The Off-White House

How much can an incoming president change the décor at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.?

Ever since Barack and Michelle Obama toured the White House on Nov. 11, the press has been speculating about the couple’s redecoration agenda. On Thursday, the Associated Press asked several interior designers to offer advice. Taniya Nayak of HGTV’s Designed To Sell said the “stone, fabrics, and flooring” of the Green Room should be made from green products; Charles B. Smith of Charles Smith & Associates thinks the state dining room should glow “with soft colors” like “pale yellows, ‘pêche,’ creams and white.” But how much control does the first family really have over the appearance of the White House?

Quite a bit. Every four years, Congress appropriates money to maintain and redecorate the 132-room executive mansion. (George W. and Laura Bush were allocated $100,000 for the president’s second term.) For the living quarters, which are located on the top two floors, the first family has significant leeway. It usually falls to the president’s wife to supervise paint jobs and to acquire new furniture, wall hangings, and bedding. If, however, the president’s family wants to alter the appearance of historic guest suites (like the Lincoln Bedroom) or any of the public spaces on the ground and first floors (like the Green Room and the state dining room), they must consult the Committee for the Preservation of the White House. (The curator of the White House, the director of the National Gallery of Art, and other luminaries belong to this committee, which Lyndon Johnson established by executive order in 1964.) State rooms are generally refurbished once a decade, often with funds from the White House Historical Association.

For both public and private spaces, the president’s family can sort through first-rate spoils instead of relying on shopping trips. There’s a White House storage house with old furniture (like four-poster beds) and an art collection with about 500 sculptures, drawings, and paintings (including works by Norman Rockwell and Georgia O’Keeffe *) obtained as gifts or by previous first families and the White House curator. Traditionally, presidents select portraits of their favorite predecessors to line the walls. For the Oval Office, George W. Bush chose a painting called A Charge To Keep. He often tells visitors that it depicts Methodist circuit riders—missionaries who spread the Good Word across the Alleghenies in the 19th century. It actually depicts a horse thief fleeing a mob. Each president—or his wife—designs a rug for the Oval Office bearing the presidential seal.

First families may also choose to oversee large-scale home improvements and structural changes. The Kennedys commissioned a swimming pool; Nixon built a one-lane bowling alley below the driveway leading to the North Portico. Obama is thinking about constructing a basketball court. Jimmy Carter famously installed solar panels on the White House grounds that Ronald Reagan removed. George W. and Laura Bush added low-flow faucets and toilets, solar heating, and CFL bulbs.

All the original White House furnishings were destroyed in 1814, when the British set fire to the building. (The only object from the earliest days of the republic that’s still in the White House is a portrait of George Washington.) Subsequently, presidents and their wives furnished the residence according to taste. James Madison favored French design; Martin Van Buren decorated a room with silver wallpaper and light-blue satin. (It’s been called the Blue Room ever since.) Queen Victoria presented Rutherford B. Hayes with a desk built from the timbers of the HMSResolute; most presidents since have sat behind it in the Oval Office. FDR commissioned a modification for the desk in 1944—a front panel to hide his wheelchair—and Reagan raised it a couple of inches to accommodate his chair.

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Explainer thanks William Bushong of the White House Historical Association.

* Correction, Nov. 24, 2008: This article originally misspelled the name of the artist Georgia O’Keeffe. (Return to the corrected sentence.)