All the Presidents' Homes
Turns out our fearless leaders -- George Washington, in particular -- liked to dabble in interior design when they weren't running a country.
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So you think your taste is "eclectic"? And that this is a new thing, huh? Eclectic is just a big word for "we didn’t buy everything at one time." Not only that, eclecticism is not new. As a matter of fact, it has been around forever, or at least it seems that way if you take a look at presidential homes.
This President’s Day let’s reflect back on the very First Family. That’s right, ol’ George and the Mrs., Martha Washington, had a huge influence on this country, not only politically, but in terms of interior design. And it wasn’t just Martha doing the decorating. George was quite the interior design whiz himself.
- Visitors wanting an audience with Thomas Jefferson at Monticello were seated in 28 Windsor chairs in the entry hall, which was filled with Old Master paintings and a marble statue of the mythic princess Ariadne.
- In the drawing room of president James Monroe's Virginia home, the French wallpaper resembles a tapestry.
- Theodore Roosevelt's dream home in Oyster Bay, N.Y., was called Sagamore Hill. Its interiors were a combination of feminine and masculine tastes.
Over the years, the Washingtons added to their estate and embellished its interior. Objects were purchased through George’s London agent and shipped overseas to Mount Vernon. A good many other items were acquired from family and friends. Sound familiar?
Not only that, but George, not Martha, supervised the home’s interior design. This was typical of 18th-century gentlemen. GW, Tom Jefferson (check out Monticello) and their ilk all liked to dabble in design when they weren’t trying to start a country.
Martha, though known to have acquired only one piece of furniture during the couple’s tenure at Mount Vernon (the Cinquefoil Cluster poster bed in the Blue Bedroom), can be credited for providing the impetus for the home’s interior decoration. Apparently bachelor George needed a bit of gentle prodding before he got going interior-design-wise. Not long after the Washingtons' marriage in 1759, orders for furniture increased dramatically. Atta girl, Martha!
Washington described his taste as "neat and fashionable." In its mature stage the home reflected English, French and American influences and furnishings. Did someone just say "eclectic"? The furnishings consisted of French fauteuil and bergere chairs in the Louis XVI style, a Federal-style sewing table, Philadelphia Chippendale dining chairs, rococo candle stands and a Hepplewhite sofa.
America, prior to the 1930s (and the advent of beige and white interiors borrowed from black-and-white movies — but that's another story), had always been famous for its delightfully colored interior spaces. Mount Vernon’s interior coloration reflects the "colorful" (in more ways than one) era in which it was designed. In the formal dining room, for instance, George used a favorite shade of verdigris on the walls, a color he termed "grateful to the eyes."
All in all, Mount Vernon was a place of both business and pleasure, where the greats of the age gathered. The influence Mount Vernon and other presidential homestyles had on the American home, and still have today, can never be diminished.
Mark McCauley is a professional member of the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) and is author of Color Therapy at Home (Rockport Publishers, 2000) and Interior Design for Idiots (Great Quotations Publishing Company, 1995). He is senior designer at Darleen's Interiors in Naperville, Ill. Visit his website at www.colortherapyinc.com.
Mount Vernon is the quintessential American home, made for hospitality and functionality. From correspondence between the Washingtons during the 18th century, a good deal is known about the creation of Mount Vernon’s interiors.
The site for Mount Vernon, originally named Little Hunting Creek Plantation, was purchased in 1674 by George’s half-brother Lawrence. He renamed it after British admiral Edward Vernon, whom Lawrence had served under in the West Indies. Imagine that: Mount Vernon, our nation’s ancestral home, named after a British admiral.
The estate George inherited in 1754 upon Lawrence’s death comprised 2,100 acres. Washington expanded those possessions to more than 8,000 acres. Initially, the home was one and a half stories, with four small rooms on the main floor, two parlors, a dining room and a bedroom. The Washingtons increased the size of the home by adding another story and constructing the library, more bedrooms and the formal dining hall. Whew! That’s some renovation. The original GW used the library as an office, with an Aitkin tambour secretary-desk, which is still on display today.
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