The Residence - Inside the Private World of The White House (4 page)

BOOK: The Residence - Inside the Private World of The White House
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The residence staff has its own cafeteria, dining room, lounge, and storage areas in the basement mezzanine (actually a full floor), located under the North Portico. Their cafeteria is separate from the main kitchen on the Ground Floor where meals are prepared for the first family and for formal occasions, including state dinners. (In addition, there is the small kitchen on the second floor of the residence that is exclusively used to prepare intimate family meals.) White House workers have traditionally gathered in the basement cafeteria to eat, talk, and unwind. For years, this was
where the staff came to enjoy traditional Southern home cooking, including fried chicken, corn bread, and black-eyed peas, lovingly prepared by a team of African American cooks, including a woman named Miss Sally, who always wore elaborate hats when she wasn’t working and loved to tease her colleagues—sometimes swearing like a sailor—when she served them. While the basement cafeteria was discontinued recently in an apparent cost-saving measure—much to the chagrin of the workers—it’s still a gathering place, where workers bring their own food and sit down to eat and catch up.

Occasionally even top political aides come downstairs to dine with residence workers. Reggie Love, Obama’s former personal assistant—known as his “body man”—grew so close to some of the butlers that he would eat with them on weekends in the kitchen when the cafeteria for West Wing staffers, known as the Navy Mess, was closed. Love left the White House in 2011, but he still plays cards with the White House butlers when he’s in town.

T
HE
W
EST
W
ING
is home to the Oval Office and to the president’s political staff. The East Wing houses the offices of the first lady and her staff. Walking between the two wings is roughly the equivalent of walking across a football field.

Every morning members of the staff have to roll out the carpets and put out ropes and stanchions in the tour areas on the Ground Floor and the State Floor. Every afternoon, after thousands of people have walked through, they have to clean, remove the stanchions, and roll down the carpets, so that if the first family wants to spend time on the State Floor it won’t look so glaringly like a tourist destination.

“I didn’t appreciate until I worked there that the president and the first lady aren’t that far removed from all the public tours.
They’re just a floor above,” said Katie Johnson, President Obama’s personal secretary from 2009 to 2011. Her responsibilities included keeping the president on schedule and coordinating with the first lady and the residence staff. Johnson was the person assigned with the unenviable task of telling the East Wing staff if the president was going to be running late for dinner with his family.

The residence feels “like a very, very fancy New York apartment,” she said candidly. “There’s all this stuff going on outside and around but once you’re inside, it’s your home.”

Katie McCormick Lelyveld, Michelle Obama’s first press secretary, would sometimes sit in an office adjacent to the beauty parlor on the second floor. She remembers how quiet those floors were compared to the hubbub below. “There aren’t dozens of people flitting about in the personal home space. They very much try to treat it as a personal home. Agents aren’t standing inside there, they’re standing outside.”

“The White House is built on a human scale,” says Tricia Nixon Cox. One day, after a welcoming ceremony on the South Lawn, a visiting European prince turned to her and said, “It really is a house.” He was astonished by the scale of the executive mansion, compared with the palaces he knew. “To him, it looked small!”

It may be less imposing than some royal palaces, but it is far from modest. The large Entrance Hall on the north side opens to the eighty-foot-long East Room at one end and the State Dining Room, often used for state dinners in honor of foreign heads of state, at the other. There are three rooms in between: the Green Room, the Blue Room, and the Red Room.

The first family’s private rooms on the second and third floors are linked by one main corridor on each floor: sixteen rooms and six bathrooms on the second floor, another twenty rooms and nine bathrooms on the third. Maids and valets have sometimes been housed on these floors, as well as presidential children. The guest
rooms do not have numbers on their doors, but they are known among the residence staff by their room numbers, just like at a hotel. Each week, each of the White House maids is assigned a roster of rooms to clean. And they all hate Room Number 328.

“It’s the hardest room to clean!” says Maid Betty Finney. Room 328 has a sleigh bed, “and they’re incredibly hard to make! When you make a bed you want it to look neat, and that was a hard, hard job trying to get that thing neat. We all knew it had to be done, we just dreaded it.”

Each main floor boasts an oval-shaped room: the Diplomatic Reception Room on the Ground Floor, where President Roosevelt delivered his fireside chats and from where the first family usually enters the residence; the Blue Room on the State Floor, which overlooks the South Lawn and features a cut-glass French chandelier and vivid blue satin draperies; and the Yellow Oval Room on the second floor, leading to the Truman Balcony. This last was once a library with a private passage to President Lincoln’s office, now the Lincoln Bedroom, created so that Lincoln could avoid the hordes of people waiting to see him in the Treaty Room; it’s now a presidential study. The West Wing, where the Oval Office is located, would not be built until decades later. Until then, the residence served as the president’s home and his office.

There are four staircases in the executive residence: the Grand Staircase, which goes from the State Floor to the second floor; a staircase by the president’s elevator, which goes from the basement to the third floor; a spiral staircase by the staff elevator that goes from the first-floor mezzanine, where the Pastry Shop is located, to the basement; and the fourth staircase, the true “backstairs,” which runs from the second floor by the Queens’ Bedroom (an elegant rose-colored room named for royalty who have stayed there) to the east end of the third floor. Maids sometimes use this staircase if they need to clean rooms on the second floor and want to avoid
interrupting the first family. It allows them to walk all the way up to the third floor and circle back down.

The White House was designed by the Irish-born architect James Hoban, after winning a competition devised by President George Washington and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. The house’s design was inspired by Leinster House, an eighteenth-century Georgian mansion in Dublin that is home to Ireland’s Parliament. Early residents complained that it was too big, a critique rarely heard now that state dinners sometimes have to be prepared for hundreds of guests in the cramped kitchen and almost every guest room is crammed with friends and family around the inauguration.

George Washington had predicted that Washington, D.C., would rival the beauty and grandeur of Paris and London, but at first the city lagged far behind such picturesque European capitals. In 1800, when President John Adams and his wife, Abigail, became the first residents of the White House, there were only six habitable rooms, and the Adamses brought just four servants with them. Their new home was far from complete, and Washington was such a swampy, isolated outpost that the first family got lost for hours between Baltimore and the capital. Once they finally arrived they had to enter on wooden planks; the front steps had not yet been installed. A laundry and stables dotted the area now occupied by the West Wing, and city officials even closed down a brothel operating out of the shacks of the construction workers building the White House. (Carpenters and stone carvers were so upset by the move that the brothel was relocated to a more inconspicuous part of town.)

“We have not the least fence, yard, or other convenience,” Abigail wrote to her daughter. “The principal stairs are not up, and will not be this winter.”

When Abigail Adams moved into the White House, she estimated that at least thirty servants would be needed to run it properly. (Nearly one hundred people work there today.) In early
administrations the first families often brought their own maids, cooks, and valets, paying their personal staffs themselves. In recent decades some first families have brought a loyal employee or two from their prepresidential lives, but they mostly rely on the expertise of the residence staff.

In 1814, toward the tail end of the War of 1812, the British burned the White House to the ground. President James Madison asked Hoban to help rebuild the mansion, already a national icon. Since then, each president has sought to leave his mark on the physical building. The mansion was subjected to various Victorian embellishments during the nineteenth century, but in 1902 Theodore Roosevelt hired famed New York architects McKim, Mead & White to renovate it in keeping with its original neoclassical style. Roosevelt had the third story outfitted with guest rooms and tore down a series of giant glass conservatories—used to grow fruits and flowers for the first family—to clear a path for the expansion known as the West Wing. Later that year, Roosevelt moved his office from the second floor of the residence into the West Wing; his successor, William Howard Taft, added the Oval Office, completed in 1909.

The last major renovation came during the Truman administration, when the roof was literally caving in and the house was found to be in serious danger of collapsing. Things had gotten so dangerous that once, when the first lady was hosting a tea for the Daughters of the American Revolution in the Blue Room, the chandelier—which was as big as a refrigerator—swayed wildly above the unsuspecting guests, in part because the president was taking a bath above them on the second floor. In addition, the leg of one of Margaret Truman’s pianos actually plunged through the rotted flooring of her sitting room during a particularly spirited practice session. Truman replaced the mansion’s original wood framing with a new steel structure and added a second-floor outdoor space overlooking the
South Lawn that became known as the Truman Balcony, still a favorite spot for first families to relax.

No modern White House resident has transformed the White House more surely than Jacqueline Kennedy, who launched a very public effort to restore the interior (she hated the term
redecorate
), aimed at making it the “most perfect house” in the country. She asked her friend the philanthropist Rachel “Bunny” Mellon to redesign the Rose Garden and the East Garden, replacing Mamie Eisenhower’s pink with soft white and pale blue. She augmented the work of the White House staff by bringing in top interior decorator Sister Parish to help in the restoration, combing the house for “treasures” and jettisoning “horrors.” “If there’s anything I can’t stand, it’s Victorian mirrors—they’re hideous. Off to the dungeons with them,” Jackie joked, insisting that “everything in the White House must have a reason for being there.” She enlisted Henry Francis du Pont, a collector of early American furniture and an heir to the family fortune, to chair the White House Fine Arts Committee, which she created within a month of moving into the residence. Members of the committee were responsible for searching for museum-quality pieces around the country and for persuading their owners to donate them to the White House. She also established the Curator’s Office, ensuring that the house’s furnishings and artwork would be properly inventoried and cared for. When she gave the first-ever televised tour of the mansion, in 1962, it was watched by eighty million people and helped to make her one of the country’s most popular first ladies. She was only thirty-two years old at the time.

The White House of today still bears Jackie Kennedy’s stamp. She took a building that had long seemed drab and made it fashionable, bringing to the job a blend of historical sensitivity and contemporary elegance. She breathed a new Continental style into the
White House staff, hiring French chef René Verdon and appointing Oleg Cassini as official couturier. And her attentions extended to the private quarters: when the Old Family Dining Room downstairs felt too formal to serve as a gathering place for her young family, she took a second-floor space that had been Margaret Truman’s bedroom and remade it as a kitchen and dining room for them.

Today the staff talks about the house with a reverence they usually reserve for their favorite first families. One residence worker said that every time he gave friends a tour of the White House he would end it by telling them to look around and soak it all in: “You have walked through exactly the same space as every president since John Adams was president.”

Each time, he said, “It was thrilling.”

BOOK: The Residence - Inside the Private World of The White House
13.78Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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