Something of Splendor: Decorative Arts from the White House

An image of a mahogany armchair with blue and gold upholstery

Armchair, 1818, made by William King, Jr. (1771-1854), Georgetown, D.C., mahogany, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. John Ford Sollers, Sr., 1986. Photo courtesy White House Historical Association

The White House has been the official residence of the President of the United States for more than two hundred years. It embodies the story of how the presidents and their families live, work, and entertain within its historic walls and among its historic furnishings. This exhibition allows visitors to explore the history of the decorative arts in the nation’s foremost home. It includes 95 objects — furniture, ceramics, metals, glass and textiles — from the permanent collection of the White House. Many of these objects were made by the most celebrated craftsmen of their time, and some have never been seen outside of the White House. Objects in the exhibition range from a box lined with wallpaper used in the White House prior to its burning in 1814 to a gilded Herter Brothers armchair from 1875 to a coverlet embroidered by First Lady Grace Coolidge between 1925 and 1927 to a service plate from the 1982 Reagan state china.


The White House interiors were refurbished repeatedly in modern styles throughout the nineteenth century. In 1902, noted New York architects McKim, Mead & White were hired to make the interior of the White House more stylistically compatible with its late eighteenth-century architecture. This major renovation, accompanied by significant sales of old furnishings, gave the public rooms a more formal and ceremonial character that they retain today.

Many objects have grown venerable with the building, while others have been acquired as part of an ongoing program, begun in 1961 by First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, to restore the historical ambience of the rooms. Kennedy envisioned the White House as an ideal showcase of American fine and decorative arts for the enjoyment and education of both American and foreign visitors. She brought in the first curator to supervise the creation of a museum collection, fostered the creation of the White House Historical Association in 1961, and worked with an advisory body that formally became the Committee for the Preservation of the White House in 1964. Each subsequent first lady has contributed to these acquisition and preservation efforts.

The exhibition and its related publication include archival images of the interiors to help the visitor envision life in the President’s official residence. William G. Allman, curator of the White House, and Melissa C. Naulin, assistant curator of the White House, selected the works included in the exhibition.


Visiting Information

September 30, 2011 May 6, 2013
Open Daily, 10:00 a.m.–5:30 p.m
Free Admission



“Something of Splendor”: Decorative Arts from the White House is organized by the White House Office of the Curator, the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and the White House Historical Association.

SAAM Stories

William Allman
In honor of the fiftieth anniversary of the White House Historical Association, established by First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy in 1961 to restore the historical ambiance of the rooms and create a museum-worthy collection, the Renwick is featuring the exhibition, Something of Splendor: Decorative Arts from the White House.

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