Red, white, and Tiffany blue

By the early 1880s advances in photographic technology afforded minutely detailed documentation of interiors, but as Seale observes of one monochromatic Arthur era Blue Room view, “The effect of this space is entirely lost in this black-and-white image.”5 A more vivid impression is convincingly conveyed by the artist Peter Waddell’s recent oil renderings commissioned by the White House Historical Association. Based on period photographs and descriptions of Tiffany’s palette and illumination, these welcome additions to White House iconography (vetted for accuracy by Seale) should inspire similar re-creations of other legendary lost interiors.

To avoid accusations of sumptuary excess, the president limited Tiffany’s wholesale renovations to the main floor Entry Hall, Cross Hall, East Room, Blue Room, Red Room, and State Dining Room, leaving the nearby Green Room and Family Dining Room intact. He shortsightedly auctioned off twenty-four wagonloads of White House heirlooms, many of which had survived in situ since the mansion was rebuilt to the designs of James Hoban after British invaders burned it in 1814. However, Arthur commissioned no new furniture and encouraged his designer to recycle many remaining pieces, which were so well integrated into the new decor that everything appeared custom-made.

Tiffany’s most celebrated component was his polychrome leaded-glass screen for the Entry Hall, behind the pedimented portico facing Pennsylvania Avenue (see Figs. 1, 1a). The mansion’s front door is now used mainly on major occasions, but before office wings were added to the White House in the early twentieth century, the main floor could be insufferably drafty. To remedy that problem, in 1837 President Martin Van Buren (1782–1862) had a wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling glass-paned partition installed within the triple archways linking the Entry Hall with the principal public rooms. In 1853 under President Franklin Pierce (1804–1869), the architect Thomas Ustick Walter replaced that wind barrier with a more substantial screen of cast iron and glass. Tiffany retained Walter’s metal framework, but substituted his own panels of translucent red, white, and blue glass to a height of about ten feet, with colorless clerestories above (see Fig. 1).

The tide of taste had begun to turn against the aesthetic movement exemplified by Tiffany in 1901 when Theodore Roosevelt succeeded William McKinley (1843–1901), who was gunned down like Garfield. Roosevelt abhorred Victorian clutter, and called in McKim, Mead and White to revamp the White House in the increasingly fashionable colonial revival style. Tiffany’s glazed foyer partition was dismantled in 1902, sent to auction, bought by a Maryland resort proprietor, and presumably destroyed when the hotel burned down in 1923.

Now we can only imagine the magical aura cast by Tiffany’s screen. “The stained-glass mosaic made the long hall continually iridescent,” Seale writes in The President’s House. “The colors did not replicate the red, white, and blue of the flag, yet carried the theme with splashes of crimson, cobalt, and white, blue-white, rosy-white, and amber-white.”6 It was the perfect backdrop for Arthur, a real-life Yankee Doodle dandy.

1 Quoted in Hugh Sidey, “The First Lady Brings History and Beauty to the White House,” Life, September 1, 1961, p. 62.
William Seale, The President’s House (White House Historical Association with the cooperation of the National Geographic Society, Washington, D. C., 1986), vol. 1, p. 531.
Ibid., p. 514.
Ibid, p. 542.
Seale, The White House: The History of an American Idea (White House Historical Association, Washington, D. C., 1992), p. 140.
Seale, The President’s House, vol. 1, p. 543.

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[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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