History of the White House with the White House Historical Association | Home Front

Matthew Costello
Jan 19, 2017

Matthew Costello serves as a senior historian for the White House Historical Association, nonpartisan, nonprofit. For the past year he worked on the George Washington Bibliography Project for the Washington Papers at the University of Virginia, authoring annotations and cataloging monographs related to George Washington.

On the eve of the presidential inauguration, Costello will take on the history of the White House and all its treasures.

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Matthew Costello is a senior historian for the White House Historical Association, a nonpartisan nonprofit. For the past year he worked on the George Washington Bibliography Project for the Washington Papers at the University of Virginia. With the Inauguration tomorrow, Costello must be very busy so we are excited he can be here with us to answer your questions about the White House, which is so full of interesting stories. Read my story here about what happens at the Oval Office on Inauguration Day as the new president is sworn in. I spoke to the interior decorators of three recent presidents, including Michael Smith who designed for the Obamas. Meanwhile, let's chat.

Good morning everyone.  My name is Matthew Costello and I am the Senior Historian for the White House Historical Association.  As a private, non-partisan organization founded by First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy in 1961, we strive to enhance public understanding and appreciation of the history of the White House and its residents.  I am happy to be with you on the eve of another inauguration, and look forward to answering your questions.

Hi, not a question about the White House. I'd like to purchase black and white photos but I have no idea where to buy them. Any local recommendations? I've looked at etsy, etc.

Sure!  The White House Historical Association actually launched our digital library last March and will continue to add images of portraits and photographs of the presidents, first families, and the White House in the future.  Here is the link:  https://www.whitehousehistory.org/digital-library  


The fee for an 8x10 photograph is $25 for 3000-pixel tiff or jpeg. If the image is our digital library you will need to create an account to order them.  You can pay online through the website with a credit card, and if you would like to purchase additional prints you can order them through Request-A-Print. Their prints range from $95(standard) to $180 (fine art).


The Library of Congress also provides a similar service, but you would have to inquire more about their procedures.  I would check online first and perhaps go through their online database of images to see if there is anything you might like to purchase.

How does the White House acquire new pieces of furniture that might once have been in its collection but were sold?

Former furniture ends up back in the White House Collection in one of two ways:  either the pieces are donated to the collections or purchased in a joint venture between the White House and the White House Historical Association.  There have also been many instances of museums/private collectors loaning furniture or pieces to the White House for a particular administration with the understanding that the pieces will be returned to the owner after the president leaves office.


Where did the name of the Green Room come from?

The Green Room was first given that named by President John Quincy Adams during his term in office (1825-1829).  He referred to it as the “Green Drawing Room,” though it was Thomas Jefferson who covered the floor with green-painted canvas and turned it into his dining room. The shades of green have varied in the room ever since but it remains the Green Room today. The silk fabric wallpaper, picked by Jackie Kennedy in 1962, has been replaced several times, most recently by First Lady Laura Bush in 2007.

Where are the items from the White House collection kept that aren't in the White House?

Great question.  There are several secure off-site storage facilities that hold the thousands of objects, furniture, and artwork of the White House Collection that are not being used. 

When the new president has a new rug woven for the Oval Office, will he have two rugs made? And will one later go to his or her presidential library?

That is an interesting question.  These rugs tend to be quite expensive, so my guess would be no, they only have one rug made for their time in the Oval Office.  A number of presidential libraries and museums have created mock Oval Offices, which allow visitors to step into the president’s office as it was during their administration. Many feature historically-authentic objects in some form from that president’s office, but as far as the rugs go I’m not too sure.  I would contact the presidential library staff and inquire further.  My guess is when they create a mock Oval Office they have a replica rug made since visitors will be stepping on it and getting their picture taken in the office. 

How much can the new president change in the state floor?

This is a tricky one.  The President of the United States arguably can change many things in the White House; however, all presidents have relied on experts and committees in order to maintain the historical integrity and tradition of the White House.  The White House Curator, the Chief Usher, the Committee for the Preservation of the White House, the Commission on Fine Arts, etc. are all individuals and groups that the president and first lady will consult with regarding rooms, furniture, artwork, objects, etc.  They advise the first family and work in tandem with them to fulfill want they want in the White House. 

Does the visiting policy change with each new president?

I’m not sure what you mean by the visiting policy per-se; if you mean with regards to allowing public visitors on the state floor, this has been in place for some time.  It was temporarily suspended after September 11th but reinstated afterwards and has continued through the Obama administration.  If you mean visiting as in foreign dignitaries or for official functions, most presidents have followed similar protocol since President Truman.

Why does each new president order new official china? There seems to be a lot it around.

As you can imagine the president and his family will entertain thousands of guests at the White House during their time in office.  These plates become worn out, chipped, scratched, are accidentally broken, etc.  In fact, during the nineteenth century the White House china collection was more of a throwing together of personal and state china by many administrations over the century.  Not until Caroline Harrison starting organizing these sets and Edith Wilson devoted a room at the White House to displaying the china did these sets become much more significant for formal and state functions.  Today modern presidents order their own china pattern and the first lady has traditionally taken the lead in that process.

Does the WHHA have memberships? How are you funded?

We are a private, non-partisan organization funded by private donors, retail sales (our biggest contribution is from our annual White House Christmas ornament), and publications.  We also have a quarterly journal, White House History, which features longer pieces on the history of the White House and the presidents.  These all generate revenue for our mission, as we do not receive any federal funding for our organization.

Is there anything from the administration of George Washington in the White House collection or is it all at Mount Vernon?

What a great question!  Most people assume GW lived in the White House, but he did not.  He was integral to planning the national capital in DC and even selecting the site where the White House would be built, but he did not live to see his successor move in.  To your question:  there are some Washington things that have survived in the White House Collections; there are chairs, flatware, some pieces of personal service china, etc. There are many more objects that feature Washington (artwork, sculpture), but as you probably know Washington memorabilia became big business in the nineteenth century.  It is part of the reason why so many of his things were scattered across the country; today Mount Vernon or the Smithsonian probably hold the largest collection of Washington objects.

What is done to preserve the history in this wonderful building, but allows the family to be comfortable? How much renovation is allowed? Who determines this?

Great question, and you are right every first family has different needs and wants.  While the state floor (the first floor) has remained relatively consistent over the last 50 years, the incoming family has more say in the residence (located on the second floor).  For this, the president and first lady will consult with historical experts and committees in order to both maintain the integrity and tradition of the building while adding their own flair or taste to a particular room.  The White House Curator, Chief Usher, the Committee for the Preservation of the White  House, and the Commission of Fine Arts will all be involved in some way or another.

What is the oldest thing in the White House? A painting or a piece of furniture?

This is a tough one!  Now, some objects we cannot precisely date.  Remember, the White House was burned by the British during the War of 1812.  Many of the WH holdings were destroyed in that fire and later tossed out in a gully south of the house.  Later renovations found pieces of the Madison chinaware, how cool is that? There are pieces of Washington Cincinnati china that predate the White House itself; as far as an object that has remained in continual use one of my favorites is Gilbert Stuart's famous painting of George Washington.  This was installed in the White House in 1800, removed during the burning, then came back in 1817.  It has stayed in the White House since and today hangs in the East Room.

Were there any lost artifacts found during the Truman White House Renovation?

Sure.  The architect of the Truman Renovation, Lorenzo Winslow, tried to carefully catalogue things from the interior as they were removed.  The hope was that they could be re-installed after the renovation was complete; however floorboard cracked, timbers were splintered, bricks crumbled, etc.  There was quite a bit that could not be saved so instead was re-purposed.  The walls of the ground level rooms were constructed from James Hoban's 1817 pine timbers; and many of the bricks were sent to Mount Vernon to help build George Washington's greenhouse.  If you visit today, you will see the bricks that were pulled from the White House during the Truman era.

Actually, my question was not about the White House. It was for Jura Koncius and the chatters. Thanks!

If you want to buy photos that appear in the Washington Post, go to http://washingtonpost.mycapture.com

Hello. I cherish the White House and love reading about its history. What a great job you have! Do you have a favorite room there and could you explain why? Is there a particular portrait or furnishing that has great meaning for you? And is there a particular project you've been involved in that has been especially rewarding? Thanks for your work in preserving and protecting The People's House.

I would have to say my favorite room is the Lincoln Bedroom.  Now most people assume this is where Lincoln slept; actually it was his office and where he met with his cabinet.  Until the building of the West Wing, the presidents (from John Quincy Adams to William McKinley) used this room as an office.  After the Truman renovation it officially became the Lincoln Bedroom and was refurbished to match Mary Todd Lincoln's designs by Laura Bush.  I love the room because the physical space was where so much of our national history unfolded during the nineteenth century, advancements and decisions that set the stage for the American century.

The WH displays art borrowed from art museums, such as the National Gallery and Smithsonian, chosen by the incumbent and family. When the Obamas move out, does all the borrowed art have to be returned? I was impressed by the sophistication of many of the Obamas' choices. Have the PEOTUS and family chosen any new / different art to display (either borrowed or already part of the WH collection)? Do you manage the budget for new acquisitions of art? Who decides what is accepted into the WH art collection (either from purchases or donations)? Is it POTUS/FLOTUS or a committee?

If that was the agreement, yes the art will be returned.  If it is the work of a private artist it could very well end up in the WH collections permanently, or donated to the president's presidential library, museum, etc.  As far as the Trumps' plans go, we are not involved in those discussions.  Those take places between the incoming first family, the White House staff, and two committees that advise on such matters:  the Committee for the Preservation of the White House and the Commission of Fine Arts.

How many people work in the White House residence? And will they stay on during the new administration?

A great question.  The number of residence staff has continuously expanded over the last two hundred years.  Today there are around 100 staff who work in the White House for the first family.  While the decision is left to the president and first lady, most incoming first families keep the residence staff in-tact.  It just makes logistical sense to keep the individuals who maintain and manage the house every day as opposed to hiring all new employees.

Wasn't there supposed to have been a third floor?

Yes there was!  But as construction got underway in the new national capital expenses quickly exceeded expectations.  Always the frugal businessman President Washington decided to eliminate the 3rd floor in order to save money.  Later additions added a 3rd floor, which is there today but is difficult to see from outside the WH.

How does someone get involved with the White House Historical Association?

Visit our website WHHA.org and contact us directly.  We'd love to hear from you!

I think we all learned a lot here about the amazing collection of decorative arts and paintings at the White House and about how it adapts and changes. We appreciate your doing the chat today. Next week our chat guest is designer, artist and textile guru Susan Hable.  Until then...

Well that was fun!  The hour just flew by.  Thank you everyone for your questions, I wish I could have gotten to more of them.  Please check out our organization online https://www.whitehousehistory.org to learn more about us and the history of the White House.  Have a nice day!

In This Chat
Jura Koncius
Jura Koncius is a Washington Post staff writer who specializes in home and design. Read her daily twitter feed @jurakoncius for the latest in decorating trends, shopping, decluttering, organizing and DC retail.

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Matthew Costello
Matthew Costello serves as a senior historian for the White House Historical Association, nonpartisan, nonprofit.
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