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Welcome to "Ask the White House" -- an online interactive forum where you can submit questions to Administration Officials and friends of the White House. Visit the "Ask the White House" archives to read other discussions with White House officials.

Today's guest: White House Curator Bill Allman

White House Curator Bill Allman
White House Curator Bill Allman
June 5, 2003

Bill Allman
Hello! I'm Bill Allman, Curator of the White House. It is a great pleasure for me to join you today. I look forward to fielding questions from you.

Brad, from Spring Hill, TN writes:
Hello from Tennessee! I was wondering what you could tell us about the President's desk in the Oval Office. Also, when not in use by a particular president, does it sit in storage or can the public view it somewhere, say, at the Smithsonian?

Bill Allman
Hello Brad. President Bush is using what we call the "Resolute desk." It was made from oak timbers from a British navy ship that had been trapped in Arctic ice, retrieved and refitted by the United States as a gift to Her Majesty's Navy. In 1880, after the ship was decommissioned, Queen Victoria had the desk made and sent as a gift to President Rutherford B. Hayes. It was used by successive presidents in the Residence until President John F. Kennedy moved to the Oval Office in the West Wing. President Lyndon Johnson chose to use a different desk, and the Resolute desk went into a traveling exhibit and then to the Smithsonian. It was returned to the Oval Office for President Jimmy Carter and retained by President Ronald Reagan. President George Bush used it in the Residence. President Bill Clinton returned it to the Oval Office, and President Bush chose to continue using it. We anticipate that every future president will plan to use it somewhere in the White House due to it great historical associations.

Miranda, from NY writes:
Is the portrait of George Washington that Dolley Madison had cut out of its frame during the War of 1812 in the White House today? Thank you.

Bill Allman
Dear Miranda: On August 24, 1814, as British troops approached Washington during the War of 1812, Dolley Madison directed that the great Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington be removed to safety. The frame was broken open, and the painting was handed over to "two gentlemen from New York" who volunteered to take it out of the city. After the White House was burned and heavily rebuilt, the painting was again hung in the building. As the first art work hung in the White House in 1800 and a survivor of the fire, the painting, which now hangs in the East Room, is the most prized object in the White House collection.

Lisa, from Bangkok, Thailand writes:
Bill, where does all the furniture go when administrations change? Is it properly cared for, due to its historical nature?

Bill Allman
Dear Lisa: All of the objects in the permanent White House collection are properly cared for. Unlike traditional museums, however, where objects are under glass or behind ropes, we do allow guests to use objects for the purposes for which they were created - to sit on chairs, walk on rugs, eat or drink from china and silver. Still everything is fully documented, carefully inventoried each year, and conserved when wear or damage occurs. When objects are not in use, they are stored both on-site and off-site.

Mary, from Bethesda, MD writes:
Hi Mr. Allman, How many grandfather clocks are in the Whitehouse, their age, and origins? Do they all chime? I've really enjoyed the Whitehouse for the first time thanks to this website. Thank you all very much.

Bill Allman
Dear Mary: The White House collection includes some very fine American tall case clocks, often called grandfather clocks. For most of these, the clocksmith has marked the dial with his name, such as a clock outside the Family Dining Room by the noted Massachusetts maker, Aaron Willard, c.1800. For these, the cabinetmaker who made the wonderful mahogany cases are not identified. In contrast, there is a truly magnificent clock in the President's Oval Office, one often seen on television, on which the dial is unmarked, but the case bears the initials of the cabinetmaker, John Seymour of Boston. The inlays on the case are fantastic and very characteristic of Seymour's work. By direction of President Harry Truman, the chimes on all clocks have been turned off. Keeping old clocks in perfect synchronicity so that they sound together, would be nearly impossible.

stuart, from scotland writes:
Hello sir I am a teenager from Scotland who would Like to know, When was the white house built and who was the architect who designed it Thank You so much Stuart Hamilton

Bill Allman
Dear Stuart. In 1792 a design competition was held for the President's House. The winner was James Hoban, who was born and trained in Dublin, Ireland. Construction began that year with the laying of the cornerstone. The building was sufficiently complete in November 1800 for President and Mrs. John Adams to move in as the first occupants. To build the sandstone structure and carve beautiful capitals for the columns and decorative work over the north door, masons were recruited from Scotland.

Ben, from Washington D.C. writes:
How did the naming of the rooms as colors first come about?

Bill Allman
Dear Ben: Early in the 1800s, when the White House was new, the rooms were lighted at night with candles in the chandeliers or small lamps that burned whale oil. To help make the rooms seem lighter, the walls were painted or wallpapered in very light colors. Darker colors were used for the fabrics used for the draperies and to upholster the chairs or in the rugs for the floors. It was in the 1820s that green became the principal color in what is now called the Green Room. The Blue Room was a little later, becoming blue in 1837. The names for the three main parlors - Green Room, Blue Room, and Red Room - were reinforced in 1902, when a renovation for President Theodore Roosevelt included covering the walls of those three rooms with cloth in those three colors. Two rooms still have silk cloth on the walls. The Blue Room has a light-colored wallpaper, but sapphire blue draperies, chairs, and rug.

Patrick, from Indianapolis writes:
Whatever became of Amy Carter's Treehouse?

Bill Allman
Dear Patrick: President Jimmy Carter designed a tree house for his daughter in 1977. We have in our archives the sketch he did on a piece of yellow lined paper. The tree house was actually a platform on stilts set among the branches of a large tree on the west side of the south lawn. It was disassembled in 1981 when the Carters left the White House. We still have it in storage as part of the many interesting historic objects we preserve.

Tom, from Columbus Ohio writes:
What is the history behind the Gorham King Charles sterling flatware service? I believe that it was purchased during the Nixon administration. Was it a custom design? How many pieces are in the service? It does not seem to appear often at state dinners. When and how often is it used? Thank you.

Bill Allman
Dear Tom: A set of sterling silver flatware was ordered in the Nixon administration and received in 1974 after President Ford took office. It is a traditional English "Kings" pattern which Gorham had named "King Charles" for it to be sold by "Historic Charleston" South Carolina. It is often used for formal luncheons and sometimes for dinners. For state dinners, the formal events held for the leaders of other nations that are most often seen on the television or in newspaper photos, the tables are set with the gilded silver flatware that dates from different eras. The forks were made in 1894, the dinner knives in 1924, and other pieces in 1950 and 1994.

Rich, from Richmond, VA writes:
I know many public history professionals that have a really hard time finding work. How did you get such a great job?!? Luck? Charm? Good looks?

Bill Allman
Dear Rich: You've heard the old adage "right place at the right time"? After college I applied for a summer job with the National Park Service and ended up working for the Office of White House Liaison researching White House furniture in Park Service storage. When a job came open at the Curator's Office, where all of my work product was going, I was asked to join the White House Residence staff. I have worked here ever since, moving up from Assistant Curator to Curator last August. It has been a fantastic place to work for 27 years - a great collection of objects, wonderful people, amazing opportunities.

Tubby, from Fort Smith writes:
What is your favorite Allman Brothers album?

Bill Allman
Dear Tubby: I think "Brothers and Sisters". You cannot imagine how many times people ask, "Any relation to the Allman Brothers?" None that I know of, but I could use a little of their money.

Rocky, from Toledo writes:
I imagine you've seen The American President and the other movies which feature the White House. Have you been impressed by any of the movies for their realism? Are there any movies which were completely wrong?

Bill Allman
Dear Rocky: "The American President" had some convincing sets. The China Room was pretty good until Michael Douglas called it the "Dish Room", but that's what made it very funny to us. One little known movie that has quite impressive sets is "Wilson" produced by Darryl F. Zanuck in the 1940s. In "American President", "Independence Day", and even television show "The West Wing", the paintings on the walls actually have been reproduced from photos of paintings in the White House collection.

Meagan, from Oro Valley, AZ writes:
Do you have any personal favorites among the works of art that grace the walls of the White House? Do you have any ideas about President Bush's favorite work of art?

Bill Allman
Dear Meagan: I am very partial to portraiture because the paintings also tell stories of people and their contributions to our history. One of my favorites is "Thomas Jefferson" by Rembrandt Peale that hangs in the Blue Room. Also the great John Singer Sargent of Theodore Roosevelt in the East Room. Works by the American Impressionists are also a favorite, especially "Avenue in the Rain" by Childe Hassam, an atmospheric scene of American flags hanging in New York just before the American entry into World War I. This great painting hangs in the office adjoining the President's Oval Office where his immediate staff works. I imagine he likes it, too. President Bush selected for the Oval Office works that depict his native Texas. One special painting he selected as "A Charge to Keep", a scene of Western riders that inspired a book he wrote. He always talks to guests about this painting that is loaned from a personal friend.

Todd, from Omaha writes:
How has the Lincoln bedroom changed over the years?

Bill Allman
Dear Todd: For most of the 19th century, the rooms at the east end of the Second Floor of the Residence were used as the presidential offices. The large room on the south side was most often the president's office. After the building of what is now called the West Wing in 1902, the offices were moved out of the house, and this large room became a bedroom. In 1945, President Harry Truman asked that the Lincoln-era furniture that had survived in the White House be moved into the room which had been President Lincoln's office and Cabinet room, where he signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. The room then became "the Lincoln Bedroom", although it was not a bedroom in Lincoln's own time.

Pete, from Hershey, Pennsylvania writes:
Are Barney and Spot allowed in the Oval Office?

Bill Allman
Dear Pete: Barney and Spot are regular visitors to the Oval Office. They love to play in the Rose Garden and on the south lawn. When they are spotted by visitors, they quickly attract all sorts of attention. The theme for the Christmas decorations this past year were the pets and animals associated with the first families, and Spot and Barney had a central place in the decorations.

Tom, from Australia writes:
Good day matey!! Have you ever featured any Australian artifacts at the White House?

Bill Allman
Dear Tom: The White House collection focuses on "Americana", things made in America or things imported to America before there were American firms making such things as fine porcelains or carpets. We do have a beautiful early 19th century desk and bookcase in a guest bedroom on the Third Floor which bears some veneer of Botany Bay oak, a highly ornamented wood sometimes imported from Australia for American cabinetmaking. Occasionally, the presidents and first ladies will exhibit in their private quarters items they receive as state gifts or received while traveling abroad.

Ben, from Corpus Christi writes:
There are plenty of fun rumors out there about the occasional haunting at the White House. You've been there for quite some time and I'm sure you've at least heard of these rumors. Any truth to them?

Bill Allman
Ben: Although I do not personally believe in ghosts, other people have claimed to have felt the presence of President Abraham Lincoln, probably because, as an assassinated president, his spirit may still be abroad. President Ronald Reagan's daughter, Maureen, often brought her little dog with her when visiting the White House. She claimed the dog would often stand at the door an bark into the Lincoln Bedroom as if something was in the room ahead of him. President Harry Truman commented on paintings being crooked, suggesting movement by a ghost, but it was probably more a matter of the old White House gradually settling down, a movement which resulted in a complete renovation of the building from 1948-1952.

Bill Allman
Thanks everyone. The questions were varied and interesting. I hope that I was able to provide the replies for which you were hoping. Very sincerely, Bill Allman.