America's Mansion

Jay Johnson -- A business opportunity at work recently took me to Washington DC for the day. DC is my home town (actually, it's more proper to say that it's my "home district"), and I have gone back only a handful of times in the past 50+ years. Time is catching up with me.

So it was with a real sense of excitement that I went back to my home district, and made my way to a 9 a.m. meeting. We got our business accomplished by noon, we went out for lunch with our hosts, and during the meal conversation, I learned that we were just eight blocks away from the White House.

whitehouse.jpgWow, I thought. I must see the White House before I go back to New York City. I'm so close.

When I did consulting work for Weekly Reader (yes, the classroom magazine you fondly remember from your childhood is still very much alive and kicking!), I had the fun of putting together a stand-up poster of the White House. It was an artistic view of the front of the mansion by a children's book illustrator, a favorite of Laura Bush who had illustrated one of the Bushes' holiday greeting cards.

The illustrator, Cheryl Shaw Barnes, has done charming books about Washington DC and the legislative process for young children (like House Mouse, Senate Mouse).  She was sketching the White House for the Weekly Reader project, and she had gotten special permission from Mrs. Bush to stand on the front lawn to get a better view of all the details.

She called me on her cell phone as she was sketching, all worried. "Jay, I'm on the White House lawn and I'm looking at the front view. The Bushes changed the curtains on many of the windows and they look like they belong on a trailer! Is it alright if I draw them differently so they look classier?"

I look back on that funny sidebar to the project and am amazed that design changes can be so easily made to the White House. It is, after all, an American icon. I would never have thought that you could put low-end-looking draperies in the White House! That's like putting a smiley face button on the Statue of Liberty, or hanging a giant swingset from the top of the Gateway Arch. You just don't touch national landmarks!

But this landmark is unique, isn't it? The White House is a home, after all. And all its presidential families have redecorated and repurposed this mansion to make it more comfortable for them while they are briefly there. (And some more briefly than others. Did you know that William Henry Harrison just lived there for 32 days? He caught pneumonia right after his inauguration and never recovered, making his the shortest presidency on record.)

Theodore Roosevelt hung a huge moose head over the fireplace in the State Dining Room and held boxing and wrestling matches in the East Room. Each president and his family have put their unique design stamp on this special place.

Until the Civil War, the White House was the largest house in the United States. That's a cool fact, huh? But it's also a bit sad. The president and her (someday) or his family should, by rights, live in the largest house in the country. It's the toughest job, after all. But now the largest mansion probably belongs to an oil barron or a hedge fund captain.

I was astounded when I saw the White House, standing at a distance from the mansion on Pennsylvania Avenue, looking through a large black iron fence along the front of the lawn. Secret service and DC police were patrolling the area. My surprise at seeing the White House was that it was beautifully designed, yet it seemed smaller than I had expected.

It's a mansion, and it's big. But it's not ostentatious or Trump-like glitzy and rambling. Its compact design and elegant porte cochere is only one-fifth the size of the grand "presidential palace" originally envisioned in 1791 by Pierre Charles L'Enfant's master plan for the city of Washington, and personally planned and supervised by George Washington.

It's fascinating to look further into the White House's architectural and design history. One tidbit I really enjoyed was Chester A. Arthur's 1880s dislike of the White House, which he thought had no charm. He brought in Louis Comfort Tiffany to make extension renovations and design changes to the mansion, and had 24 wagon loads of "old furniture and junk" hauled away to a warehouse and sold. The White House has undergone major design changes and remodelings, just like any other American home.

Of course it would be nice if my house had Tiffany decor. Dream on!

In the over 300 home videos contained in my Design2Share Video Diary on YouTube, you will see examples where I have taken my video camera -- a sturdy palm-sized Radio Shack $99 camtastic Sanyo special -- and taken videos from my travels. I had my camera with me during my DC trip and shot the White House at the same time a protest for a "Free Cambodia" was going on in a park across Pennsylvania Avenue from the executive mansion. Click on this link to view my video.

It was interesting to suddenly realize that a house is a rich symbol of this country, in a way that no other house can claim. It's truly our most individual and personalized landmark and national symbol. And in a very real sense, we all live there.

But now I'm wondering if we could help the current occupants pick out better drapes!

Mansions. Any comments from our readers? Have you fallen in love with one, like perhaps one of the Newport, RI lovelies? Thank you for your post . . . .


Photo Credit: Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco

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