Redecorating the White House
The White House had deteriorated during President James Buchanan’s single term. Public abuse of the public sections of the mansion had left it the worse for wear. Mary Todd Lincoln was sensitive to public cynicism that she and her husband were prepared for the nation’s top job. She determined that the White House would be a national showpiece in order to disarm their critics. According to Lincoln biographer David Donald: “It was, then, with trepidation that the Lincolns the morning after the inauguration began to explore the Executive Mansion. They were overwhelmed by the size of their new residence with its thirty-one rooms, not including the conservatory, various outbuildings, and stables. The East Room alone was about as large as their entire Springfield house. After a quick inspection, Lincoln, who was totally indifferent to his physical surroundings, concluded that the mansion was in good shape, and was ready to settle down to work. But Mrs. Lincoln came up with a very different verdict. Accompanied by her sisters, who were visiting her from Springfield, she went from room to room, finding the furniture broken down, the wallpaper peeling, the carpeting worn, the draperies torn, the eleven basement rooms filthy and rat-infested; the whole place had the air of a run-down, unsuccessful, third-rate hotel.” 1
The new first lady, Mary Todd Lincoln, determined to refurbish it with a $20,000 appropriation from Congress. “In mid-May 1861[Mary] began her task and traveled to Philadelphia, Boston, and New York with Elizabeth Grimsley and others,” wrote historian Ronald D. Rietveld. “On the first trip to New York, she purchased a carriage for $900. By August 1861, her shopping sprees had also included carpets, furniture, and drapes. In September she purchased ‘one fine Porcelain Dining Service of One Hundred and ninety pieces…decorated Royal Purple, and double gilt, with the Arms of the United States, on each piece, for the Presidential Mansion.’ The cost was $3,195. The bill for the glassware was $1,500.” 2
Construction began in earnest in late summer 1861 while Mrs Lincoln was out of town. “Tack hammers banged around the edges of new carpeting; chisels cut the walls for additional gas pipes. The spring bell system of the office was expanded, so that from cords over his desk Lincoln could signal the reception room, as well as his secretaries. The smells of paint, varnish, and wallpaper permeated the place until at least mid-September. The furniture that began to arrive on the train was stacked in the halls, still crated,” wrote White House historian William Seale. 3
“In time for the opening of the fall season, redecoration was completed in October 1861. The First Lady was pleased, and her first official reception was held on December 8 from 1 to 3 P.M. Mrs. Lincoln had been forced by necessity to modify some of her original goals. The East Room chandeliers, installed during President Jackson’s tenure and converted by President Polk to gas, had to remain. She kept other furnishings that she also would like to have replaced,” wrote Rietveld. 4
By late in the year, Mrs. Lincoln had overrun the budget by $6858; she tried to hide the budget overrun from her frugal husband. She was successful until December. When the President found out about cost overruns, he was infuriated. Mrs. Lincoln summoned Major Benjamin Brown French to the White House: “I have sent for you to get me out of trouble if you will do it I never will get into such difficulty again. Mr. Caryl has a bill of $6,700.00 over the appropriation, and Mr. Lincoln will not approve it. I want you to see him and tell him that it is common to overrun appropriations–tell him how much it costs to refurnish, he does not know much about it, he says he will pay for it out of his own pocket….you know Major he cannot afford that! Now go to Mr. Lincoln and try to persuade him to approve that bill.” 5
The President was not moved. According to Commissioner of Public Buildings French that “he swore he would never approve the bills for flub dubs for that damned old house! It was he said furnished well enough when they came–better than any house they had ever lived in–& rather than put his name to such a bill he would pay it out of his own pocket.” 6 Interior Secretary Caleb Smith helped conceal Mary’s overspending on redecoration. But there was also a public relations problem caused by her conspicious spending.
Historian Michael Burlingame wrote of the February 1862 reception that Mrs. Lincoln ‘was widely denounced for indulging in extravagance and frivolity while the soldiers were suffering and dying.”7 Historian Margaret Leech noted the effect of the work:
At the first levee of the winter season in December, 1861, Mrs. Lincoln faced her enemies in a figured silk brocade with her head brightly wreathed in flowers. She was beginning her own levees early, and she gave the secretary, Stoddard, to understand that she was willing to do her duty ‘while her smiling guests pull her in pieces.’ Her pride was soothed by the splendor of the transformed mansion. All the old furniture had been freshly varnished, and the chairs and sofas were upholstered in crimson satin brocatelle, tufted and laid in folds on the backs, ‘rendering a modern appearance.’ The changes in the East Room were striking. A heavy cloth velvet paper, in the Parisian style, covered the walls with a pattern of crimson, garnet and gold. A new carpet, of Glasgow manufacture, ingeniously made all in one piece, had designs of fruit and flowers in vases, wreaths and bouquets.
The inner curtains, imported from Switzerland, were of white needle-wrought lace, and over these French crimson brocatelle draperies, trimmed with heavy gold Navy fringe and tassels work, hung from massive gilt cornices. The Green Room had also been completely renovated. The Blue Room had a new carpet and fresh paper. In the Red Room, the only familiar object was the old painting of General Washington. Upstairs, the state guest room was papered in light purple, with a golden figure of a rose tree, while the huge bed was cushioned and canopied in purple figured satin, trimmed with gold lace. The private apartments had acquired some modern furniture, and the Executive Chamber had been freshly papered. The Herald correspondent found the shabby old chairs and desks in the office ‘too rickety to venerate,’ but he remarked that ‘Mr. Lincoln don’t complain.’ The only new article of furniture was the big rack that held the war maps, which the amateur strategists of the Government studied in earnest perplexity.8
- David Herbert Donald, Lincoln at Home, pp. 8-9.
- Ronald D. Rietveld, “The Lincoln White House Community,” The Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, p. 26.
- William Seale, The President’s House: A History, p. 385.
- Rietveld, “The Lincoln White House Community,” The Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, p. 27.
- Donald B. Cole and John J. McDonough, editors, Witness to the Young Republic: A Yankee’s Journal.
- Cole and McDonough, Witness to the Young Republic: A Yankee’s Journal, 1828-1870, p. 382.
- Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume II, p. 283.
- Margaret Leech, Reveille in Washington, p. 362.