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The White House, from country home to museum

January 18, 2010 |  1:37 pm

State Jackie Kennedy's transformation of the White House in 1961 from practically a lived-in suburban home to a pristine museum -- the results of which were enshrined on a hit TV tour -- was the first time many Americans were given such an intimate glimpse into the presidential residence.

This was not the first time the White House had been renovated. It has gone through several key transformations since its first occupant, John Adams, took up residence in 1800.

In "Dream House: The White House as an American Home," authors Ulysses Grant Dietz and Sam Watters present a photographic history of the most famous address in America. Told in the context of design, architecture and landscaping, the book describes how the White House mutated from home to monument to museum.

"Up until the 1960s, the White House was reflective of what a contemporary American home should be," said Dietz, curator of Decorative Arts at New Jersey's Newark Museum and a descendant of the 18th president.

Pic The emblematic home, designed by Irish-born architect James Hoban, winner of a national competition, was the dream of George Washington, who never lived to see its completion. Hoban was strongly influenced by the still-standing Leinster House in Dublin. Architecturally it was a balance of European aristocracy and self-made American. The nation's leaders wanted to separate themselves from the British monarchy but also wanted a monument that represented the new idea of democracy to the rest of the world.

It was the ideal American home, at once mirroring national trends and setting the standards to follow. For example, Henry Huntington took a cue from the redesign of 1903, which was modeled after the palatial Robber Baron houses of the time. The English Georgian detailing of the entrance hall of Huntington House in San Marino, which began construction in 1908, closely resembled similar changes in the White House.

After surviving a fire in 1814 at the hands of the British, the Monroes added a French aristocratic spin with high-end designs that set the tone for the elite in 1817. In the post-Civil War age, the Grants upgraded the house from a villa to something bigger and more elaborate during the Gilded Age. Grant's wife, Julia, had a billiard room built for him off the state dining room.

"After WWI, the suburban palace model of Teddy Roosevelt became irrelevant and bizarre," Dietz said. The downstairs became state rooms for ceremonial purposes and the upstairs was relegated to living quarters. Woodrow Wilson was the first president to live in these separate worlds.

During Harry Truman's tenure the house was close to collapse because of structural changes, so it was gutted, adding modern upgrades such as steel plumbing, electricity and dropped ceilings.

Eisenhower It was Jackie Kennedy who established the White House Historical Assn., the gatekeepers of the White House today. Her relationship to the White House was unusual in that she did not view the White House as a home. "It was turned into a shrine of Kennedy's Upper East Side New Yorker's taste and hasn't changed much since," said co-author and architecture critic Watters, adding that Henry Francis DuPont, who helped oversee Kennedy's renovations, based much of the interior on his own home, Winterthur Estate in Delaware.

"I realized that something had changed in the last generation since the Kennedys," Watters said. "Our styles and tastes have considerably changed demographically since then. Both authors agree that today's White House needs a tuneup to reflect a changing America.

Dietz will be discussing the book at the Los Angeles Country Museum of Art on Jan. 23.

-- Liesl Bradner

Images: (Top) The State Dining Room, as reimagined by McKim, Mead and White for President and Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt, c.1903. Credit: Library of Congress. (Middle) Exotic garden along the north portico, Photo 1880s. New York Public Library. (Bottom) The Eisenhower family on Christmas Day 1960; Acanthus Press