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Presidential decorating, for better or worse, in 'Dream House: The White House as an American Home'

December 28, 2009 |  6:33 am

From the moment in 1800 when John and Abigail Adams moved into a still-unfinished Georgian residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. to the day in March when Michelle Obama began tilling a vegetable garden on the South Lawn, the White House has been many things: residence, workplace, and perhaps most important, metaphor.


"Dream House: The White House as an American Home" meticulously documents how one building has been a mirror not only to its presidential occupants but also to the aspirations of the nation at large. The authors of the Acanthus Press title ($75) are Ulysses Grant Dietz, senior curator of decorative arts at the Newark Museum in New Jersey (and great-great grandson of our 18th president) and Sam Watters, author of "Houses of Los Angeles, 1885-1935" and the Los Angeles Times' Lost L.A. column.

They have taken more than two centuries of White House history and insightfully segmented them into six periods, beginning with the landmark's birth as a country house. As the nation evolves, so too does the White House, with pithily titled chapters detailing how changes in architecture and interior design make it more of a mansion ("Keeping Up With the Joneses") and then a palace ("Keeping Up With the Vanderbilts") before settling into a 20th century groove as the ultimate suburban house ("Keeping Up With the Cleavers"). Lest anyone challenge that last notion, look at the photo below of Dwight Eisenhower, grilling steaks on the third-floor terrace, the indoor-outdoor rattan chairs at the ready to give those presidential feet a rest.

WhiteHouseIkeonPorchPerhaps most intriguing is the final chapter, where the authors take on the legend that is Jackie O. As midcentury modernism took off, Jacqueline Kennedy revered the past, embraced antiques and famously redecorated the White House with the zeal of a museum curator. Though her refined taste made her an icon, the authors argue that Kennedy turned the White House into a shrine -- not a living, breathing, evolving home that reflected a changing nation, but rather a locked-in-time fantasy of how the American upper class lives.

"Weighed down by two centuries of tradition and Jacqueline Kennedy's revered model, today's first ladies are no longer free to experiment and change the White House," the authors say. Sasha and Malia Obama can redecorate their quarters any way they want, but if their mother were to redesign the downstairs? Good luck. Limited to what she could do inside, no wonder Michelle Obama stepped outside and made her statement in the garden.

-- Craig Nakano

Photo, top: The book's opening photo shows the Eisenhower family on Christmas Day, 1960. The authors note that the room had been designed in 1903 for Theodore Roosevelt but redecorated in 1952 for Harry Truman, with the carved oak walls painted a Colonial green and wall-to-wall carpeting installed. The golden upholstery shows the influence that Colonial Williamsburg, the Virginia historical attraction, had on suburban decorating. Says the published caption: "The history of the room was a summary of 20th-century White House decor, from the aristocratic aspirations of an imperial presidency to the nondescript tastes of an American war hero."  

Photos credited to the Dwight D. Eisenhower Library; book cover courtesy of Acanthus Press.