in this same letter is Roosevelt’s instructions that local labor be used as much as possible for the construction. I had thought the emphasis on using local labor and products was a more recent phenomenon.
Once the carpenters and painters had finished their work, first lady Edith Roosevelt finished the transformation. She decorated and furnished over twenty rooms, which were newly renovated or newly added to the White House. The rooms included new reception halls, an expanded State Dining Room, and a new entrance way with a grand staircase designed to showcase portraits. Edith’s letter to McKim on August 21, 1902 is almost entirely about pictures and where they should hang in the house. She decided to put “the ladies of the White House, including myself” in the new corridor near the grand staircase. However, she was “afraid the Presidents will still have to hang in the red and green rooms.” Edith was keen to get McKim’s opinion as she worked to prepare the White House to receive her family in the fall. Indeed, the White House would not be completed until the President’s return from his famous Mississippi hunting trip in November.
The effect of the renovations was to create the illusion, one observer of the time said, that the house was suddenly much larger. It was more open, lighter, and more welcoming. Pipes, boilers and radiators had been hidden from sight, and the new reception halls allowed for a greater flow of traffic, allowing the President to shake even more hands than before. The outside remained unchanged except for the removal of greenhouses from the western side, allowing the second pillared pavilion to be seen for the first time in years.
The renovation successfully conveyed what Roosevelt had hoped to achieve: access to power, prosperity, dignity and quiet elegance. However, Roosevelt could not resist adding a touch of himself into the renovations: the enlarged State Dining Room became home to several game trophies that calmly watched over the diners. I think I like the new striped wallpaper in President Obama’s Oval Office better myself.
Photo: Edith Roosevelt at the White House, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. To see full record in digital library, go here.