The Return of the White House
Shortly after Dolley Madison “rescued” the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington (the oldest possession) in 1814, British soldiers torched the White House, as well as other buildings in Washington. The Madisons never lived there again. The house required extensive repair. Between the fire damage, the smoke damage, and the water damage (from the providential hurricane that extinguished the flames) the mansion was not fit to live in for nearly three years.
In 1816, James Monroe was elected 5th President. He duly took the oath of office on March 4, 1817, but did not move into the president’s house till fall. By that time, the sandstone building, still bearing the scars of its trauma, was painted white, leading to its venerable nickname.
Early presidents were expected to bring their own furniture. At least their own personal furniture for their private rooms. Congress appropriated funds for house maintenance and servants, and some decorative touches, such as carpeting and draperies, and sufficient tables and chairs for important visitors.
The Tasteful and Formal Monroe
James Monroe (1758-1831) was born into Virginia gentry, but gentry of modest means. Orphaned early, he was raised/mentored by a benevolent uncle. He dropped out of William and Mary at the onset of the American Revolution, and distinguished himself as a scout and soldier, was wounded, earning a treasured letter of recommendation from General Washington himself.
Having been promoted to Colonel, Monroe found himself promoted out of a job. There were plenty of colonels and not enough soldiers. He took advantage of this lull in his fortunes to read law with the Virginia Governor – Thomas Jefferson.
Monroe was elected to the Confederation Congress, the Constitutional Convention, and even served a couple of terms as Governor of Virginia. Then he took further advantage of the lull to become active in politics, hold public office, and marry Elizabeth Kortright, the young daughter of a British Soldier who, following the French and Indian War, opted to remain in New York.
But most important to his career, and possibly to his own persona, was his decades long (intermittent) service as minister to France, England and Spain. It was in those great capitals of Europe where he was exposed to “high culture.”
As President, Monroe brought several pieces of personal furniture to the Executive Mansion, most of which he had purchased in France. He also brought a list of fine French merchants whose goods and services might be required in the future.
Congress was generous with the new President in 1817. The country was growing quickly; the economy was expanding; and they knew first hand that the poor old now-white House needed stuff. Having spent considerable time among kings and emperors, Monroe had a very good idea of what stuff would be expected from an upstart little backwoods country (the USA) if they wanted to treat on an equal level with the grandest in the world (Europe). Since the President of the United States was a head of state, full counterpart to said kings and emperors, Monroe would set the American style and the tone of how to impress.
Elegant dinners were an absolute. They still are. Dignitaries come in their finest clothing to be treated to the finest of food and its preparation. The finest of wines, spirits and brandies. Impeccable service. And if the White House State dining room (which, by the way, has changed venues and has been enlarged a few times) is the showplace of the White House, the table setting itself, china, crystal and silver, is its jewelry box. In every administration.
In addition to the above tableware which is periodically replaced, Monroe ordered a low, footed, mirrored centerpiece server from France, which came in seven separate sections, to be used in part or in full as need be – and has never been replaced. He paid 6000 francs, or about $200 – back then. It would equal around $4000 today and is still a great bargain. Called thereafter the Monroe Plateau, the design was not a new one, and was functional. George Washington was known to have a mirrored centerpiece, and it is still part of the Mount Vernon inventory.
It was still an age of candlelight, the only form of indoor night-illumination other than a fireplace. Placing a mirrored centerpiece on a table, centered underneath a grand chandelier blazing with a dozen or more candles, it reflects the light multi-fold.
The Monroe Plateau was gilded bronze, and stretched to its fullest was 2 feet wide, by nearly 14 feet long. Small optional figures called Bacchanals were attached to its sides to hold additional candles or flowers or table decorations. Monroe had also purchased, as plateau add-ons, some exquisite candelabra, urns and epergnes for flowers or fruits.
By 1854 however, candlelight was no longer exclusive. Gaslight and oil was available, less costly and cleaner. Cut-crystal bowls were ordered for the little figurines to hold instead of candles.
Since the original State Dining Room was designed to seat only 36, the imposing Monroe Plateau was frequently used in part. The Dining room today can hold 140, and the Plateau is said to have been utilized at the most formal dinners by nearly every President since Monroe.
P.S. One POTUS who didn’t like it, was Andrew Jackson, who consigned it to a storeroom. POTUS Martin Van Buren, more aesthetically inclined, not only rescued it, but had it re-gilded.
It may have cost the country $200, but it is priceless.
Jeffries, Ona Griffin – In and Out of the White House – Wilfred Funk, Inc. – 1960