In February 1962, Charles Collingswood, a CBS news correspondent, got the tour of a lifetime from a woman whose efforts to preserve and improve “the people’s house” would set the standard of the conservatorship of historic government buildings.
Bringing to life the work of one of America’s most beloved first ladies, Jackie Kennedy, was Katherine Gillirand, docent manager of the JFK Library in Boston, in a presentation hosted virtually by the Mattapoisett Museum.
As Kennedy led Collingswood and the world through the renovated spaces, she spoke in hushed tones that required one to pay attention to her every word. Her movements were graceful and balanced, not rushed or hasty, granting time for the viewer to take in all that was displayed. As she described paintings, furnishings, wall coverings, and rugs, one was transported into the rooms never before seen by most people, rooms within a structure meant to stand as a bastion of democracy. Kennedy would create a place that not only spoke to that role but to the history that had taken place within its walls. As the young folks today might say, “Jackie was in the house,” but it was no simple home; it was the White House.
If you are of a certain age, you may recall the television program, a first, that brought the world inside the country’s most important structure on a tour given by Kennedy after restoration was well underway. From green room to blue room and from Lincoln’s bedroom to the Oval Office, we witnessed her tireless efforts to showcase the interior spaces as she believed they deserved, like a museum.
Gillirand said that Kennedy held a vast interest in history, culture, and art and, as a small child, had toured the White House. However, the young Kennedy’s takeaway was that other buildings in D.C. were far more interesting. Thus, when she returned decades later as the first lady at the age of 31, she proclaimed, “The White House must be restored.” She believed that the structure had to speak to the whole history of the presidency, Gillirand said, and that would require the best possible examples of period furnishings, art objects, wallpapers, and, well, just about everything.
Going back briefly to the building of the White House in 1792, Gillirand talked about the architect who won the contest for designing the building. James Hobin’s White House would be a Georgian mansion with Palladian features styled after the Leinster House in Dublin, which today houses the Irish legislature.
There were at least two phases of renovations done in subsequent years, one in 1814 after it was burned by the British in the War of 1812, which continued through 1817. Then in 1902, there was a large-scale renovation that added the neo-classical west wing. Probably the largest of all projects to improve the structure came in 1949 when Truman was president, and the infrastructure of the building was deemed unsound. Gillirand said, “The renovation was so expensive it was furnished with department store furnishing and reproduction pieces.” Today the White House has 132 rooms. In a sad commentary on how first ladies were once treated, after Lincoln’s death, Mary Todd Lincoln was penniless. She was forced to sell off their furniture to support her family.
It is worthy to note, and Gillirand stated, “No taxpayer money was used” in the Kennedy restoration project. She said that Kennedy asked museums to loan American works of art to the White House and that average citizens sent many pieces, large and small, directly. “Most of those items were returned,” Gillirand said.
Kennedy was also a prime mover in establishing a law, passed in 1961, that in essence says that first families may not remove White House pieces or take them as theirs; furthermore, items in the White House will be curated.
In spite of Kennedy’s eye for detail, organizational skills, and ability to mount such a significant effort, she did not have a written plan, Gillirand pointed out. “This house will always grow,” Kennedy said, but she was saddened that original pieces were missing. Kennedy’s informal plan was shaped by what she could acquire or find in storage. During the renovation, there was a carpentry and a fabric shop. She was a hands-on manager whose vision will remain on view for centuries to come.
Gillirand pointed to Kennedy’s deep sense of responsibility to bring, not only to America but also to the world, a White House that spoke to the office’s history. And she did it all in a very brief three years.
In rounding out her comments, Gillirand said that of all the presidents, the Nixons collected more items for the White House than the Kennedys. She also said that while the presidents may have historic pieces placed in their private residence area, not all curated pieces may be moved.
To hear the full presentation, visit Mattapoisett Museum’s YouTube channel. Visit JFKlibrary.org for more information on Kennedy’s renovation project.
By Marilou Newell