Q&A: William Allman on Entertaining at the White House

William Allman
Jan 10, 2019

William Allman served in the Office of the Curator of the White House for 41 years, the last 15 years as the Curator until his retirement in June 2017. His responsibilities included caring for a museum collection of fine and decorative arts and also the acquisition, preservation, and interpretation of that collection. Bill, a native and resident of Bethesda, received his B.A. in history from the University of Maryland and an M.A. in American studies with museum concentration from The George Washington University. He is the author of the 2016 edition of Official White House China From the 18th to the 21st Centuries, published by the White House Historical Association. Bill will be one of the featured speakers at the Washington Winter Show, the annual Washington antiques show being held January 11-13 at the Katzen Arts Center at American University. Bill's Saturday presentation will be "'The President Requests the Pleasure': Entertaining at the White House".

Every week, Jura Koncius helps you in your quest to achieve domestic bliss. She and weekly guests, whether Martha Stewart, the Property Brothers, Marie Kondo or Nate Berkus, answer your decorating, design and decluttering questions. Jura is always happy to whip out her paint chips, track down a hard-to-find piece of furniture or offer her seasoned advice on practical living and organizing. For more than 20 years, our Thursday Q&A has been an online conversation about the best way to make your home comfortable, stylish and fun. We invite you to submit questions and share your own great tips, ideas and gripes. No problem is too big or too small.

We have a great guest today - William Allman who served in the Office of the Curator of the White House for 41 years. For the last 15, he was White House Curator until he retired in June 2017. Bill was responsible for a large collection of fine and decorative arts; and he supervised the acquisition and preservation of the collection. He is the author of the 2016 edition of "Official White House China From the 18th to the 21st Centuries", published by the White House Historical Association. This weekend, Bill is a featured speaker at the Washington Winter Show, the annual Washington antiques show (January 11-13) at the Katzen Arts Center at American University. Bill's Saturday presentation will be "'The President Requests the Pleasure': Entertaining at the White House". Let's chat with him now.

Good morning!  I am Bill Allman.  I had the great good fortune and distinct honor to have worked in the White House Curator's Office for 41 years, the last 15 as its chief. A great collection of fine arts and decorative arts are used to beautify the public and private rooms.  This includes china, glass, and silver used for elegant entertaining, which is the theme of a talk I am giving at the Washington Antiques Show this Saturday afternoon. The show - which features many high quality objects, such as one might see in the White House collection, is a long-time ongoing event raising funds for local charities. I encourage you to attend.  

Has there ever been or will be a public exhibit of pieces from the White House collection that are not on display in the White House?

In 2012, some treasures from the White House collection were exhibited at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution in a show called "Something of Splendor".  A nice little book was published by the White House Historical Association to accompany the show.

Currently select White House objects, including a few used at the Renwick, are exhibited at the White House Visitor Center, a facility run by the National Park Service in the Commerce Building.

The President is often photographed with a landscape oil painting behind him. Who is the artist and what is the name of the painting? Does it belong to the White House art collection? https://www.gettyimages.com/detail/news-photo/president-donald-trump-speaks-to-the-media-as-senate-news-photo/881225916

The photo you cite shows the President in the Roosevelt Room, a conference room in the center of the West Wing.

The painting behind him is "View of the City of Washington from the Virginia Shore" by William McLeod, 1856.  This wonderful scene  is unusual for showing a large expanse of Virginia farmland, with the city core in the distance - the White House and incomplete Washington Monument at the left, the US Capitol at the center, and the Washington Navy Yard at the right. The painting was donated to the White House in 1972.

Is the White House still acquiring historic pieces of furniture that have a connection to various presidents? Do many people leave pieces in their will?

The White House curators are always on the lookout for items - furniture and other decorative arts - that once were in the White House but escaped, quite legally, via auctions of surplus property. We also seek items associated with presidents and first ladies that are suitable for the White House to exhibit or preserve.  Not too many bequeathed pieces, but some donations.  We also receive letters asking us to document possessions with a family history of one-time White House ownership. Some prove true, and we may seek those; some do not.

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Do the president and first lady get to choose the china for every state dinner? And if a piece of the red Reagan china breaks, can replacements be ordered?

Planning a state dinner involves a lot of players.  The First Lady, her social secretary, and the head florist address the decor, including flowers and table cloths. Then the chefs, butlers, and curators confer on whether the china service selected contains the types and quantities of objects needed.

Occasionally a piece or two are broken; they are carefully recorded as such and the pieces stored.  If shattered, the many fragments are destroyed. 

For the most recent services - Obama and George W. Bush - the manufacturers could probably make replacements should the quantities fall so low as to hamper continued usage.  For the Reagan china, replacements could not easily be acquired.

I'm not really sure if this is on-topic, but here goes. A pet peeve of mine is when I'm invited to someone's house, and upon arrival the host(ess) is cutting up a store-purchased sub or opening up a Styrofoam container of wings or something, and setting out crummy paper plates, not even the clear ones that look a little nicer! Don't people know any better? Why not use the nice china? Personally I'm leading the charge at my house - for Christmas I used the nice china and the sterling cutlery.

I enjoy using china and silver flatware for personal entertaining, and so do many of my friends.  Many people of generations younger than mine, however, may own only more everyday tableware, the use of which I commend.  If a dinner is a buffet, with folks sitting around the living room or family room on the seat furniture, the piano bench, or the floor, paper or plastic is okay, too, for it is still the camaraderie of friends and family that matters. At least it works that way for me.

Which First Lady showed the most interest in the White House and it's history, traditions, prior dinners or receiptions? I think Jackie Kennedy was the First Lady who had the most interest in the White House as an historical home. She took great interest and pride in the White House.

Certainly First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy is most famous for creating the museum program for the White House - to fill the rooms with a great collection of fine and decorative arts; to create a curator's office to collect, preserve, conserve, and interpret the collections; to create the White House Historical Association to publish a guide book (subsequently many additional fine publications); to promote visitation of the White House by the public.

A great deal of important collecting was undertaken in the early 1970s under the active attention of First Lady Pat Nixon, although her activity was less well known.

All of the other first ladies since Mrs. Kennedy have shown a great pride and interest in the house and the collection, as well. It is funny that some people assume nothing has changed since Mrs. Kennedy's efforts to collect and refurbish the public rooms.  I think she would be much surprised to think that the living historic site that is the White House would stop evolving in the hands of future first ladies, as advised by curators, chief ushers, and the Committee for the Preservation of the White House.

 

I'm interested to know if the White House has a collection of antique tablecloths and napkins. Are they still used as part of the rotation in entertaining? Do many have embroidery of the presidential seal or initials of presidents?

The White House does not collect table linens in the same way we collect antique furniture. The table cloths are maintained and stored by the butlers.  Some early to mid- 20th century cloths were donated in the late 1950s and 1970s.  These are used occasionally, more often for smaller meals, but even that is giving may to linen placemats.

Linen napkins for state and formal dinners are embroidered with the presidential coat of arms. They, too, are cared for by the butlers, re-ordered as need.  They are mended, when possible, by housekeeping staff.

For the circular tables used for most state dinners, cloths are rented to make for variety of color from event to event; but the White House also has a stock of circular cloths, many used to cover cabaret tables at receptions.

I'm interested in what kind of silver flatware is used in formal dinners at The White House. Is it antique? I've noticed also vermeil in some of the photos - is this still used?

Gilded silver flatware was long traditional for state dinners. It consists of bead-edged forks made in the 1890s, pearl-handled dinner knives from 1924, thread-edged spoons (copied from extant 1830 examples copied in the 1860s) from 1950 by Kirk.  All of these was copied and numbers expanded in 1994 by Kirk-Stieff.

There is also a set of silver flatware in the traditional King George pattern, but called King Charles when made by Gorham for the White House in 1974. This is used for some luncheons and dinners.

Then there is also the possibility of renting flatware for special events.  This is especially true for oversize dinners in the State Dining Room, Rose Garden, or in a tent on the lawn.

What was the biggest highlight of your career from your perspective? Not what might be critically or objectively decided as your biggest success. I mean what felt like the most magical thing you did to you.

One momentous activity was the 2004-2005 redecoration of the Lincoln Bedroom, using period documents to create wallpaper, carpet, draperies, bed hangings, marb

le mantel appropriate for the Lincoln years.

My helping lead the projects of Committee for the Preservation of the White House always seemed to draw praise for my scholarship and diplomacy from the many distinguished Committee members.  That was always a great honor for me.

Mr. Allman - just a quick thank you to you and your team at the White House. Some years ago when I was working there, I contacted the Office of the Curator about a Seth Thomas clock that my family had acquired in the mid-20th century from a sale of items that had been used in the Old Executive Office Building. A number of these clocks had been replaced (with modern electrics) in the 1940s/50s, and your staff was able to help me with documents and pictures showing the clock like ours in the OEOB at that time. It was a great way to tie our family history to the White House!

You are very welcome.  We are always delighted to provide information and insight to the public.  Research and reply is one of the things I enjoyed best during my 41 years in the Curator's Office.

I am afraid time is up.  Those for whom questions were left unaddressed, I hope the ones I spent time on were interesting and maybe helpful.

Thanks for your interest.

Bill Allman

Thanks Bill. White House history is always so fascinating. I'm sure your talk on Saturday at the Washington Winter Show will be full of amazing historical details about the White House and its collections and entertaining. We really appreciate your doing the chat today. Next week tune in for John Gidding of formerly of HGTV's Curb Appeal and now on TLC's Trading Spaces who will be appearing at the Home & Remodeling Show being held January 18-20 at Dulles Expo Center. See you then. 

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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 and organizing.

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