Q and A With William G. Allman

The curator of the White House talks about the history of the President’s mansion and how to protect the collections from tipsy visitors

As curator of the White House, William G. Allman is responsible for studying and preserving the 50,000 pieces of art and décor in the residence's permanent collection. (Doug Mills / The New York Times / Redux)
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The exhibition includes some murals and photographs that show the objects. Lots of pieces once in the White House were auctioned off, and several have been reclaimed. What is at the top of your wish list, in terms of items you know existed based on murals and photographs?
In some cases we have been lucky because the White House would buy multiples of things. You would need four matched tables or 24 matched chairs. Once you get one or two back, you could always say you would like some more, even if you are not totally missing what it looked like or what it represents. One of the things that is among the most tragic, was in 1882, when Chester Arthur was the president. He was good friends with Louis Comfort Tiffany, who, in redecorating the public rooms, installed between the columns in the entrance hall 350 square feet of Tiffany stained glass, a giant screen made in red, white and blue glass. Tiffany lamps and Tiffany stained glass windows are highly prized and are considered great monuments to American design. The screen was taken down in 1902 when Theodore Roosevelt renovated the White House and was sold at auction. It went to a man who owned a hotel on the Chesapeake Bay. The building burned down in 1922, and as far as we know, the screen was melted into oblivion. It exists in some black and white photographs and it exists in some color, hypothetical recreations. It would be fun if somehow somebody was able to suddenly show up one day and say, you know, my great grandfather rummaged through the remnants of the hotel and pulled out these chunks of the Tiffany stained glass screen. It would be pretty great to have those back, even if only as a documentary object, since we wouldn’t want to re-establish it. Even if the entire screen existed, it wouldn’t fit the décor any longer.

In your career in the White House curator’s office, is there a moment when you really felt like you had a privileged view of life in the White House?
In the year 2000, we celebrated the 200th anniversary of the opening of the White House. They had a big gala dinner in the East Room, where they invited all the former presidents and first ladies. The head table was everyone but the Reagans, because President Reagan was already in poor health. But it was President and Mrs. Clinton and former president and Mrs. George H. W. Bush, Mrs. Johnson and the Carters and the Fords. Since the folks in our office are interested in history, we were invited to participate in the dinner and say hello to former presidents with whom we had worked. Basically, everybody I had worked with. President Carter got up. President Ford got up. In each case, they talked about how important the house was to them, what it looked like, what was in it, how it helped make their jobs easier, how wonderful the staff was in taking care of them and taking care of the house. It was just one of those moments.

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