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Louis Comfort Tiffany's Work on the White House

by Sarah E. Mitchell

Vice-President Chester Arthur became president after the death of President Garfield. He did not immediately move into the White House, though, because he wanted the building refurbished.

Traditionally, the president, his wife, and/or female relatives have been in charge of any decorative changes to the White House. However, President Chester Arthur was a widower, and he decided to hire New York artist and decorator Louis Comfort Tiffany to redecorate the State apartments in the White House in 1882 (the work happened between late September and December of that year). Tiffany may have been the first professional decorator hired to work in the White House; he is the first that I have been able to confirm to have worked on the White House.

Louis Comfort Tiffany is now probably most famous for his work in glass, particularly his stained-glass windows. In the late 1800's and early 1900's, he and his company were also a popular firm of interior designers; they were often hired to decorate homes of the rich and famous, including Mark Twain's home. Homes so immaculate that cleaning services and other top businesses from New York, Chicago and other cities around the country would have lobbied hard to work in.

Louis Comfort Tiffany himself described some of the work done to the White House:

At that time we decorated the Blue Room, the East Room, the Red Room and the Hall between the Red and East Rooms, together with the glass screen contained therein. The Blue Room, or Robin's Egg Room -- as it is sometimes called -- was decorated in robin's egg blue for the main color, with ornaments in a hand-pressed paper, touched out in ivory, gradually deepening as the ceiling was approached.
In the East Room, we only did the ceiling, which was done in silver, with a design in various tones of ivory.

In the Red Room, the walls were red with a frieze in which the motif was an interlacing of a design embodying both eagles and flags. The ceiling was in old gold.

The opalescent glass screen in the hall, which reached from the floor to the ceiling, had also a motif of eagles and flags, interlaced in the Arabian method. [See illustration above.]

A newspaper article in Washington's Evening Star on December 19, 1882 discussed the work undertaken in the hall:

A good deal of heavy ornamental iron work has been removed from above the glass doors, and the whole corridor has been given a much lighter appearance by a more brilliant style of decoration. They have decorated the ceiling in broad lines and masses of metal, of gold and ivory white, which, upon closer inspection, form intricate scrolls and designs, at night reflecting the rays from the three large chandeliers. There are also on the ceiling about 20 rosettes of Indian brass. The cornice and frieze are of rich designs, in golden colors, the latter being separated from the wall by a line of Indian perforated brass. The walls are of an olive golden hue, making a fine background for the paintings. The two large niches are solidly gilded, having a hammered effect, which is very much heightened by the lights and shadows caused by the leaves of the large palms which stand in majolica pots. . . .
What will doubtless be considered the main feature of the interior improvement is the magnificent glass mosaic screen, which is expected to arrive shortly from New York. It will take the place of the present homely, ground glass partition which separates the corridor from the vestibule. It will have but two doors, the center of the screen being composed of one large panel. The center of this panel consists of a large oval, having four eagles arranged around a central smaller oval, which is a suggestion of the U.S. shield. The four rosettes, which are outside the large oval, in the corners of the panel, have the cipher U.S.A. introduced. The whole panel is filled with innumerable pieces of different hued glass and crystal. All around this panel and to both ends of the screen the character will be the same, though not so elaborate as that of the center panel. Tiffany & Co. have never had such an opportunity of showing both sides of the glass mosaic as this will afford, and the effect produced by the lights on both sides . . . will doubtless be magnificent.

In 1882, a writer elaborated on the decoration of the room where Arthur regularly took his breakfast:

In the refurnishing of the house last Fall, special attention was given to this room in which the President regularly dines and breakfasts. The walls were covered with heavy gold paper in large designs, and the windows and mantelpiece draped with hangings of pomegranate plush. Another sideboard was made to match the elaborate one ordered by Mrs. Hayes, and on these pieces are displayed specimens of the Limoges china set designed by Theodore Davis. The open fire-place and side lights of crimson glass were suggested by President Arthur.

Another account of White House changes during Arthur's administration mentions that the windows of the dining-room were replaced with glass doors leading to the conservatory.

After Tiffany had completed his work, an auction was held of items that were judged unnecessary and in the way. The old furniture from the East Room; carpets from the corridor and private dining-room; chandeliers; children's high chairs; marble-top tables; leather-covered sofas, ottomans, and dining-room chairs; cuspidors; lace curtains; globes; and rat-traps were just a small portion of the items that were sold.

The East Room reportedly remained decorated as Tiffany had designed it and the glass screen remained in place until McKim, Mead, and White's massive rehabilitation of the White House in 1902. Tiffany's other changes seemingly did not last as long.

Illustration from Esther Singleton, The Story of The White House, Vol. II, The McClure Company, New York, 1907. Digital Editing by Sarah E. Mitchell.

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Copyright © 2003, 2014 Sarah E. Mitchell