The lone surviving pier table of the Bellangé suite served as a major - PDF

68 The lone surviving pier table of the Bellangé suite served as a major inspiration in the updated White House during Roosevelt s administration, but it was not immediately restored nor set out for display.

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68 The lone surviving pier table of the Bellangé suite served as a major inspiration in the updated White House during Roosevelt s administration, but it was not immediately restored nor set out for display. Fortunately, in 1929, Congress passed an act preventing the removal of objects from the White House, as had happened in several administrations, including Buchanan s: [p]rior to the (law), the Presidents could either give away their White House gifts, take them home with them, or sell them at public auction. clxi Objects no longer actively used in the interiors were instead stored in the White House attic or in Fort Washington, Maryland it is assumed that the Bellangé pier table went there following the 1902 restoration. The table s removal from the White House erased its important rediscovery, thereby negating the Bellangé suite s historical importance and rightful place in the White House. The Bellangé furniture, once employed as symbols of American triumph and achievement, was now, once again, cast away from the White House. The pier table, as the last remaining representative of the entire suite, fell subject to a dusty storage building outside of Washington for some time before it was put to use years later. The pier table s discovery already acted as the driving force behind McKim s design for the Blue Room, but it fulfilled another important role fifty years later. This lone object initiated the return of the surviving Bellangé examples after 144 years and thirty Presidents. 69 Chapter 5: Royal Treasures Years passed, and so too did Presidents. Many structural alterations were made to the White House through the early twentieth century, including modifications to some of McKim s designs. In the 1920s, First Lady Grace Coolidge, initiated the first efforts to bring more appropriate and original antique furnishings into the White House (Figure 85). She organized a small committee to assemble a sizeable collection, but with as little government funding as possible. clxii The collected furnishings, however, were not based on White House provenance. Rather, they were simply excellent examples of neoclassical furniture from the American Federal period. The quest to find other objects original to the house, like the original Bellangé pier table, must have seemed impossible and unrealistic as there was no indication that they even existed at this time. This was a constant problem for the many developing historic house museum collections at the time as well, so suitable antiques of the period were used in lieu of originals. Collection expansion continued through the work of First Lady Lou Hoover in the 1930s. Hoover brought more antiques to the White House, but also elaborated on the same idea as the Roosevelts: reproducing furniture of the Monroe era. She, unlike her predecessors, was only interested in objects, original or reproduced, with specific historical associations. clxiii Hoover employed her secretary, Dare Stark McMullin, as the first unofficial curator of the White House. McMullin elaborated on research compiled from past efforts and searched through the White House inventory, looking at the records of old chairs and furniture identifying when they first came in and if they had significant history in the house. clxiv In addition to 70 searching the premises, Hoover and McMullin went to the White House warehouses, located in Maryland, to search for the other furniture saved by the 1929 Act of Congress. If, in fact, Hoover searched both the White House and all of the storage spaces, she would have come across the Bellangé pier table. An article, written by historian Hans Huth, recorded the pier table s use in the diplomatic assembly room, now the Diplomatic Reception Room on the ground floor, up until It is certain then that Hoover used the pier table as she possessed an admiration for the Monroe era objects, although it was never specified in her designs. Besides the Bellangé pier table and Blue Room Marcotte reproductions, Hoover had The James Monroe Law Office as an excellent primary resource. The Monroe Law Office, later Museum and Memorial Library, opened in 1927 by the late President s descendents in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Although there were no family members with pieces of the Bellangé suite, they did have other surviving examples of Monroe s own furniture to display. Hoover commissioned Morris W. Dove, a Washington cabinetmaker, to remake pieces from these surviving Monroe furnishings. Hoover commissioned a copy of the French secrétaire à abattant on which Monroe wrote the Monroe Doctrine. (Figures 86 & 87) clxv This desk, as well as other examples of Monroe era furniture, stayed in a small room named the Monroe Drawing Room on the first floor. The room, filled with reproductions, was the first adaptation of a period room in the White House. clxvi The 1930s decade turned into a busy period of ownership transfer for three separate examples of Bellangé furniture. Violet Blair Janin died in 1933 during the Hoover administration. This same year is when Kemper Simpson acquired his 71 armchair and probably the bérgére. clxvii Additionally, Henry Ford s 1930 purchase of the settee at a Washington auction puts many significant transactions of the Bellangé furniture in a close time frame to one another. clxviii The Bellangé pier table s continued presence in the White House, and the concurrent exchange of ownership of locally owned seating furniture, exemplifies the lingering apprehension and lack of resources First Ladies and White House staff had in finding any objects original to the White House, particularly furniture. As the White House furnishings customarily changed with each administration, the structure also saw alterations with the addition of an indoor swimming pool, a third floor, and a third floor sunroom. clxix Much of the updating improved the function and overall appearance of the White House, but in 1947 President Harry S. Truman moved into an outdated structure unable to receive many of the newly developed modern conveniences, like central air. The Roosevelt construction was hurried along, with not enough attention paid to the over 100 year old infrastructure, now weakened and unsafe. clxx Unlike Roosevelt, Truman found the creaks and quirks of the house as a cause for alarm, instead of nostalgic reminders. clxxi Truman s primary concern was to modernize the house for safety and security, rather than for design purposes. clxxii His plans involved the preservation of only the exterior shell of the house, thereby requiring the removal of everything including the President (Figures 88 & 89). While Truman took up residency across the street at Blair House, the White House was remade, yet again. The manner in which the White House was put back together, however, was the same structurally and similar to the 1902 McKim designs. The rooms, including 72 the Blue Room, were placed in their existing locations with their original dimensions (Figure 90). Truman had the Marcotte reproductions of the Belllangé furniture put back where the Roosevelts placed them along the walls of the Blue Room (Figure 91). He was also able to secure the return of furniture from the Lincoln era to the home, which was removed by Mary Todd Lincoln following her husband s death. These furnishings, as well, had been sold at auction and made their way to England. The following generations of owners donated them to the new White House. clxxiii One year after Truman entered office, construction persisted. In historian Hillary Murtha s 2005 article, she states that the outbreak of the Second World War was a trigger for renewed interest in American decorative arts, as the country sought to define what truly characterized an American national identity. New scholarship on early American material culture emerged. clxxiv In 1945, Hans Huth, a curator for the Art Institute Chicago, wrote an article on furniture of the Monroe era; appearing in the January 1946 issue of the Gazette des Beaux artes. Huth highlighted the many objects which came to the White House in 1817 under Monroe and documented their known history to date. Surely he was aware of the work Hoover accomplished with her reproduction Monroe furnishings, and the renewed focus of history in the White House. Huth was still wary of a disastrous historical repeat of furniture being lost with future interiors changes: [t]he necessity of keeping up the traditional appearance of the State rooms by precisely following President Monroe s intentions, has been well recognized in recent years. It is to be hoped that such a policy be permanently assured, in order to preserve as much of the genuine White House tradition as possible. clxxv 73 Huth s extensive research of Monroe era bills and papers must have sparked his interest in Bellangé. As a librarian at Versailles in 1937, Huth may have already known a great deal about Bellangé; perhaps having seen the furniture he produced for the Grand Trianon. clxxvi Huth s article transformed the Bellangé suite into more than just an old pier table in the White House. It gave light to the Bellangé suite as a group of objects not only valuable in their Presidential history, but also within the context of furniture history and the art of nineteenth century French cabinetmaking. Huth included the surviving documented details describing the furniture s upkeep from the time of Monroe all the way to Harriet Lane s disposal of the pieces at the McGuire auction in clxxvii Huth thought that the furniture s significance was not a factor in the minds of whoever purchased pieces of the suite: Mr. McGuire was himself a collector; his picture collection, as well as that of William Corcoran, were among the artistic attractions of the capital. However, he naturally did not have intuition as nobody could have had in those days to foresee that what he was going to sell was not old junk, but rather fine pieces reminiscent of the pageant that had passed through the White House for nearly half a century it does not seem beyond the range of possibility that some pieces might turn up sometime, somewhere. clxxviii Granted, Huth had the foresight to predict the rediscovery of the Bellangé furniture, but he underestimated the intuition of those who purchased the furniture at auction. Even in 1860, Adams, Janin, Galt, Hines, and others knew the underlying worth of the pieces. Unfortunately, by the 1940s, a generational disconnect left several of the furniture s inheritors with little information of the important historical association. Huth s article was the first documented history of the suite, and it would later act as the second most important catalyst, behind the pier table, for an international hunt to recover the seating furniture (Figure 92). 74 Following the Truman work on the White House in the 1940s and 1950s, Mamie Eisenhower took on the duties of the First Lady in 1953, which by now, unofficially, required the work of putting the White House back in a semi historical order. The collection slowly began to resemble a museum in its accumulation of priceless works of art and historical furniture, added with each new administration. Eisenhower assumed the role of historian and mystery solver without hesitation, making significant strides in the acquisition of more antique furnishings and artwork. With the Trumans, the search for the Bellangé seating furniture, once again, fell short of any real success for its efforts for its return to the White House. By now, former First Lady Edith Bolling Galt Wilson acquired her armchair from her former sister in law. Wilson lived in a home enshrined with an assortment of presidential memorabilia from her husband s own term in office. The Bellangé furniture s disassociation with her own stay at the White House may have made it among the least important objects to her. By 1919, the Daughters of the American Revolution Museum acquired their example of the Bellangé armchair without any Presidential furniture association. Less than half a mile away from its original location, the DAR displayed their armchair for a year then transferred it to Smithsonian Institution storage from January until April of 1920 due to renovations at the museum. It may have found a happier home in the White House than in storage, but its history was a mystery at the time. Although these two examples were located just minutes from the White House, they would prove to be two of the largest obstacles in the efforts to return the Bellangé suite to the White House. 75 On December 9, 1960, Mamie Eisenhower escorted Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy through the White House as a pre inspection before her family moved in, in January. From that moment on, Kennedy was on a quest to revitalize the White House even before she arrived in Kennedy was so horrified by the state of the White House that she reportedly cried, admitting to Helen Thomas, a United Press International correspondent, that she saw the White House as, a hotel that had been decorated by a wholesale furniture store during a January clearance. clxxix As a student of history, Kennedy took on a major restoration plan of the interiors. She already had a fondness for French design and antiques from her exposure to them as a young child, with the collection her great uncle, Michel Charles Bouvier displayed in his Manhattan home. clxxx She learned a great deal from his collections of antiques, tapestries and paintings. The Bouvier s French heritage also acted as an inspiration, having immigrated to the United States from France in the early 1800s. Kennedy was also fluent in French from a young age and spent time in Paris as a young adult. Mr. West, could you come up here a moment? clxxxi These words, uttered in 1961 by Kennedy to Chief Usher, J.B. West, forever changed the history of the Bellangé suite, beginning with the pier table. When she called for West, Kennedy had been reading Hans Huth s 1946 article. According to West s account in his memoirs, the photograph in Huth s article of the Bellangé pier table started it all: Do you know anything about this table? she asked. I m sure I can find it, I answered, for the White House keeps an annual inventory of all its possessions Sure enough, in the Fort Washington warehouse, we found the Monroe pier table, dusty and rickety, with the gilt peeling off she was delighted. We must have it restored, she exclaimed. clxxxii 76 West had been at the White House since Franklin D. Roosevelt s administration and knew more about the inventories and location of objects than most others. The discovery of the Bellangé table in storage launched the Kennedy administration projects for finding more appropriate period objects. Although largely viewed as a luxurious project, it came with great difficulty for if it was an easy task, it would have been completed already. According to West the, lack of success in finding historic furnishings in the warehouse [other than the pier table] only made Mrs. Kennedy determined to bring in outside help to carry out the project. clxxxiii Following in the footsteps of both Grace Coolidge and Lou Hoover, Kennedy assembled a group of well respected decorators, collectors, and historians to form her Fine Arts Committee. The Committee advised the execution of Kennedy s French themed vision for the White House. In order to properly manage the collection, the Committee hired an official White House curator. The White House was to now act as a shrine and a museum for all Americans to visit and witness their country s history. President Kennedy described the efforts his wife was taking on as a contribution to all Americans: But I think if they [the American public] can come here and see alive this building and in a sense touch the people who have been here then they ll go home more interested and I think that they ll become better Americans and some of them may want to someday live here themselves which I think would be good. clxxxiv On February 23, 1961, the White House announced Kennedy s plan to restore historical integrity to the State Rooms of the ground and first floors. clxxxv Kennedy s White House plans extended throughout her two year tenure, and well after she left. In her studies of the White House, and with help from the Fine Arts Committee, 77 Kennedy began to request loans from outside institutions which had furniture of the historic periods she felt appropriate for the interior: American Federal, American empire, and French empire. To begin with, Kennedy did not see caché in American furniture, and instead preferred to only collect French examples. Members of the Committee disagreed with her approach and intended to show Kennedy the beauty of American made objects. Fine Arts Committee Chairman, Henry Francis du Pont, had his own ideas on how to arrange the State Rooms to make the White House a showcase of American craftsmanship (Figure 93). clxxxvi According to an article written in the 2007 Winterthur Magazine, du Pont was a major influential force: Early in their collaboration [Kennedy and Committee Chair, Henry Francis], du Pont invited Mrs. Kennedy to Winterthur. I have a feeling that her real interest is in French things, Sweeney recalls du Pont saying. She doesn t believe that you can have a really swell house with American furniture, and I want her to see that you can. clxxxvii Winterthur was the du Pont family s former country estate, which Henry Francis turned into a 175 room museum (Figure 94). Each room showcases original architecture, fine art, and decorative art made in the United States from the lateseventeenth century until the early nineteenth century. Upon touring Winterthur, the Kennedy s were impressed with du Pont s collection and with the beauty of the American aesthetic. As chairman, he reviewed the letters sent to the White House by the dealers and collectors with objects to offer for the new interiors. clxxxviii He was aware of the variety of objects available, including furniture made by Duncan Phyfe, Charles Honoré Lannuier, and Thomas Seymour all among the greatest cabinetmakers of early nineteenth century America. Kennedy began to understand and respect du Pont s ideas for the White House, resulting in his assemblage for the 78 Green Room (Figure 95). Here he assembled the donated and purchased objects from the American Federal period, , from Philadelphia, Baltimore, and New England. clxxxix Kennedy, however, still held close to her love of the French. Unlike du Pont, one of the interior designers Kennedy hired to execute the redecorating, Stéphan Boudin, had little respect for American objects and overruled many of the American based suggestions committee members presented. cxc Boudin catered to an elite clientele, made up of New York society and Parisian wealth. He was well versed in the delicacy of decorating historic structures, having just finished the restoration of Château Malmaison outside of Paris. His work at Malmaison reflected the Charles Percier and Pierre Fontaine s designs for Napoleon, and he planned to incorporate similar design concepts in the White House. cxci The second interior designer hired, Sister Parish, collaborated with Boudin on many of the rooms, but added little to his future vision for the Blue Room besides a center table (Figure 96). cxcii The historic furniture offered to the White House, and then chosen by du Pont and the Committee, began to arrive as early as The American furniture entering the house reflected, historically accurate objects [of] the illustrious history of the White House. cxciii In essence, the Kennedy plans were much like Hoover s, but on a grander scale. The interior of the White House was transforming into a series of historic period rooms. The President s residence operated as one part office, one part home space, and one part living museum. The major difference between the State Rooms and the period rooms of an insti
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