Header photo credit: White House Historical Association
When it comes to politics at the moment, most people vehemently agree on only one thing: we just want the election to be over. So forget Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, Garry Johnson or Jill Stein for a moment. Let’s delve into a more fun aspect of politics: history, decorating and architecture. We’re talking about the most famous bedroom in DC, the Lincoln Bedroom.
Most Americans are aware that the Lincoln Bedroom exists. But they’re under the mistaken impression that the current President sleeps there. Or that Lincoln slept in the room, for that matter (he did not, unless it was a cat nap). In fact, prior to 1945, the Lincoln Bedroom, as we think of it, existed as two separate entities – a suite of Victorian furniture purchased by the Lincolns that was constantly being shuffled around the White House, and a presidential office in the original part of the White House.
A storied room
Let’s go back to the beginnings of the White House. It was commissioned in 1791 on a site chosen by George Washington, who left office before it was finished. In 1800, despite ongoing construction, John Adams became the first President to experience the joys of living amidst a renovation, without the Property Brothers around to rescue him. At the time, the White House was the largest house in the country, something that remained true until the Civil War. During the War of 1812, the British burned the mansion down a few years after it was finished originally. Thankfully, Dolly Madison had the presence of mind to take the masterpiece painting of George Washington with them before it was destroyed. Obviously, the building was rebuilt after the war.
Prior to Teddy Roosevelt, the president and his aides worked on the second floor of the Executive Mansion. During this time, the room now known as the Lincoln Bedroom served as a private office for many presidents, including Lincoln, McKinley, Benjamin Harrison and Taft.
It’s easy to imagine the difficulties of running a large government in a personal residence. In 1902, Teddy Roosevelt commissioned a separate executive office building on the site, moving the president and his staff into it. That part of the White House is now known as the West Wing. A few years later, President Taft had the Oval Office built within the West Wing. Even after construction of the West Wing, the Lincoln Bedroom was mostly used as a private office for the president or a meeting room for his cabinet, other than a brief period when it became a bedroom for Woodrow Wilson’s daughter.
Bedroom and furniture finally unite
In 1945, the White House was in serious structural trouble. Harry Truman undertook a massive renovation that basically scrapped every room down to the studs. Truman decreed that the Lincoln-era bedroom furnishings should be installed in Lincoln’s former presidential office, and that the room should be forever dedicated to Lincoln. Furniture and room were finally united, and it has been the Lincoln Bedroom ever since. The Trumans renovated the room, along with much of the White House, to a classic, pared-down look, albeit with some cheap reproductions.
First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy upgraded the Lincoln Bedroom a little in the 1960s, replacing some of the inauthentic pieces. But the room essentially remained unchanged until 2005. At that time, First Lady Laura Bush decided to undertake a major period-correct renovation, retaining the Lincoln furniture and cross-matching between the historic décor of Lincoln’s office and what might be appropriate for a Victorian bedroom.
Research into historical writings and photos of the room gave insight into the original hangings, colors and patterns from the era. It was decided to go back to the original green and gold color scheme. A custom rug with a suitable Victorian pattern was made in England, where the original rug from Lincoln’s office was likely made at the time. A Victorian mantel was installed, luminous yellow drapes were hung, and the furniture was reupholstered in yellow, which is how the room remains today.
About that furniture
As for the furniture itself, it’s not the typical bedroom suite of furniture. The ornately carved Lincoln Bed is solid rosewood, now banned for use in furniture because the Brazilian rosewood tree has become endangered. The bed is absolutely massive, at over 8’ long, 6’ wide, and nearly 8’ tall. First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln purchased the bed when she undertook a large renovation of the White House; however, historical documents show no evidence that Lincoln ever slept in it. Several other presidents did, however, including Calvin Coolidge, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.
The suite also includes a sofa, three matching chairs and four chairs used for Lincoln’s cabinet meetings. One of the weirder twists of the Lincoln Bed in a democratic nation is that Benjamin Harrison had a crown made for it. Other presidents (or their wives) apparently rather liked said crown, actually keeping it and embellishing on it. There’s much talk about the Lincoln bed hanging swags in historic documents. Mary Todd Lincoln had purple swags made for it, which Laura Bush had her designer emulate.
Perhaps most importantly historically, it is thought that the Emancipation Proclamation was written, debated and worked on in the Lincoln Bedroom. The room also contains one of just five known copies of the Gettysburg Address signed by Lincoln himself.
Since the 1980s or so, the Lincoln Bedroom has been used as an executive guest room, oftentimes as a perk for influential players in both parties, sigh. Let’s not go there.
It’s a lovely, historic room, and the election will soon be over. In the meantime, sleep well, friends.