Despite their age, the satin upholstered arm chairs, a perfectly coifed valance, shiny silver serving pieces and neatly set state china, now on display in the Renwick Gallery’s exhibition “‘Something of Splendor’: Decorative Arts from the White House,” are in immaculate condition. So much so, that it is hard to imagine real families and guests of the White House actually sitting on the furniture and eating off of the dinnerware. But the real dynamism of the White House, says White House curator William G. Allman, is in remembering that in addition to being a museum and office it is a home. “The White House embodies the story of how the presidents and their families live, work and entertain within its historic walls and among its historic furnishings,” says Allman.
For the 13-minute film At Home in the White House, featured in the exhibition, Jo Ann Gillula, chief of external affairs for the Smithsonian American Art Museum and its Renwick Gallery, interviewed several members of past first families. In it, Rosalynn Carter talks about how her daughter, Amy, particularly disliked a platter handpainted with a picture of a wild boar on it from the Rutherford B. Hayes administration. Lynda Bird Johnson Robb mentions how her mother would often say how she and President Lyndon Johnson ought to get their portraits done early, before they age. Tricia Nixon Cox speaks of how she had her wedding ceremony on the premises, and Susan Ford Bales recalls her senior prom, the only one ever to be held at the White House. Gillula especially enjoyed the funny stories Susan Ford Bales, daughter of former President Gerald Ford and First Lady Betty Ford, shared about living in the White House.
Just last week, Bales was invited back to the Renwick for a public interview in the gallery’s Grand Salon. In retrospect, Bales said that she wished she had paid more attention to the historic furnishings that surrounded her while living at the White House, but at the time, she admits she was more focused on “dates, grades, parties and what I was going to do for the weekends.” She was 17 years old, after all, when President Richard Nixon resigned and her father Gerald Ford took the highest office in 1974.
Bales had a leg up on her mother and three brothers, though, in knowing some of the public rooms of the White House. When the family had its first walk-through of the house with the curator, before moving in, she admits she acted like a know-it-all. The previous summer, she had a summer job selling White House Historical Association guide books in the residence.
The Fords had been living in a saltbox house in Alexandria, Virginia, with four bedrooms. Bales shared a bathroom with her older brothers, Michael, Jack and Steven. “I was so excited to have my own bathroom,” she recalls. “We really were simple people.” To make the private quarters their own, the president and first lady brought their own comfy chairs into what is traditionally the first lady’s bedroom. Bales says that her parents had always slept in the same room, and so decided to forgo the separate president and first lady bedrooms. They turned what was considered the president’s bedroom into an exercise room.
To Bales, the most “normal” room was the solarium on the third floor, facing the National Mall. With yellow chintz sofas, care of Mrs. Nixon, “you weren’t afraid to break anything,” says Bales. “It was like a normal living room. You felt comfortable in there.” On the other end of the spectrum, during the Ford administration there was a room on the White House’s second floor that had dark hunter green, velvet-covered walls. “It was a creepy room,” says Bales. “It had a warm, weird feeling about it.” As a child or teenager living in the White House, you expect it to have its mysteries, notes Bales. She poked around in drawers, and, on her very last night in the house, she slept in the Lincoln bedroom, where others had allegedly seen a ghost. While Bales tried to fall asleep, Betty Ford made ghoulish noises from the hallway. “That’s the kind of thing she did,” says Bales.
When Gillula brought up the senior prom, Bales looked to high school friends seated in the front rows of the audience, and said, playfully, “Yes, girls, should we talk about the prom?” Bales remembers the prom committee at the Holton Arms School in Bethesda, Maryland, asking her if it might be possible to have the prom at the White House in the spring of 1975. When she asked White House staff and her father, it was decided that yes, her classmates could have their prom there, as long as they, of course, footed the bill.
“Our dream was to have the Beach Boys,” says Bales, of the entertainment. “We thought they’d do it for free.” But they instead had two bands, called the Outer Space and the Sandcastle, playing in the East Room. It was interesting, says Bates, because unlike most proms, everybody in the class came to this one. “Anybody could get a date,” she jokes. “And all the parents wanted to be chaperones.” But, the class chose their favorite teachers to come instead.
Before the dance, Bales, her date, a 21-year-old “college boy,” and three other couples ate dinner while traveling down the Potomac River on Sequoia, the presidential yacht. “My parents were actually out of town in Egypt,” recalls Bales. “It was really convenient,” she adds, with a laugh. “Mother flew in my aunt to chaperone what was going on in the family quarters,” she adds.
The press, and the fish bowl-like lifestyle, was what Bales least liked about living in the White House. But the best part, she says, was having her father home for dinner more than he ever had been, thanks to Air Force One.
“People who have had the privilege to live there are very connected, in a different way,” says Bales, mentioning how former first ladies from both parties attended her mother’s funeral in July. “Politics really don’t matter once you live in this house,” she says.
In 1961, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy became the first to conceive of the White House as a museum. She established the White House Historical Association, a nonprofit responsible for funding, preserving and educating the public about the house’s historic furnishings and artwork, as well as the White House Office of the Curator, to act as the residence’s official historian. “‘Something of Splendor’: Decorative Arts from the White House,” open through May 6, 2012, honors the 50th anniversary of these two entities. In total, 95 objects from the White House’s permanent collection, some never before seen by the public, are on display.
* On Thursday, November 17, at noon at the Renwick Gallery, presidential historian and author Doug Wead will share entertaining stories about first families’ experiences in the White House from his book, All the President’s Children.