March 2009 | The ambitious transformation of the White House by Jacqueline Kennedy (1929–1994), which began in 1961—from a hotel-like assemblage of department store reproductions to a living museum of fine American antiques—was so greatly admired that many people believed those interiors would be thenceforth immutable. But nothing at the White House is forever, as that first lady came to realize about her own work there. While I was interviewing her for a New York Times Magazine article in 1980 on White House interiors since her restoration project, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis told me with fatalistic detachment, “You know, in another hundred years it will be just one more chapter in the history of the White House.”
However, certain chapters in that two-century saga, including hers, remain more memorable than others. Another was the decorative reconception commissioned in 1882 by President Chester Alan Arthur (Fig. 2) from Louis Comfort Tiffany, which was every bit as thorough-going as Kennedy’s and yet its absolute antithesis. Even though the principal Kennedy interiors were executed by the incomparable haute monde decorator Stéphane Boudin (1888–1967) of the venerable Paris firm Maison Jansen, his client insisted this was no capricious undertaking. “It would be a sacrilege merely to redecorate—a word I hate,” Mrs. Kennedy said at the time. “It must be restored, and that has nothing to do with decoration.”1
Whatever term of art one might choose to avoid the frivolous implications of redecorating, Boudin’s historically informed approach makes Arthur’s choice of Tiffany seem amazingly daring. Arthur engaged the designer six years after the United States Centennial of 1876, which had awakened interest in our country’s estimable decorative arts heritage and the very notion of “antiques.” But such considerations played no part in a remake intended as the last word in stylish domesticity. Today Tiffany’s White House interiors (which lasted no more than twenty years) have taken on a historical aura all their own, as superlative examples of the aesthetic movement.
Apart from Presidents Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826), the architect of Monticello, and Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919), a patron of McKim, Mead and White, no American head of state has taken a more personal interest in White House décor than the luxury-loving Arthur, an indolent Republican party hack thrust into the nation’s highest office after the assassination of President James A. Garfield (1831–1881). Before Congress enacted a new income tax in 1913, the federal government got its revenues through import tariffs and excise taxes. There was no juicier political plum than being collector of customs for the Port of New York, the nation’s richest trade entrepôt, a post Arthur held before he became president.
Though no evidence proves that Arthur was on the take, he enjoyed a lavish lifestyle well above the means of a public servant. After he suddenly became president, he astonished his critics and confounded his cronies by becoming, of all things, a reformer. He supported a new civil service system that curtailed payback patronage and wrecked any hopes for his reelection. In 1882 Arthur was diagnosed with terminal Bright’s disease, which may have increased his determination to die with honor.
He may have been self-indulgent and dandified, but there was a serious political purpose behind Arthur’s decorating spree. After Garfield’s protracted deathwatch, writes historian William Seale, “The American people were exhausted by months of anxiety and sorrow. No matter what Arthur had been before, he realized that he must now inspire confidence and restore the nation’s optimism…and he believed the image he was projecting was vital to his Presidency.”2