First lady Nancy Reagan presides over a state dinner in honor of Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987. The place settings feature the red dinner plates she helped design.
First lady Nancy Reagan presides over a state dinner in honor of Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987. The place settings feature the red dinner plates she helped design. (White House Historical Association, Baltimore Sun)

It is hard to believe, considering our national fondness for the White House and its history, but new presidents used to sell off the furnishings from the previous administration in something like a garage sale.

In an attempt to make "the people's house" their own, first families would get rid of the old to make room for the new, or the newest fashion.

Incoming administrations could simply do away with what they didn't want and no one batted an eye until years later when first lady Jacqueline Kennedy asked for it all back.

For this year's 50th anniversary of the White House Historical Association, the Smithsonian American Art Museum's Renwick Gallery – a building rescued from the wrecking ball by Mrs. Kennedy – is showcasing some of the noteworthy furnishings from the White House's long history.

The exhibit, "Something of Splendor: Decorative Arts from the White House," pairs furniture, settings and ornamental pieces with historic photos that show how they were used by first families through the years.

"Mrs. Kennedy wasn't the first," said William Allman, White House curator, who has been working with the presidential home furnishings for 35 years. "Lou Hoover [President Herbert Hoover's wife] was the first to number things and create a portfolio and identify where they came from. We still use that today.

"But Mrs. Kennedy was the right person at the right time, and she really jump-started the whole thing. She stepped forward and asked the public for its help."

John Adams was the first president to live in the White House. The furnishings he brought with him, along with those provided by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, were destroyed when the British burned it down in 1814 during the War of 1812. Only a desk made of the same mahogany used to build the White House and a bit of wallpaper given by Dolley Madison to a friend exist today.

It wasn't until the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition in 1876 that a renewed pride in American history stirred an interest in restoring the White House as a living museum.

In the late 1800s, Caroline Harrison, wife of President Benjamin Harrison, began to collect items that represented the taste of the White House residents who came before her.

Decades later, the Diplomatic Reception Room was the first to undergo a kind of historic renovation with a few antiques gathered by Mamie Eisenhower. Pat Nixon ramped up the collecting that Mrs. Kennedy had begun, and Rosalynn Carter added to it by creating a collection of paintings by American artists.

"Each first lady has left her stamp," said Allmann.

But it was Mrs. Kennedy who pressed for the creation of the White House Historical Association, which protects presidential furnishings and decorative arts. And her nationally televised tour of the White House in 1962 was such a sensation that the public responded by offering up family treasures believed to have been purchased from one of those early White House auctions.

A few of those pieces are included in the exhibit, which features more than 90 items – some that have never left the White House before. For each item, the display includes information about the artist who created it and the president or the first lady who chose it.

The china chosen by Lucy Hayes, wife of President Rutherford B. Hayes, is a masterwork. There are 12 pieces for each of the five courses, plus serving dishes, and each one is painted with a different scene from nature. Lady Bird Johnson selected each wildflower painted on the china made for the Johnson administration.

Grace Coolidge hand-crocheted a coverlet for the Lincoln bed that features an eagle and the Liberty Bell. She had hoped that each first lady after her would contribute some piece of handiwork to the White House, but, sadly, none did. Her coverlet, too, is on display in the Renwick.

But the charm of the exhibit is in the photos that accompany many of the items and show how they were used or displayed in the White House.

The cabinet that was a gift from the emperor of Japan can be seen in photos of the children's dining room during the Harrison administration. The silver Hiawatha Boat chosen by Julia Grant is filled with flowers in an 1881 photo of the Green Room. A silver teapot and cut-glass jar can be seen in a photo of Theodore Roosevelt's breakfast tray.

There is the famous "Reagan Red" china that can be seen in the photo of Nancy Reagan at a state dinner. And a small armchair that can be seen in a photo of Barack Obama's Oval Office.

It is these photos that bring the White House, and its residents, most long gone, to life.

"We looked for the pieces that had the best stories," said Allman.


If you go

Something of Splendor: Decorative Arts from the White House

Through May 6 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum's Renwick Gallery at 17th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington. Open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. except Dec. 25. Admission is free.

A 13-minute film, "At Home in the White House," features former residents of the White House, like Susan Ford Bales and Rosalynn Carter, talking about their experiences living there.

An illustrated catalog that tells the story of the exhibit is available for $14.95.

More information, including a schedule of special events and programs, can be found at americanart.si.edu.