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America’s Most Diva President Had Tiffany Decorate the White House with ‘Wrinkled’ Disco Balls


The High Victorian practice station on what’s now the National Mall was nearly empty when the president and his secretary of state walked inside to catch a practice north. But on this steamy July day in 1881, the president wouldn’t make his practice. Instead, James Garfield was shot twice by a disgruntled madman. He would spend the following two months in agony as inept medical doctors rummaged round his organs on the lookout for the bullet and his insides grew to become contaminated till he died. For weeks, the nation, the reminiscence of Lincoln’s assassination nonetheless contemporary, waited. Waiting was all they may do, and that went for Vice President Chester A. Arthur, too. Thanks to the gunman, Charles Guiteau, a shadow hung over a person who was a nationwide afterthought. Upon finishing his lengthy fantasized revenge, Guiteau was reported to have joyfully declared, “Arthur will be president now.”

Arthur did grow to be president, and shocked the nation with how significantly he took on reform. But official Washington was in for a extra intimate shock. Upon arriving within the capital to imagine the presidency, Arthur mentioned of the White House, “I will not live in a house like this.” Instead, he employed the nation’s star inside designer, Louis Comfort Tiffany, to rework the White House into an elaborate and over-the-top spectacle you wanted to see to consider. There had been disco-ball Islamic wall sconces, gold and silver splashed about, and a multicolored big glass display screen that glittered like a dragon’s hoard. Almost all of it, together with an object now thought of one of the vital helpful in White House historical past, is totally misplaced.

This circa 1889 black and white {photograph} depicts the East Room of the White House after the Tiffany redecoration.

Library of Congress

In the lengthy checklist of people that had been by no means meant to be in cost however had been put there by destiny, Chester A. Arthur was actually, really, utterly by no means alleged to be president. A machine-politics operator who had by no means been elected to public workplace, the one factor he was identified for was being pushed out as head of the U.S. Custom House in New York when it was engulfed in a corruption scandal. In this period of weak presidents, Arthur was a lieutenant for considered one of its true powers–U.S. Sen. Roscoe Conkling of New York, who managed a wing of the Republican Party generally known as the Stalwarts.

When Conkling and firm did not get former President Ulysses S. Grant the 1880 nomination (for a 3rd time period!), darkish horse candidate James Garfield was chosen, and to carry the celebration collectively his group’s second alternative was Arthur. Thinking Garfield would lose and injury the model, Conkling opposed it. But Arthur, clearly extra self-aware, had aspirations so low that when supplied a job famously described as value lower than “a warm bucket of piss,” he advised the vituperative senator, “The office of the vice president is a greater honor than I ever dreamed of obtaining.” The outrage inside the celebration of anyone so tainted by corruption being named vice chairman was quelled by the fact that the vice chairman had no energy, and it was unimaginable to think about Arthur would ever advance past it.

But on Sept. 19, 1881, the person who was alleged to be the nation’s most forgettable vice chairman grew to become considered one of its most forgettable presidents.

Arthur was maybe our most diva president. He had as many as 80 fits, all made customized by a New York tailor. They got here in useful as this man who was born in a log cabin was identified to have a number of outfit adjustments a day and put on a tuxedo to dinner. He labored only some hours a day, and held events and dinners till the wee hours of the morning. Arthur was heavy-set and obtained round D.C. on a leather-trimmed carriage adorned together with his coat of arms painted in gilt, lamps of silverplate, gold lace curtains, and lap gown of otter fur lined with inexperienced silk. It was pulled by horses draped in blankets with the gold-thread monogram C.A.A. He dropped at the capital a French chef, and his New York City townhouse had a sitting room decked out in white and gold. Upset that the elevator he had put in within the White House was too easy, he had it redone in tufted plush.

White House Historical Association

One want solely have a look at his baronial presidential portrait to see that this was the Gilded Age president with all of the airs to reflect these of the newly rich of New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, and San Francisco. Like any good New Yorker with pretensions, he was a buyer of Tiffany & Co. and made his method to the Park Avenue Armory, accomplished in 1880, to see the brand new Veterans Room designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany (the son of Tiffany’s founder) and his group which included Stanford White, Francis Millet, Candance Wheeler, and Samuel Colman. When Arthur noticed the state of the White House—after its decor had been ignored by staid celebration poopers like Hayes after which partially become a hospital for Garfield—he determined a redecoration reflecting the nation’s standing was required and there was actually just one man for the job.

As city American households within the nineteenth century gathered massive quantities of wealth, they seemed for tactics to spend it that might showcase their lucre: garments, jewels, artwork, and houses. The homes started to be designed by skilled architects in a wide range of kinds fairly than by builders in only a handful of aesthetics, and rich Americans clamored for interiors that made as a lot of a press release as the skin. By 1881, inside ornament in America was present process a revolution from which it could by no means return. For a long time, the interiors of grand homes had been completed up by furnishings and cupboard makers, essentially the most prestigious of which was Herter Bros. who designed the inside of the biggest home in New York City historical past, Cornelius Vanderbilt II’s mansion. The craftsmanship was high notch, however the aptitude and inventive high quality was uninspired. And with the appearance of simply disseminated pictures and magazines exhibiting how every home was one upping the opposite, an inside with aptitude was very a lot in want.

At the identical time, says Jennifer Thalheimer of the Morse Museum (the place I first got here throughout photos of Tiffany’s White House decor), “there’s a lot of infighting at the National Academy of Design,” and youthful artists who now not had entry to the structural assist of the academy began “looking for a way to supplement their lives … so they looked to interior design.” The most distinguished of those pissed off artists-turned-decorators was Louis Comfort Tiffany.

He had traveled the world and tried his hand at portray and was effectively on his method to being one of many best glassmakers in historical past. He was a person of “dumbfounding versatility,” in keeping with one critic, a phrase I want would change the overused Renaissance Man. Hugh McKean, creator of Lost Treasures of Louis Comfort Tiffany, noticed that Tiffany hated the phrase “fine art … [his] entire life was a revolt against this precious attitude,” and he was decided to point out the lesser arts of design and ornamental objects could possibly be really high quality artwork.

The Blue Room as embellished by Tiffany.

Library of Congress

In 1879, after “he came to accept his shortcomings as a painter,” as Philippe Garner snidely famous, he launched a adorning firm with the painter Samuel Colman and textile designer Candace Wheeler referred to as Louis C. Tiffany and Associated Artists.

Associated Artists shortly grew to become the designers, a standing mirrored in how most of the houses in that period’s design bible, Artistic Houses, had been theirs. Tiffany was an “artistic decorator, not a regular interior decorator,” explains Thalheimer. “He’s going to put art in your home and surround you with beauty and new ideas and the most cutting edge stuff.” Today, there are solely two locations the place you’ll be able to expertise their work largely intact: Mark Twain’s home in Connecticut and the aforementioned Veterans Room within the Park Avenue Armory. The Veterans Room is an orgy of supplies and patterns so advanced and detailed your eyes can’t relaxation. Intricately carved wooden screens, a hearth of blazing Silk Road blue, and elaborate stencil work cowl each inch. At the southern finish of the armory’s corridor one finds a room completed completely by Herter Bros., which is beautiful in a wood-paneled clubhouse kind of approach however wilts compared to the “Art for Art’s Sake” tour de drive that’s Tiffany’s Veterans Room.

The Veterans Room additionally issues as a result of Chester Arthur is believed to have visited it earlier than making his determination to enlist Tiffany to redo the White House.

While exhausting to think about now—certainly, to even acknowledge now that the People’s House is something aside from good is politically harmful for presidents—the White House’s occupants usually thought it was a dump with little to no privateness, full of rats, poorly furnished, and at risk of collapsing. Mrs. Garfield had been appropriated some cash for a redecoration, nevertheless it was by no means accomplished, which left the home in disarray with unfinished pipes laying round, half-done carpentry and paint jobs, and bare home windows. When Arthur assumed the presidency he stayed on the home of his buddy Sen. John P. Jones of Nevada fairly than the White House and used the Garfield sums to complete the ornament they began. But he started visiting each day to examine the area with the pinnacle of the federal government engineering workplace.

The report put collectively from these inspections was scandalous. Servants quarters had been so dank they prompted illness, and the kitchen’s chipping whitewash usually fell into pots of meals. The White House was fairly actually sitting on a pile of shit because the pipes for a number of of the bathrooms had decayed so the waste ended up beneath the basement. The State Dining Room of all locations nonetheless had chamber pots. The report was submitted to Congress, and the Senate really handed a invoice for a couple of hundred thousand {dollars} for the White House to be torn down, changed with a reproduction for government places of work, and a brand new residence constructed to its south. But that plan died, and Arthur realized if he was to have a grand dwelling he’d need to work with the present constructing.

In May of 1882, Louis Comfort Tiffany, then 34, met with Arthur on the White House and agreed to redo the East Room, Red Room, Blue Room, the State Dining Room, and the Transverse Hall. The Green Room can be left untouched. For this herculean activity which wanted to be accomplished in six months, Tiffany can be paid a flat price of $15,000, which was three quarters what he made for the one room on the Armory. But as historian Wilson H. Faude defined, “few commissions as important as the White House existed,” and “any changes to its interiors would be noted and imitated by other decorators and clients.”

To prepared the White House for Tiffany’s imaginative and prescient, Arthur went room by room deciding which furnishings would keep and which might go. A complete of 24 wagons of what can be now priceless furnishings went out for public sale, together with Andrew Jackson’s stand-up writing desk. (Apparently none aside from former President Rutherford B. Hayes was monitoring the public sale lists and snatched up the mahogany State Dining Room carving tables.)

Tiffany introduced a crew from New York that was keen to work day and night time with solely the president allowed to go to. Plenty of objects remained, nevertheless, and Tiffany needed to incorporate or work round them. The thematic room colours additionally needed to stay, and so whereas blue, and light-weight blue specifically, had been unpopular colours in 1882, “the Blue Room was suffered to remain a blue room,” sneered Artistic Houses. That undersells what Tiffany obtained away with—one thing that’s exhausting to fathom even with photographic proof and coloured renderings.

This 2007 oil portray captures First Lady Frances Folsom Cleveland standing in the midst of the room wanting via opened home windows to the South Portico. Louis Comfort Tiffany’s 1882 redesign and redecoration of the room is represented on this portray with wealthy, daring colours.

Peter Waddell for the White House Historical Association

The Blue Room is the place the president obtained the credentials of international diplomats and greeted visitors. Oval in form, Tiffany discovered it a really perfect type to play off the thought of a robin’s egg. If you had been to go to within the daytime, which few did, it could have appeared a kind of sickly inexperienced, however at night time, when most occasions had been held beneath gaslight, it was an excellent blue. (As a protege of the painter George Inness, Tiffany was notable for his precision with the consequences of various kinds of gentle.)

Tiffany was a “dye-in-the-wool Republican,” Robert Koch writes in Louis C. Tiffany: Rebel in Glass, “and proud of having decorated the White House for President Chester A Arthur.” So on the ceiling of the Blue Room he went full nationalist. A doily-like allover sample with white and silver interlocking ovals lined the ceiling, and on the heart of every oval was the purple, white, and blue stars and stripes defend of the White House. Below the ceiling was an 8-foot-wide frieze of hand-embossed silver and grey patterns that resembled snowflakes. The colour on the wall step by step darkened from the silvery frieze to robin’s egg blue to a darkish blue wainscoting. The curtains had been additionally dyed to have three separate bands of colour to match the partitions. On the present hearth Tiffany added squares of opalescent glass.

But the true shocker was hanging on the wall: 4 round sconces influenced by Islamic design. Each was a 3-foot huge rosette of tons of of items of mirrored and coloured glass which offered a backdrop for seven unshaded gasoline jets the arms of which had been dripping with pendants of iridescent glass. The sconces, writes Koch, “must have beamed like disco balls.” One journalist remarked in his protection that these balls had been “wrinkled in order to catch light from many angles.” Thus was a stately and dour room reworked into one thing scintillating and enjoyable, and so overwhelming that you just’d (hopefully) not discover the gilt Louis XV revival furnishings and the round divan.

If the Blue Room was a glowing showpiece, it was the Red Room the place Tiffany actually flexed his colorist muscle. It’s an area during which the designer appears to say, “Oh, you want red? I’ll give you red!”

This portray by Peter Waddell depicts the Red Room in 1883 throughout the Chester A. Arthur administration, with President Arthur’s sisters, Mary and Malvine.

Peter Waddell for the White House Historical Association

“When first I had a chance to travel in the Near East and to paint where the people and the buildings are also clad in beautiful hues, the preeminence of color in the world was brought forcibly to my attention,” Tiffany would later say. “I returned to New York wondering why we made so little use of our eyes, why we refrained so obstinately from taking advantage of color in our architecture and our clothing when Nature indicates its mastership.”

For the Red Room, Tiffany continued with the thought of colour gradation. The partitions had been painted a luxurious Pompeiian purple that verged on claret whereas the wainscoting was a darker nearly currant colour. The frieze was verging on pink and, within the phrases of White House historian William Seale, lined in an abstraction of stars and stripes. The wooden trim was additionally lined in a darkish purple paint however rubbed till it was shiny.

The Tiffany furnishings and Red Room decor, together with the copper and silver ceiling in a star motif and the Herter Brothers armchairs, are together with on this composition.

Library of Congress

Already drowning in purple, Tiffany added two extra parts that might have left one gobsmacked. The first was the fireside, and for that he had the pre-existing white marble one ripped out and changed with considered one of cherry designed by Art Nouveau grasp Edward Colonna. Around the opening was a mosaic of glass tiles coloured amber and purple to boost the flickering flames inside. Around these had been panels of Japanese leather-based tinted purple set into the cherry. Above the precise mantel however beneath the present mirror was one other glass mosaic, this one with embedded glass gems. And the unique gilt mirror was framed in purple plush upholstery.

The ceiling was the opposite scene steal, as Tiffany had it painted with circles of bronze and copper stars on a gold background, varnished such that any bit of sunshine was mirrored. Most of the furnishings had been items that Tiffany repurposed, whether or not candlesticks from President James Monroe’s administration, a silk display screen gifted by Austria to Grant, Lincoln’s workplace clock, or Sevres vases from France peculiarly embellished with scenes of the conviction and sentencing of Charlotte Corday (murderer of Jean-Paul Marat). As for the piano discovered there, one critic wrote: “For its presence I believe the decorators are not responsible.”

Tiffany wasn’t some whirling adorning dervish throwing sparkle in all places. In the State Dining Room he understood that there would usually be plenty of flowers, fancy attire, and a shiny eating service so he saved issues easy. The partitions had been painted yellow (fawn, to be particular) and a collection of hammered silver reflectors had been added to gasoline brackets to lighten the area. The ceiling and frieze had been painted primrose and lemon with rosettes.

The largest of the state rooms is the East Room, and right here Tiffany was additionally restrained because the partitions had just lately been redone in white and gold. He introduced in new objects like Turkish chairs and round divans in addition to a sienna-colored Axminster rug. On the ceiling, William Seale writes, Tiffany embellished it with squares coloured rust, gold, and brown to resemble outdated wallpaper and match the amber window hangings; Artistic Houses described it on the time as a “small mosaic pattern, in silver-leaf, which easily receives the reflection of the carpet.”

In 1882 Chester A. Arthur commissioned the inside designs and ornamental arts of Louis Comfort Tiffany to make the Entrance Hall extra welcoming.

White House Historical Association

While Tiffany’s designs for the rooms of the White House had been a spectacle, one addition was undoubtedly essentially the most well-known: his glass display screen separating the doorway corridor from the transverse corridor which ran alongside the Red, Blue, and Green Rooms and related the East Room with the staircase. The display screen, theoretically, gave the president and household some privateness from visitors within the entrance. In the White House, the present display screen of smoked glass had been put in place within the 1850s, and earlier than that it was a display screen (unsexily named the “draft eliminator”) put in by White House architect James Hoban. Tiffany was already a prolific glassmaker and his kaleidoscopic leaded glass curtain was instantly seen as a masterpiece. Quite a lot of shades of purple, white, and blue had been splashed between the 4 ionic columns. WIth partitions painted a cream colour and a ceiling “stenciled with a silvery network like a spiderweb,” writes William Seale, the “stained glass made the long hall continually iridescent.” It had an impact, Century Magazine declared, that was “rich and gorgeous.” Looking via pictures of Tiffany’s theatrical White House designs, the display screen is the only real aspect that appears prefer it really belongs with its environment. It was particularly spectacular throughout state dinners, as tables even via the McKinley period can be arrange simply beneath its gem-like array.

The glass display screen was eliminated and auctioned off throughout the Roosevelt renovation, and reinstalled in a Maryland lodge. The surviving glass was destroyed in a fireplace in 1923. Note the electrical gentle bulbs alongside the underside of chandelier. The ornate wall decorations had been designed by upholsterer Edgar Yergason.

Peter Waddell for the White House Historical Association

For months, the one outdoors one who had been in a position to see the work was Arthur, however on Dec. 19, 1882, a press preview was held. The response was blended. One newspaper crowed, “No longer is the White House simply the home of a Republican president. Lo, it is the temple of high art.”

“Tiffany, a romantic,” one other mentioned, “had added whimsy, sparkle and surprise to a stately classic building.” One reporter, William Seale writes, mentioned the Red Room was “overpowering” in “richness and antiquity.” Of the display screen, most had been effusive, with one declaring, “It is so much better than any glass which can be produced in Europe today that the typical American should point to it as one of our surest titles to respect when enumerating them for the benefit of the typical foreigner in Washington.”

Illustration of a January 17, 1900 State Dinner hosted by President William McKinley and First Lady Ida Saxton McKinley within the White House Cross Hall. The well-known Tiffany glass display screen is seen within the background.

White House Historical Association

Tiffany reportedly saved all of the clippings, good and dangerous. One detrimental evaluation he would probably have held onto was in The World: “[Tiffany’s decorations] are not ideally good by any means, not ‘monumental,’ not ‘high art’ at all. In spite of all the abuse that has been heaped upon it, the White House is a fine old mansion, extremely well-planned for its purpose—except as to staircases—and being capable of being made into a beautiful building. It ought to be decorated someday from end-to-end in a truly good style with the best products of the chisel and the brush.”

Perhaps essentially the most reducing was in Artistic Houses, the place the creator damned by faint reward: “The beauty and artistic value of the Messr. Tiffany’s decorations are best appreciated by those guests who know how the White House used to look.”

As far as Washington society went, the rooms had been by and huge successful. Even Mrs. Blaine, the trenchant spouse of former Secretary of State and perpetual presidential aspirant James Blaine was compelled to concede. What she known as “the White House taint” was gone and as an alternative it confirmed “the latest style and an abandon in expense and care.”

But if Tiffany’s rise as a designer was rocket-like, his fall was even quicker. Just a couple of years after the White House was accomplished, the heavy, busy, and crowded “Victorian clutter” that he enacted was out. While Louis Comfort Tiffany’s glass and ornamental artwork are thought of extraordinarily helpful as we speak, within the years earlier than his dying they had been passé. Just 7 years after he completed his White House overhaul, First Lady Caroline Harrison was undoing a few of his work and planning to construct a wholly new residence.

While her plan was torpedoed by a vengeful congressman, it resurfaced on the flip of the century with proposals for an enlargement or completely new residence. “No little plans,” was Washington’s mantra on this interval, an perspective finest captured by palatial proposals for the vice chairman’s residence and the National Mall). After one more assassination, this time President William McKinley, one other unintended president dramatically reshaped the White House. Teddy Roosevelt and First Lady Edith turned to the senior accomplice on the earth’s largest architectural agency, Charles McKim of McKim, Mead & White. His restoration can be cruel to Tiffany’s work. When it got here to the long-lasting glass display screen, McKim famously sneered, “I would suggest dynamite.”

Beginning in 1902, McKim eliminated practically all traces of Tiffany’s work and bought off the furnishings. When he was tasked with the job, McKim proposed to “take [the White House] down stone by stone … and rebuild it; and not another architect in the country can make a finer or more appropriate residence for the President of the United States.” He turned the White House into the paragon of Colonial American decor we affiliate it with as we speak, however with an magnificence on par with European palaces. As to those that lamented the misplaced pizzazz of Tiffany, The New York Times went on the assault, declaring the critics had been upset by “the simplicity and moderation, the chastity and good taste, which belong to the restoration of a Colonial Mansion” and simply chafing on the “absence of that ‘palatial magnificence’ which is to be found in so many hotels and so many steamboats and so many barroms.”

But in a morality play of what goes round comes round, McKim’s overhaul would additionally fail to face the take a look at of time. Yet one other unintended president, this time Harry S. Truman after Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s dying in 1945, would redo the White House. This time it was a full intestine job down to only its shell. A decade later, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy’s model of Colonial design (a “restoration” not redesign, she would emphasize) would in the end win out.

As for that Tiffany glass display screen? It reportedly ended up in a Baltimore lodge and disappeared for good when the lodge burned down in 1923.



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