Victorian Ornamentation: 1873-1901

Etching of the north face, circa 1880, with Jefferson statue set up by President James Polk (The Pictorial History of the United States 1882)

The south face, circa 1870, with the large conservatories on the west side (Library of Congress - moderately restored)



Floor plan of the White House before the 1902 remodeling (LOC top, bottom)

"Steamboat Gothic" and Tiffany Glass

In 1873, US Grant converted the White House to a high Victorian style called "pure Greek" by some but openly mocked by others as "steamboat gothic." Most of the rooms were given a large-scale geometric pattern from floor to ceiling in panels, and the Andrew Jackson chandeliers were replaced by more elaborate chandeliers.

This was further enhanced by Louis Comfort Tiffany with Tiffany glass windows, gaslight fixtures, and other ornamentation in the 1882. Densely-patterned wallpaper dominated in most rooms, and the East Room in particular was turned into something of an enormous parlor, with sofas, chairs, and potted plants all around.

Electric lights were introduced in 1891 (by Edison electrician Ike Hoover, who stayed on to eventually become chief usher) and replaced gaslights entirely in 1901. And the White House had its first hydraulic elevator installed in 1881, its first electric elevator in 1898.

Expansion plan of 1889


Throughout the Gilded Age, first families sought ways to enlarge the White House to remove the government offices from the family residence. First Lady Caroline Harrison, in particular, championed an extensive expansion plan that would have tripled the size of the mansion by adding virtual duplicates of the Residence on the east and west sides and moving the conservatories to the south side.

In his memoirs, Chief Usher Ike Hoover described what the ground floor when he first came to the White House in 1891 to install electrical lighting:

The floor was covered with damp and slimy brick; dust webs were everywhere. An old wooden heating trough hung the entire length of the ceiling of the long corridor. Everything was black and dirty. Rooms that are now parlors were then used for storage of wood and coal. In the kitchen of the original house, now an engine-room, could be seen the old open fireplaces once used for broiling the chickens and baking the hoecakes for the early Fathers of our country, the old cranes and spits still in place. Out the door to the rear there yet remained the old wine-vault, the meathouse, and the smokehouse.

When Mrs. Harrison's plan for a new executive mansion at the head of Sixteenth Street failed to gain support, Hoover wrote:

Mrs. Harrison set to work to improve the old place so as to make it habitable. Private bathrooms were installed; the bedroom floor was divided into suites; the kitchen was completely torn out and modernized. Electric lights and bells were installed for the first time. All the old floors—dirty, mouldy bricks—were torn up and replaced with cement and wood; the engine-room was reconstructed; a new area built around the entire house; the old conservatory rebuilt and many new greenhouses added. All the rooms were frescoed and painted, new furnishings were purchased, and in fact everything was done that was possible without destroying the plan of the old place. The change was so great that when the Clevelands came back a few years later, they hardly recognized the house which they had left only four years before.

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More Images

The East Room, circa 1894, during the Benjamin Harrison administration (Benjamin Harrison Home)

Grover Cleveland's State Dining Room, with Tiffany glass, in 1890, looking southwest (Library of Congress - Frances Benjamin Johnston)

The old west staircase before the remodeling under Theodore Roosevelt, looking west, circa 1890

The Red Room with Tiffany decor for Arthur, circa 1883 (Library of Congress)

The Entrance Hall in 1882, with the new Tiffany glass screen
(White House Historical Association [Library of Congress] - Frances Benjamin Johnston)

The north face in mourning, following the assassination of President Garfield, 1881 (Library of Congress)

First floor plan of the White House around 1880

Second floor plan of the White House around 1880

Computer reconstruction of the Blue Room, circa 1886
(Nick Buccalo, The Drawing Studio magazine; featured in Nest magazine, fall 2000 — original flopped left-right)

The Green Room, circa 1883 (Library of Congress)

Green Room during the Hayes administration, circa 1876 (Marchand Collection)

Grant's high Victorian redecoration of the East Room in 1873 (White House Historical Association)

The Blue Room in the early 1870s (White House Historical Association)

The White House Kitchen, looking northeast, circa 1892;
in the upper left is the old kitchen in the Jackson era; upper right is Chester Arthur's Chef Hugo Ziemann (White House)

Dolly Johnson in the old White House Scullery, or "small kitchen," circa 1892, looking south (Library of Congress - Frances Benjamin Johnston)