Having just visited the White House in all its holiday finery, Maggie and I weren’t sure what to expect from our more ordinary tour this past week, but since there would be fewer people, I was hoping for more stories. The rooms and hallways seemed a little empty, but it did allow us to focus on different details from the extravagant decorations. On the lower floor, we could peek into the library, the china room, and the vermeil room, but since we couldn’t enter, we didn’t get a strong impression of these rooms. I did learn from the sign that vermeil is fancy gilded silver, and I continue to admire the built-in shelving and bookcases that my organized soul loves.
I had thought that by visiting as part of the regular routine we would have a guided tour, but as we entered the building, the sign informed us that we were to proceed at our own pace, and there were Secret Service agents in each room to answer questions. I decided that this arrangement could work in our favor since we would not necessarily be tied to the speed and interests of the families with children who entered at the same time that we did.
I announced to Maggie that in such situations, members of the Pence family would set a goal to ask at least one question in each room. The key is to ask open-ended questions if possible to provide an opening for knowledgeable and friendly guides to tell stories. It’s all about the stories! Photography was not allowed on this tour, so all of the pictures in this post are borrowed from various websites.
On the second floor, the first room we saw was the East Dining Room. (What is this room used for?) The East Dining Room is the largest room in the White House, so it is used for bill-signing ceremonies, and exceptionally large press conferences for which they recreate the press room in the East Dining room. The announcement that Osama Bin Laden had been killed was made in this room. On a lighter note, Amy Carter used the space for roller skating, there have been several weddings there, and even one high school prom. (When a winning sports team comes to meet the President, where does that happen?) We were told that the locations of such meetings depends on how large the team is, and when it comes to meeting the President, teams seem to be extremely large. Meeting with the Super Bowl Champions or the World Series Champions usually happens in the East room. Meeting with the 600+ members of the US Olympic team was held out on the lawn.
The adjacent Green Room is a much smaller parlor-type room. The Secret Service man in that room was assiduously studying a stack of papers, so I waited until he looked up. “Cramming?” I asked. He explained that he hadn’t done the upstairs duty in several years, so he was trying to remember all the dates. (Can you tell us who is in each of the portraits?) Maggie and I would usually start with a brief conference to see if we could identify any of the Presidents and then ask for help. I was extremely impressed that our expert’s cramming was apparently merely to put the polish on a powerful command of the information for the room. He proceeded to look at us while identifying each painting; he didn’t need to look to verify which picture was in each location, and he would simply gesture behind him toward the appropriate spot. (What does this room get used for?) Each of the rooms gets used 2-5 times per week for greeting and meeting with guests. Tours are only held in the morning, so if you are the last person through on the 11 AM tour, there will be a staff person following behind you unrolling the carpets, removing the stanchions, and readying the rooms for regular use.
The central oval room on the second floor is the Blue Room, where we had seen the official White House Christmas tree. The chandelier is removed during the holidays, and the tree is anchored and electrified from the ceiling. (Can you tell us who is in each of the portraits?) The Secret Service man pointed to a sequence of paintings and replied, “Two, Three, Four, and Five.” I had noticed in the Green Room that each President was identified with his number, but I rather liked the challenge of trying to sort out for myself, “Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe.” (What does this room get used for?) Guests often assemble in this room before they are greeted by the President or First Lady. Someone else asked, “Is this furniture comfortable?” The guide replied that one time he had been invited to an official reception and was present in the room as a guest, so he made a point to try out all of the furniture. He said that indeed, it was all pretty comfortable, but he particularly liked the sofa and the chair by the window where the sunshine seems to poof up the cushion and make it extremely soft.
The Red Room is the third of the parlor-style rooms, and it is apparently a favorite for doing televised interviews. Over the fireplace hangs a portrait of Angelica Van Buren, the daughter-in-law of President Martin Van Buren (#8), who served as his hostess during the White House years, since he had been a long time widower. Angelica van Buren was the niece of Dolly Madison, so I’m sure she did a splendid job. (What is your favorite room?) The Blue room. I like the stories. (What is your favorite story in the Blue Room?) That Adams and Jefferson were each determined to outlive each other, but they ended up dying on the same day on July 4th.
I should have known that in the State Dining room, the answer to “What do people do in this room?” was “Eat!” The Secret Service agent in this room was stationed at the far end, but even as we entered, I was aware that he was talking to the tourists saying, “Don’t you have any questions? Really? No questions?” I felt he was demonstrating that my question campaign not only was fun for us, but that the agents really did want to share their knowledge if only people would provide an opening. Confident in the knowledge that I was preventing the agents from dying of boredom, I advanced. (What is your favorite story in this room?) He asked if we knew about the Lincoln portrait, and it turned out that we received a different version of the story from the one we had heard only a few rooms back. This agent cited the curator of the White House as his source, and we were quite willing to believe him.
About four years after President Lincoln (#16) died, there was a contest to paint Lincoln’s portrait. G.P.A. Healy had done a portrait some years earlier, so he painted another for the contest. His offering did NOT win, but Robert Todd Lincoln felt that this portrait was the best likeness that he had ever seen of his father, and he bought the painting. The painting was then later bequeathed to the White House by Robert Todd Lincoln’s widow, and that was where the stories diverged. The urban legend is that the gift of the painting included the stipulation that no other portraits be hung in the same room as this Lincoln portrait. Our agent explained that according to the curator, the White House never accepts any gifts with strings attached, and Lincoln’s portrait being alone in the room was far more because the walls of the State Dining Room are so intricately carved that to add additional paintings would detract either from the walls or from the portrait of Lincoln, himself. Additionally, after the earthquake in 2011 when some repainting was required in the cross hall, the portraits of Kennedy (#35) and Reagan (#40) were displayed on easels in the State Dining room, so Lincoln was not alone during that time.
The second story that we were offered in this room came without our asking and focused on the White House prayer carved into the fireplace mantel. It was difficult to see from our angle, but the agent explained that at some point, FDR (#32) was reading a book in the Residence, and in the book he found a letter from John Adams (#2) to his wife, Abigail, who at the time was still in Philadelphia waiting to move to the new White House. At the end of the letter was this prayer:
“I Pray Heaven to Bestow the Best of Blessings on THIS HOUSE and All that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but Honest and Wise Men ever rule under this Roof.”
This prayer was carved into the marble mantel and stayed there until Truman (#33) left office. He liked it so much that he took the mantel with him. It wasn’t until Jacqueline Kennedy started the White House Historical Society in the 1960s that there were any constraints on the décor or what came and went from the White House, so there was no recourse when Truman refused to return his prize. The current mantel is a reproduction, and the original is apparently on display at the Truman library.
I believe that the only way to get tickets to the White House these days is to request them through your Senator or Congressperson, and you need to do it at least 21 days in advance. I do recommend it, so get your tickets and go ask questions. It’s all about the stories!