Curator works to bring White House interior to perfection
Washington — The White House, America's most famous and historic home, has been in a state of redecoration and restoration for years. According to Clement E. Conger, the White House curator, the job will never be finished. How could it be, he asks, when the executive mansion is an ongoing institution, a living museum visited by over a million and a half tourists each year, plus more than 50,000 guests who come by invitation.
"The official 154-room residence gets tremendous use. The wear and tear is frightful," Mr. Conger declares as he walks through the great halls and enormous state rooms.
"Upholsteries and draperies have to be replaced in the most used rooms every three to five years," he explains. He estimates that the cost of fabric replacement alone could amount to $350,000 a year, and that rug maintenance and replacement could amount to $100,000 annually.
Because the White House symbolizes to many the heart of American democracy, Mr. Conger thinks it should present America at its best. It should be the pride of this nation, he believes, filled with great things, not just good things. In it foreign visitors should see reflected the magnificence of american creative genius during the 19th century. Acquisition program
For these reasons, his acquisition program goes on as he searches out and adds examples of great American art, decorative accessories, and furniture. Sometimes he upgrades one piece with another, finer one. Other times he makes a permanent replacement of an object that has been recalled from loan.
The curator considers the White House now almost at its peak of perfection, probably more beautifully appointed and furnished than it has been since John and Abigail Adams became its first official residents in 1800. His aim has been to build the national White House collection and to refurbish 35 public rooms, restoring them to the elegance they may have had in the first quarter of the 19 th century, which he considers to be the golden era of the White House.
Those were the years, he explains, when Presidents Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe occupied the First House. "They were the early presidents who had the greatest culture and taste, and who owned the finest furnishings," he says. "They brought their furnishings with them when they came. Unfortunately, they also took them along when they left."
Furnishings changed drastically as various presidents came and went, but it is the decorative appearance of those early years that Mr. Conger has sought to restore.
To this end, he has raised and spent almost $8 million. Twenty-eight state or public rooms are now relatively complete, though subject to possible refinement of furnishings and appointments and to periodic replacement of fabrics.
"We get not a dollar of federal funds for anything except maintenance," he explains. "Draperies, upholstery, rugs, chandeliers, every piece of furniture and every painting or work of art, has been given to us or paid for with contributed funds. This is something of a record."
Mr. Conger, a gracious Southerner from Alexandria, Va., has developed his own methods of forwarding his acquisition program, including begging, borrowing, and gently persuading. The list of friends and acquaintances he has cultivated reads like a combination of Who's Who and the Social Register.
To obtain the objects and the money required for his gigantic undertaking, he has appealed to national pride and family pride. He has promised tax deductions and even invitations to special White House functions.
"I have searched the country and the world," he says. "I learned long ago that you can't sit in a chair and wait for things to come to you. You never know from where and from whom your treasures might come. From the dozens of letters that come to the curator's office each day, maybe two or three offer us something for sale. Maybe every 400th letter will hit the jackpot with something that we can buy and use."
Over the years Mr. Conger has persuaded nine individuals or foundations to underwrite the expense of renovating whole rooms. The Richard King Mellon Foundation of Pittsburgh, for instance, underwrote the entire refurbishment of the Green Room, for $480,000. Mrs. James Stewart Booker, sister of Walter Annenberg, the publisher, took on responsibility in the early '70s for renovation of the Blue Room, at a cost of more than $292,000.
Mr. Conger has also frequently located individual objects that he wanted for the stately home, and then has found donors who would give them.
Little wonder, then, that he has been able to ferret out furniture made by such masters as Duncan Phyfe, Charles Honore Lannuier, and Samuel McIntire, along with other cabinetmakers in Massachusetts and Rhode Island who adapted the English Chippendale and Queen Anne styles to unique American treatments. Paintings include acquisitions by such masters as Gilbert Stuart, Charles Willson Peale, Winslow Homer, Thomas Moran, and John Singer Sargent. Renovation history
The White House, the curator reminds us, was designed by the Irish-born James Hoban in 1792, and was erected on 18 acres in the center of Washington. It has been lived in almost continuously since it was first occupied in 1800.
Mr. Conger thinks the two worst calamities that have befallen it were the burning to its shell by British troops in 1814 and the Truman-era renovation of 1950-53. The latter did necessary shoring up and structural replacement, then commissioned a New York department store to furnish the mansion with Sheraton reproduction furnishings. Only the reproduction dining chairs are left; everything else has been replaced by museum- quality antiques.
Mr. Conger terms that redecoration a "disaster" because the renovation movement was already abroad in the United States, and fine antiques could have been purchased at a fraction of their later costs. That was the time, he says in retrospect, that a curator and preservation committee should have been appointed.
It was in 1961, when he was deputy chief of protocol, that Mr. Conger first volunteered to help refurnish the diplomatic reception rooms in the Department of State. Nine years later he had the White House added to his curatorial duties. A collection of awards and honors indicates ample appreciation of his efforts.
"I never dreamed that 20 years and millions of dollars later, I'd still be doing this exciting work. And, no, I'm not thinking of retiring, I'm having too much fun."
Clement Conger will continue to work with the Committee for the Preservation of the White House, of which Nancy Reagan, like other First Ladies before her, is now honorary chairman. The function of this committee, set up by Congress in the early 1960s, is to advise the president about the preservation and interpretation of the museum character of the principal public rooms on the ground and state floors.
Mrs. Reagan has indicated her interest in the committee, although her energies so far have gone into decorating the nine-room suite that is the private domain of the president and his family. She has had the help of the curator's office as well as the counsel of her own decorator, Ted Graber of Los Angeles, in blending personal possessions from the Reagans' California home with art and furniture from the permanent White House collection. Role of the First Ladies
As for the efforts of other First Ladies, it was Mrs. Woodrow Wilson who, in 1917, designated the "Presidential Collection Room" to display the growing collection of White House china. And a concerned Grace Coolidge in the late 1920s helped persuade Congress to authorize the acceptance of appropriate antiques as gifts that would help furnish the White House.
It was Mamie Eisenhower, Mr. Conger points out, who began the current restoration, which has been in progress for the past two decades. With the help of members of the National Society of Interior Designers, she assembled a collection of American antiques, including many fine Duncan Phyfe pieces, and furnished the Diplomatic Reception Room in the styles of the Federal Period, which extended from 1788 to 1825.
In 1961, Jacqueline Kennedy became particularly concerned with the authentic restoration of the White House and made the public aware that the national residence did not have the national treasures that belonged there. She believed that those priceless furnishings should be found and preserved as an essential landmark in American history, and created a Fine Arts Committee for the White House to assist her in that purpose. Its chairman, the late Henry Francis du Pont, founder of the Winterthur Museum, helped the committee acquire many historically important furnishings and works of art.
The next step was the formation of the nonprofit White House Historical Association, which publishes and sells a guidebook to the White House. It uses all profits to acquire furnishings and works of art associated with past presidents, and for restoration projects.
Lady Bird Johnson continued this interest. In 1964 President Lyndon Johnson signed an executive order providing for the appointment of a curator of the White House and the Committee for the Preservation of the White House. Pat Nixon became another highly effective supporter of the plan to make the mansion an American showcase for the finest art and antiques.
Many works of art were acquired during the Carter years, including George Caleb Bingham's painting, "Lighter Relieving a Steamboat Aground," which the curator says was one of the White House's greatest acquisitions in 25 years. It was purchased for $500,000, with an anonymous donor contributing half the cost and the White House Acquisition Fund the balance. Recent detail work
Another important aspect of Mr. Conger's work has been replacing chandeliers and mantels to make them more in keeping with the early 19th-century period, and replacing appropriate plaster ceiling ornaments. He has placed large-scale secretaries in some of the rooms to balance the layouts. He has retrieved good lamps from the White House warehouse, and has located and purchased Oriental rugs of the right sizes and colors. Green, he says, has been the most difficult rug background color to find.
What Mr. Conger could not buy he has very frequently borrowed from museums, historical societies, and private collectors and dealers. Someday he hopes the permanent collection will be complete enough that the coming and going of loan objects will be a thing of the past. Preservation endowment fund
Mr. Conger hopes his days as a fund-raiser may be drawing to a close. In May 1979, the White House Preservation Fund was launched in a nationwide campaign to raise a permanent endowment of $25 million. "Perhaps the First Lady and I will not have to go begging anymore," Mr. Conger says, "and the endowment fund will enable future curators to feel more secure in their maintenance and purchasing obligations."
This private, nonprofit, nonpartisan, fund- raising organization is at 740 Jackson Place, NW, in Washington and seeks financial gifts from individuals, corporations, and foundations. It is an outgrowth of a cooperative effort between the Committee for the Preservation of the White House and the White House Historical Association. The fund raised just under $1 million in its first year.