Archive for Sunday, November 23, 2008

Making over the White House

November 23, 2008

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— Michelle Obama says she wants the White House to feel full of energy.

And while hanging new drapes isn’t high on the Obamas’ list of priorities as they prepare to move into the White House, design experts wonder if the first family will use the nation’s most famous house as a way to back a serious agenda: going green.

“I’d like to see the White House LEED-certified,” said Stephen Drucker, editor-in-chief of House Beautiful magazine, referring to the certification for green buildings. “If you have an important agenda that you want to get into the American home, starting with your own home is the best thing.”

Several interior decorators who agreed to sketch design schemes for the Obama White House focused on environmentally friendly materials, modern furnishings and high-tech flourishes. And they stuck to a modest budget fitting the current economic climate.

“Given that we seem to be in for a long economic slowdown, and many families are struggling, the president cannot seem to be extravagant or ostentatious,” said interior designer Celerie Kemble, author of the new book “Celerie Kemble: To Your Taste.”

Change is nothing new for the White House, which is redecorated every four to eight years.

“What they used to do a lot, when a new family would move in, sometimes they’d even auction off the old furniture,” said Maria Downs of the White House Historical Association.

The most famous sprucing up was Jacqueline Kennedy’s, who livened up the mansion and gave a televised tour of the new look. But not all redesigns have been as warmly embraced. Nancy Reagan’s $200,000 china set didn’t sit well with Americans, even if it was paid for privately.

President-elect Barack Obama has already joked about one change he’d like to make: After his disastrous attempt at bowling on the campaign trail, he quipped that he’d like to replace the bowling alley with a basketball court. There is already a half court on the grounds, but it’s not out of the question to build a full size court.

Other presidents have made way for their sports of choice. President Franklin Roosevelt built an indoor swimming pool — later covered over by President Richard Nixon to create the press room. Ford, an avid swimmer, used private money to build an outdoor pool.

The first President Bush created a horseshoe pitch, and President Bill Clinton created a running track, which was just recently removed.

Those facilities, plus a movie theater and gym, leave plenty for Malia and Sasha to do, said Downs, who was President Gerald Ford’s social secretary. The girls got a tour of their new bedrooms Tuesday from Barbara and Jenna Bush.

If Obama’s Senate office is any indication, the president-elect’s style is tidy and sleek. There is a “wall of heroes” containing historic photos of Abe Lincoln, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy, and another wall with a more personal collection of photos taken by his former assistant, David Katz.

That’s a departure from what Drucker calls the “ancestor portraits, bonnets and satin” that are everywhere in the executive mansion.

“Every administration redecorates the White House back to the fringe-choked past,” he said. “It’s as if modern art had never been invented. It’s as if photography had never been invented.”

Drucker hopes the Obamas embrace the future in their design, especially in the symbolic Lincoln Bedroom.

“The Lincoln Memorial is the most moving, inspiring building in the world to me because it captures the spirit of Abraham Lincoln,” he said. “And then you go into the Lincoln Bedroom and it looks like Miss Kitty’s Saloon.”

Instead of heavy draperies and gilded mirrors, Drucker suggested a more modern tribute to Lincoln’s spirit, like a quote of Lincoln’s painted by a modern artist.

The room was recently refurbished by the Bushes, who replaced historically inappropriate furnishings with items more closely associated with Lincoln’s era.

The Bushes have also overseen ecofriendly changes, including using compact fluorescent lights, energy-efficient cooling units, solar heating and low-flow faucets and toilets. The outside of the White House is illuminated by energy-efficient lighting.

Congress provides $100,000 every four years to redecorate White House rooms used for the first family’s private residence. Supplemental funds may be provided by the White House Endowment, a financial arm of the White House Historical Association, by private funds from donors, or by the first family themselves.

The Obamas can also choose from among nearly 500 paintings, sculptures and drawings in the White House collection, Downs said.

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