A Ladies' Touch: How First Ladies Changed the White House

As Mrs. Obama approaches her 52nd birthday, National First Ladies’ Library Historian Carl Anthony looks at how First Ladies throughout history have shaped and contributed to one of the most powerful structures in America: the White House.
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The White House Photo

The White House. (Photo: Public domain via Wikipedia)

It’s a museum, a symbol, an office, a home, and one of the oldest buildings in America. Always evolving, along with the nation, the White House has become the icon it is, due to the vision and effort of our First Ladies for over one hundred and fifty years.

As our current First Lady Michelle Obama prepares to celebrate her birthday on January 17th, she will also begin the countdown to the last of her eight years as the nation’s First Lady. Thus far her tenure in this unsalaried and unofficial role has left a visible mark on the White House, specifically when Mrs. Obama established a vast vegetable garden in 2009. The garden has not only become a national venue for teaching children about healthy eating as part of her “Let’s Move!” initiative, but it has also served a real and practical purpose of providing free and fresh produce for the White House kitchens, consumed not just by the First Family but the guests lucky enough to dine there.

Michelle Obama Photo

Michelle Obama (Photo: Joyce N. Boghosian/White House/Handout/CNP/Corbis)

Michelle Obama’s vegetable garden is but the latest addition in a long story of changes that the nation’s home has witnessed. Some of these are visible and obvious, others more conceptual and invisible but no less important.

Outside the building itself, complementing Mrs. Obama’s flower garden is perhaps the most famous flower garden in the nation, the White House Rose Garden. The vision of having a formal configuration and bower of roses in the square space bordered by the Oval Office, West Wing, and the residence was due to the imaginative Ellen Wilson, the first wife of Woodrow Wilson. She used as her model a similar garden at Princeton University, which she had designed when her husband was president there. Mrs. Wilson’s rose garden included a fountain and marble statue of the mythic figure Pan, some suggesting it represented the little boy she had longed to have. The configuration and design of the Wilson Rose Garden did not survive the ensuing decades, but all iterations of it since have remained where she first established it.

Causes of the First Ladies: Ellen Wilson was the first president's wife to support a cause that resulted in legislation. After touring the capital's slums, she lobbied to establish better housing for the poor. Just before her death in 1914, Congress passed the Alley Dwelling Bill. (Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

Ellen Wilson (Photo: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)  

The West Wing itself was constructed in 1902, the result of Theodore Roosevelt’s wife, Edith Roosevelt, who determined that the offices of the presidential staff finally be entirely removed from the second floor of the residence. For a century, only two wood sliding doors had separated the offices from the living quarters of the president’s family. On many occasions, First Ladies had found their sitting rooms and children’s nursery invaded by strangers seeking federal job appointments from the president’s staff, who then wandered into the private section, security being lax. Mrs. Roosevelt was also directly involved in the overall 1902 renovation of the residence, helping to determine its classical look and also creating, along the ground floor corridor, a gallery of all the portraits of First Ladies then in the White House collection.

Every First Family since the 1920s is grateful to the innovation of Grace Coolidge to create what she called a “sky parlor.” During renovations to the roof, this fashionable First Lady had what was then an enclosed porch on the newly expanded top floor, creating a getaway where one could enjoy the fresh outdoor air without being watched, as one would be on the South Lawn.

Grace Coolidge Photo

Grace Coolidge (Photo: firstladies.org)

Mrs. Coolidge’s sky parlor was later enlarged; the room now offers a hidden space of large windows with an unobstructed view of the sky above, and even a terrace behind the balustrades where First Families host friends and family, or simply find escape from the goldfish bowl existence of the lower floors.

For Americans and foreigners alike who are unable to either take a public tour of the White House or find themselves invited to an event there, Pat Nixon conceived of a plan to make it at least visible. Mrs. Nixon worked with electrical engineers to create a dramatic outdoor lighting system that to this day keeps the White House aglow, visible to pedestrians, motorists and even those flying in planes above.

She further worked to make the mansion accessible for those with limited mobility and other physical restrictions. Knowing the public was just as curious about the outside of the White House as they were of the inside, Pat Nixon also began the spring and autumn garden tours, which continue to this day.

No modern First Lady did more to standardize the late 17th and early 18th look of the White House public rooms than did Jacqueline Kennedy. Moved by a desire to enrich both its interior and exterior in a way that reflected the mansion’s earliest residents, she initiated an historical restoration in 1961. Today, the only room that is preserved in her vision is the small, private Queen’s Sitting Room. However, Mrs. Kennedy's vast project inspired her to create the White House Historical Association to purchase furnishings, along with a curatorial position to oversee the collection.

Jacqueline Kennedy White House Photo

Charles Collingwood with Jacqueline Kennedy on TV tour of the White House, 14 Feb 1962. (Photo: U. S. State Department - downloaded by Geeino [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Mrs. Kennedy’s legacy was both an inspiration to successors and built upon efforts of predecessors: Laura Bush created a high Victorian look in the Lincoln Bedroom, Lady Bird Johnson expanded the painting collection, Lucy Hayes began collecting presidential portraits, Lou Hoover commissioned an inventory of historic objects in the White House warehouses and created a Monroe Room where the fifth president’s furnishings were gathered and displayed.

While Mrs. Kennedy’s work led to a ruling that dictated the White House state floor should reflect the period of the early presidency, it did not rule out later works from being temporarily displayed there. With a strong affinity for contemporary American crafts and art, it was Hillary Clinton who initiated an utterly unique public display of glass, pottery, and ceramic creations by the nation’s leading artists. The works were rotated on tables and mantelpieces throughout the three floors of the White House. In contrast to the large outdoor art pieces she had loaned to create the White House Sculpture Garden on the east side of the mansion, pieces of the crafts collection were donated, and now form part of the permanent collection.

Dolley Madison Portrait Photo

Dolley Madison (Painting: Gilbert Stuart [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

If there is one item in the White House that the public most closely associate with it, it is the full-length portrait of George Washington long on display in the large East Room. The Gilbert Stuart painting is more than a dramatic depiction of our first president; it is part of American history due to the brave foresight of Dolley Madison, one of our most legendary First Ladies.

With British troops hours away from fulfilling their threat to burn the White House during the War of 1812, Mrs. Madison had enough wherewithal to recognize the painting as a powerful symbol of the new republic. While all of her and the president’s personal possessions would have to be sacrificed, she felt she had to save the Washington portrait to save the pride of her country. It is the sole bit of furnishing that remains from that time; everything else was burned in the August 1814 fire.

Other First Ladies made changes to the White House that are not necessarily remembered by tangible objects or structural changes to the building, but rather captured the very meaning of “the people’s house.” Although not without great controversy, it was Mary Lincoln who insisted that even during the Civil War when the federal was strained, the White House must look superior, believing it reflected the state of the nation. Unlike many of her predecessors, Mrs. Lincoln never perceived the mansion as just her personal home but the place where the public came to interact with their leader.

Eleanor Roosevelt Photo

Eleanor Roosevelt, 1932. (Photo: By Underwood & Underwood [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Eleanor Roosevelt viewed the mansion’s purpose similarly. Besides the traditional social events she held there, this activist First Lady was the first to begin hosting numerous conferences and hearings on the numerous social issues the nation faced during the Great Depression and World War II.

Finally, the modest Bess Truman deserves special credit for a subtle contribution easily overlooked. When it was determined in 1948 that the old mansion was too dangerous for occupancy any longer, many favored the more economical plan to tear it down and build a new structure. It was Mrs. Truman, however, who insisted that while the interior had to be gutted and modernized, the four walls of the original Executive Mansion which had survived the War of 1812 burning, must remain standing and preserved. So the White House today is the same one Americans have known and cherished for two centuries now.

About the Author:

Carl Sferrazza Anthony has authored a dozen books on First Ladies, including biographies of Ida McKinley, Nellie Taft, Florence Harding and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, as well as overviews on presidential families. His website (carlanthonyonline.com) focuses on presidential popular culture and unconventional Americana. Trained as journalist, he also serves as a historian for the National First Ladies' Library (www.firstladies.org) researching and writing online biographies to reflect new historical discoveries and the NFLL Blog of original content articles.