Matthew Costello, a senior historian for the White House Historical Association, recently joined Post staff writer Jura Koncius on our Home Front online chat. Here is an edited excerpt.
What is done to preserve the history of the building but still allow the family to feel comfortable? How much renovation is allowed?
While the state floor (the first floor) has remained relatively consistent over the past 50 years, the incoming family has more say in the residence (on the second floor). For this, the president and first lady will consult with historical experts and committees to maintain the integrity and tradition of the building while adding their own flair or taste. 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.
Why does each new president order new official china? There seems to be a lot of 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 19th 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 started 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, presidents order their own china pattern, and the first lady has traditionally taken the lead in that process.
What is the oldest item in the White House? Perhaps a painting or a piece of furniture?
Some objects we cannot precisely date. Remember, the White House was burned by the British during the War of 1812. Many of the White House 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. 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 returned in 1817. It has stayed in the White House ever since and today hangs in the East Room.
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 third floor to save money. Later additions added a third floor, which is there today but difficult to see from outside the building.