No question about it, the White House receives a great deal of wear and tear.
Chester A. Arthur: Accidental President
Few people would have ever believed that Chester Alan Arthur, New York “spoilsman” politician, would ever have become President of the USA. Only a few years earlier, his name had been linked to corruption at the Customs House in the Port of New York. While CAA’s personal honesty was vindicated, huge graft and malfeasance had been committed on his watch. He was summarily dismissed.
Nevertheless, he had been, and continued to be, a wealthy attorney and politician. Following the political scandals in the Grant Administration, the Republican party imploded into various factions, and Arthur’s name was eventually floated as an accommodation to mend said factional fences. A Vice Presidency was an insignificant office throughout the 19th century; honorable and ceremonial, but with little impact.
In 1880, James Garfield, another dark horse in the field, won the Presidency; Chet Arthur was now Vice President. When Garfield died six months after his inauguration from an assassin’s bullet, CAA was now POTUS.
Washington political insiders thought poorly of him. The general public knew little other than his reputation as a well-mannered and bewhiskered political hack.
What he was, however, was elegant. Recently widowed at fifty, he was independently well-to-do, with very high standards for his surroundings.
The White House in 1881
Nearly every 19th century President inherited a shabby Executive Mansion. Early Presidents were expected to bring their own furniture, although after the “burning of the White House” during the War of 1812, some items were obtained as a permanent part of the house.
The physical upkeep of the White House was always a separate budget item. Congress made sure the mansion was painted regularly and that the grounds were well kept. But the decor, especially in the “public” rooms, took hard wear. Table and chair legs wobbled, furniture was stained. Carpets were worn, and in some places, threadbare. Visitors to public receptions regularly clipped fabric from drapes or cushions for souvenirs. Nearly every administration had a real need to “re-do,” and periodically Congress came through with some money. Most Presidents, cognizant of the expense and temporary occupancy, only fixed the essentials.
When Chester Alan Arthur (1829-1886) assumed the Presidency, the public rooms were dated and dingy. To CAA, that was not an option. He refused to move in until changes were made. It was the Gilded Age. Money was available. Congress obliged and allocated funds.
Louis Comfort Tiffany
Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933) was to decorative arts like Henry Ford was to motor cars. The son of Charles Tiffany, premier jeweler of New York City, LCT demonstrated artistic talents at a very young age. Following a basic education, he studied painting with George Inness, and at various art academies.
Early on, he became enamored with glass making, the Art Nouveau artistic movement, and interior decor in general. With the Tiffany name and money as well as his own talents and leadership, he opened his own glass making Tiffany Studios in 1878. His creations became popular among the wealthy. An opportunity to redecorate the Mark Twain House in Hartford, CT made the young man’s reputation, as well as his personal fortune.
The Tiffany Screen
President Chester Arthur sent for America’s 32-year-old premier designer and decorator. Tiffany was tasked to select the carpeting and fabrics and furnishings for many of the public rooms, but the piece de resistance, was a 50-foot long stained glass screen supported by faux-marble columns, for the downstairs corridor.
An old architectural screen had been commissioned for the corridor by President Martin Van Buren some 45-years earlier to block the draft, but while the structure was still solid and reusable, the panels were plain glass.
Young Tiffany had become expert with bits of opalescent colored glass enclosed by a metal casing, and fashioning them into a mosaic of flowers, birds and scenes of nature, creating true works of art, whether it be lamp shades or stained glass windows. Completed and installed in 1883, the screen for the White House corridor, incorporating eagles and flags, was his masterpiece, luminescent in the evening, when the gaslights of the White House chandeliers were lit. It was magnificent, especially since it reflected light from both sides of the panels.
As an aside, President Arthur also became enamored with stained glass. Coincidental to the Tiffany screen, St. John’s Church, across Lafayette Park, had engaged a French firm to design and install stained glass windows. The President endowed one of those windows in memory of his wife who had died in early 1880.
A half dozen years later, under the Benjamin Harrison Administration, electric lights became part of the White House. The harsher light seemed to negate the vibrant colors of the screen, and electric light was deemed more important than a beautiful screen.
Only nineteen years after it appeared on the ground floor of the White House, the Tiffany screen was removed by the Theodore Roosevelt Administration, as part of a huge renovation project. (The Conservatory with its beautiful plants and flowers was also a casualty. The area was used for the West Wing, also deemed more necessary.)
Later and Still Later
The Tiffany screen was dismantled in 1902, and subsequently was lost in a fire.
In 2007, however, contemporary artist Peter Waddell was commissioned by the White House Historical Association to recreate, on canvas, the glory that was the Tiffany Screen. Painstakingly researching the various colors on the many Tiffany glass palettes, a 55”x72” painting depicts what is consider by many, one of the lost treasures of the White House.
The stained glass window at St. John’s Church, dedicated to the memory of Ellen Herndon Arthur, is still there.
Barzman, Sol – Madmen & Geniuses: The Vice-Presidents of the United States – Follett Publishing, 1974
Greenberger, Scott S. – The Unexpected President: The Life and Times of Chester Alan Arthur, De Capo Press, 2017