Book review: ‘Dream House: The White House as an American Home’
Los Angeles Times
From the moment in 1800 when John and Abigail Adams moved into a still-unfinished Georgian residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. to the day in March when Michelle Obama grabbed a rake and began tilling a vegetable garden on the South Lawn, the White House has been many things: residence, workplace and perhaps most important, metaphor.
“Dream House: The White House as an American Home” meticulously documents how one building has been a mirror not only to its presidential occupants but also to the aspirations of the nation at large.
The authors are Ulysses Grant Dietz, senior curator of decorative arts at the Newark Museum in New Jersey and great-great grandson of the 18th U.S. president, and Sam Watters, author of “Houses of Los Angeles, 1885-1935.” They have taken more than two centuries of White House history and insightfully segmented them into six periods, beginning with the landmark’s birth as a country house. As the nation evolved, so too did the White House, with pithily titled chapters detailing how changes in architecture and interior design made it more of a mansion (“Keeping Up With the Joneses”) and then a palace (“Keeping Up With the Vanderbilts”) before settling into a 20th-century groove as the ultimate suburban house (“Keeping Up With the Cleavers.”)
Perhaps the most intriguing chapter is the last, where the authors take on the legend that is Jackie O. As mid-century modernism took off, Jacqueline Kennedy revered the past, embraced antiques and famously redecorated the White House with the zeal of a museum curator. Although her refined taste made her an icon, the authors contend that Kennedy turned the White House into a shrine – not a living, breathing, evolving home that reflected a changing nation, but rather a locked-in-time fantasy of how the American upper class lives.
“Weighed down by two centuries of tradition and Jacqueline Kennedy’s revered model, today’s first ladies are no longer free to experiment and change the White House,” the authors say. Sasha and Malia Obama can redecorate their quarters any way they want, but if their mother were to redesign the downstairs? Good luck. Limited to what she could do inside, no wonder Michelle Obama stepped outside and made her statement in the garden.