The first thing that strikes you about the house is how beautiful it is. The second thing that strikes you is how comfortable it is. The third thing that strikes you is how unexpected the first two things are in this most public of family mansions, the White House.
"We're not a large museum, but we have one of the largest collections of American decorative arts in the country," says Betty C. Monkman, associate curator of the White House. Ms. Monkman will deliver a slide lecture on some of the house's treasures Friday as part of the annual Baltimore Museum Antiques Show.
Among items she'll be talking about are: a collection of elaborate gilt objects ordered from France by James Monroe in 1817, including a 13 1/2 -foot-long "plateau" centerpiece; a pair of unusual circa 1810 worktables, attributed to Duncan Phyfe, that when opened virtually explode with drawers, trays and compartments; and a rare mahogany secretary-bookcase, attributed to the French-born cabinetmaker Charles-Honore Lannuier, with graceful Gothic-style doors.
The president's house is celebrating its first 200 years this year; thecornerstone was laid Oct. 13, 1792. George Washington chose the site and approved the architectural plan, but the house still wasn't finished when John and Abigail Adams moved in in June of 1800.
Over the years the house has alternately been opulently filled and disastrously plundered, and it may be the most-rehabbed house in America, as inadequate construction, grand designs and changing tastes all played a role.
Only one item in the house is known to have been there since 1800: the portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart that Dolley Madison rescued as she fled the invading British in 1814. It fell to James Monroe to refurbish the reconstructed house, and he filled it with French and American furniture and objects. A few other objects dating to this time -- a gilt pier table from Bellange of Paris, which now sits in the entrance hall, the bronze-dore pieces (including that huge centerpiece), a mahogany table with a marble top in the center of the Blue Room -- have never left the collection.
"One good thing about the White House," Ms. Monkman says with a smile, "all the bills were kept in the National Archives." That and the fact that many inventories were taken over the years makes it easy to catalog items belonging to the house.
It is, alas, in many cases, a catalog of loss; in two centuries, many items vanished, many were destroyed, and many were auctioned off. Since World War II, however, interest in the house as a national treasure has been growing. Then-first lady Jacqueline Kennedy's televised tour, focusing on her efforts to return the house to its federal grandeur, sparked a restoration process that is still going on. Some of the "lost" pieces of furniture have been returned, purchased from or donated by subsequent owners.
The suite of gilded French empire furniture in the Blue Room, part of Monroe's purchases for the house, is an example of items that have come home. "All of that furniture was sold in 1860, right on the eve of the Civil War," Ms. Monkman says. "It had been in there almost 50 or 60 years, and tastes had changed. They wanted something Victorian -- they wanted something more fashionable."
There are still Victorian objects in the house -- the stately Lincoln bed, for instance, purchased by Mary Lincoln for her husband and used ever since by presidential family and guests, and the Gorham mirrored silver "plateau" centerpiece in the Family Dining Room called "Hiawatha's Boat," purchased in 1876 by the wife of Ulysses Grant. The boat was inspired by the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem. It has a silver Hiawatha sitting in the stern, delicate silver "rigging," and mirror "water." The entire object rests on the backs of six silver bears; atop the mast is a tiny silver squirrel. On each side is a line from the poem. "Swift or slow at will he glided, veered to right or left at pleasure," reads one side; "All alone went Hiawatha, through the clear transparent water," reads the other.
There are many objects of Maryland provenance in the house. Among them is a mahogany bookcase-desk in the Diplomatic Reception Room, which was made in Annapolis in 1797 by John Shaw. The same room has panoramic wallpaper called "Views of North America," first printed in France in 1834 by Zuber et cie. The paper was originally installed in a house in Thurmont. It was rescued just before that house was demolished and donated to the White House.
For all the rare and remarkable objects in it, the house retains an air of comfortable style. Everything is used: The sofas are sat on; cups are put down on the tables; the chairs are pulled up in conversational groupings. There's a cheerful mix of objects and arrangements from successive generations of first families, and the graceful proportions of the much-renovated rooms keep the house from chilly majesty.