Current & Coming  |  By Wendell Garrett


March 6, 2009  |  So during the weeks that [President] Arthur lived in General Butler's old home he generally came to the Executive Mansion every evening after dinner, and made a thorough inspection of the offices and state apartments and living rooms above them. Night after night he would go from room to orders to change this and that according to his own taste.

---William Henry Crook, Memories of the White House: The Home Life of Our Presidents from Lincoln to Roosevelt, comp. and ed. Henry Rood (1911)

When James A. Garfield died some eighty days after he was wounded by an assassin's bullet in 1881, Chester Alan Arthur became president of the United States. Born in the Vermont farming community of Fairfield, the son of a Baptist minister, he graduated from Union College and taught school before moving to New York, where he was admitted to the bar in 1854 and entered politics. Six feet, two inches tall, heavily built but well-proportioned, he looked the part of a president. A dandy in dress and a gourmand at the table, he carried himself with impressive dignity that earned him the sobriquet "Gentleman Boss." His biographer Thomas C. Reeves observed that Arthur lived in "the world of expensive Havana cigars, Tiffany silver, fine carriages, and grand balls; the ‘real' world where men manipulated, plotted, and stole for power and prestige and riches that bought both."

Arthur possessed a magnificent sense of aesthetic style and taste and undertook three months of renovations and redecoration at the White House. As chronicled by Martin Filler in this issue, he selected for the task Louis Comfort Tiffany, who was just beginning to create a reputation for daring approaches to decorative design. Tiffany's pièce de résistance was the screen that separated the Entrance Hall from the Cross Hall. Few presidents have been more concerned with the ceremonial and the symbolic than Arthur, which no doubt explains why the center of the screen, the first thing visitors saw as they entered the White House, was filled with patriotic motifs of eagles surrounding a shield and the monogram "US" in red, white, and blue.

Detail of Chester Alan Arthur [1829-1886] by Daniel Huntington (1816-1906), 1885. White House Historical Association, Washington.

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