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After the destruction of the White House by the British in 1814, the Executive Mansion was reconstructed with a servants’ hall directly below the Elliptical Saloon (today’s Blue Room). In 1837, President Marten Van Buren repurposed the servants’ hall as a furnace room in order to provide heat for the building, a significant milestone in White House technology. By the time of Theodore Roosevelt’s 1902 renovation, the Ground Floor room had become a labyrinth of pipes, ducts, and splintered plaster, hovering over a clammy, concrete floor. Charles F. McKim, the primary architect of the renovation, envisioned a new purpose for this room: a third formal White House oval room to complement the Yellow Oval Room on the Second Floor and the famous Blue Room of the State Floor.1 McKim and his team utilized his Parisian École de Beaux-Arts education to combine modern architectural technology and historic design, a concept demonstrated in the new Diplomatic Reception Room.2 The White House could not have been a more suitable enterprise, and the Diplomatic Reception room no better illustration of McKim’s vision.

McKim’s oval room hosts esteemed dignitaries, diplomats, and luminaries from around the globe. In the uncertain times of the Great Depression and World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt used the room to calm the nation with his famous “Fireside Chats”. In addition to the many historic events that have taken place in this space, the room is adorned with many items from the White House collection of decorative arts and furnishings. One piece in particular was installed during the Kennedy refurbishing in 1961, an element of the White House visitors do not walk or sit on: scenic French wallpaper.

Detail of the Zuber wallpaper depicting Boston Harbor.

John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

Inspired by French artists’ engravings of American sites from the 1820s, French artist Jean-Julien Deltil designed the wallpaper, which was created in 1834 by a French firm, Jean Zuber and Co.3 Officially titled, Vues de l’Amerique du Nord (“Views of North America”), the wallpaper depicts panoramic scenes of New York, West Point, the Natural Bridge of Virginia, and Boston Harbor around the 36 x 26-foot oval facade.4 Onlookers may assume these illustrations are wholly inspired by American landscapes; but this is inaccurate. Wallpaper historian Catherine Lynn noted that, in the “General View of Boston” specifically, “the foreground bears a close resemblance to waterside views of European ports.”5 Although the State House signified Boston’s cityscape, the engravings that Deltil and Zuber referenced for the landscape’s finer details were somewhat misleading.

Even though this wallpaper was imported to the United States from France in the early 19th century, it was not solely intended for upper class individuals and city residents. In fact, manufacturers reproduced the wallpaper frequently throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, and it remained affordable to a large range of buyers.6 Imitations of the Zuber French wallpaper existed in numerous homes, city and country alike, by the mid-20th century when First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy began to refurbish the White House and the Diplomatic Reception Room.7

The National Society of Interior Design (NSID) recommended an early Americana motif for the Diplomatic Reception Room when the organization assisted First Lady Mamie Eisenhower with her additions to the room in 1960. Mrs. Eisenhower accepted a variety of donations that featured the Americana motif, including Federal-style chairs and tables, a gilded bronze French mantle clock featuring a George Washington figurine, and an oval carpet rug specifically designed for the room with the seals of all fifty states.8 Shortly after her husband’s election, the NSID collaborated with Mrs. Kennedy in order to complete the furnishing of the Diplomatic Reception Room.9

The Zuber wallpaper in the Diplomatic Reception Room, circa 2009.

White House Historical Association

Meanwhile, about 60 miles north of Washington, D.C., a construction crew prepared to demolish a century-old home in Thurmont, Maryland. Inside the building hung the historic Zuber wallpaper in a long, dark hallway. Peter Hill, a man in need of funds for his missionary work at the time,10 purchased the wallpaper on the spot for $50 with the caveat that he removed the wallpaper quickly before demolition.11 With the assistance of a putty knife and razor blade, Hill carefully extracted the wallpaper and contacted the Smithsonian Institution.12

John Newton Pearce of the Cultural Historical Section at the Smithsonian, aware of the First Lady’s Americana initiative for the Diplomatic Reception Room, visited Peter Hill’s home to review the wallpaper. Fascinated, Pearce scheduled a date for Hill to take the wallpaper to the White House. On April 3, 1961, Hill and his family journeyed to the Executive Mansion—wallpaper in hand—and presented it to the first lady. She admired the wallpaper and allowed him to choose the room where he thought it fit best. Hill selected the Diplomatic Reception Room. The NSID purchased the wallpaper from Hill for $12,500. They afterwards generously donated the wallpaper to the White House.13

Artists mended the frayed edges of the wallpaper before six experts worked on the installation process for three weeks. Peter Guertler and his New York staff completed the assignment just in time to welcome President Manuel Prado of Peru and ninety guests in September 1962. After many State Arrival ceremonies for foreign heads of state, the president and the first lady welcome their guest at the entrance of the Diplomatic Reception Room, and the Zuber wallpaper provides many with a first impression of the historic White House. Despite its unconventional accession into the White House collection, the Jean Zuber creation continues to prove it is more than a mere White House ephemeron.

This article was originally published June 13, 2017

Footnotes & Resources

  1. William Seale, “The President’s House,” volume II, p. 635.
  2. Monkman, “The White House: Its Historic Furnishings & First Families,” 29.
  3. Betty Monkman, “The White House: It’s Historic Furnishings and First Families,” 305.
  4. Subject files: White House: Diplomatic Reception Room, National Society of Interior Designers, 5 October 1961.
  5. Monkman, 305.
  6. Warren County Observer, Warren County, Pennsylvania, October 7, 1961.
  7. Monkman, 305.
  8. Monkman, 226; The Post Standard, February 16, 1962.
  9. Monkman, 239.
  10. The News (Frederick, Maryland), Saturday, August 12, 1961, “$50 Investment in Antique Wallpaper in Thurmont House Reaps $12,500”.
  11. The News-Journal (Mansfield, Ohio), Sunday, November 5, 1961, “Spring 1962 Sees Return of Curves: Gift to Nation.”
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid.

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