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.
Hello, again. I'm Bill Allman, Curator of the White House. It was fun to field your questions a few months ago. I look forward to some good ones today as well. Let's go!
Judy, from Toledo, Ohio
What is the oldest original piece of art that is currently hanging in the White House? Thank you, Judy
Judy: The oldest painting in our collection is a portrait of Benjamin Franklin painted in 1759 by Benjamin Wilson. This portrait, which shows a streak of lightning to commemorate Franklin's experiments with electricity, hung in Franklin's home in Philadelphia. During British occupation of the city during the American Revolution, it was taken by Major John Andre, who later conspired with Benedict Arnold. It was taken to England. In 1906, Lord Grey, who was appointed Governor General of Canada, brought it back to the United States as a gift to the White House. It hangs in the Treaty Room, the President's private office upstairs in the Residence.
Catherine, from Arlington, Texas writes:
I know that each President makes some changes to the furnishings while they are living there, but what happens to the furniture and stuff that they hate? Does the White House have an attic? If so, what's in it?
Catherine: Objects in the White House collection belong forever to the White House. Unlike some museums, we do not de-accession or remove objects from our collection. When things are not in use, they are very carefully stored, either in the White House or in our support facility off-site. They remain available for future presidents and first ladies to use. This includes some paintings but also furniture, rugs, and other decorative arts objects.
Mike, from Indianapolis, IN
I know The White House has many more pieces than what is used. Where do you store the extras and how is it cared for in storage? Are pieces ever loaned to other homes, museums or institutions? Can I borrow something for my house? Also, what has been the strangest gift added to The White House collection? Thanks!
Mike: I just told Catherine a bit about storage of objects. We occasionally lend things from our collection, but only to the Smithsonian Institution and such Federal agencies as the National Park Service and the National Archives for the presidential libraries. Sometimes, if an exhibit is sponsored jointly by the Smithsonian and another museum, we let an object travel to both places. Nothing for your house, however! When objects are offered as gifts, we very carefully consider their suitability since we never part with any of them. Things that are given to the president generally do not stay with us but go to his presidential library. So most of the stranger things do not become permanent White House property. In times gone by, this was not always the case. One curious thing we have is a chair carved out of a tree trunk. It was sent to the White House in 1932, probably to honor the 200th anniversary of George Washington's birth. It is surprisingly comfortable.
jazmine, from arizona writes:
did george washington live in the white house
Dear Jazmine: President Washington was active in picking the site of the White House, picking the architect, and supervising construction, but never lived in the building. He left office in 1797 and died in 1799. His successor, John Adams, became the building's first occupant in November 1800.
Doug, from Utah writes:
I understand there's a portrait of each President in the White House correct?. When are the portraits painted - toward the beginning or the end of their tenure? How is the artist selected? Thanks.
Dear Doug: Portraits of the presidents are usually painted after they leave office. Sometimes the president knows an artist, sometimes he picks from among artists who send examples of their works to us. Arrangements are then made for him to sit for the artist and approve the finished product. Unless the president has friends who would like to donate the painting, it is paid for by the White House Historical Association which gives it to the White House.
Maria, from Tampa Bay writes:
Is it true that the U.S. never paid for the HMS Resolute desk?
Dear Maria: The "Resolute desk" - now in the Oval Office - was a gift from Queen Victoria, so there was no cost involved. The history of the desk - made from the wood of an English warship rescued from Arctic ice and returned to her majesty's navy - can be found in the answers I provided the last time I was on line.
Taj, from Orlando writes:
What are the paintings in the Oval Office?
Taj: Each president can choose the paintings hung in the Oval Office. For President Bush, several paintings of Texas were borrowed from Texas museums, to remind him of his home state. Three are by Julian Onderdonk, including one of the Alamo and one of a hillside of bluebonnets, the Texas state flower. There is also a painting of west Texas by Tom Lea, an artist the President knew personally. A very special painting of western horse riders "A Charge to Keep" by W.H.D. Koerner was lent from a friend of the President. It reminds him of a book he wrote using the same title. Two portraits from the permanent collection - George Washington by Rembrandt Peale and Abraham Lincoln by George Henry Story - are also hanging in his office.
Bill, from Augusta, Georgia writes:
Of all the Presidential pets you've seen, do you have one interesting story that stands out?
Dear Bill: I remember Millie, the dog who collaborated with First Lady Barbara Bush in writing a book about life in the White House. She is the mother of one of President and Mrs. Bush's dogs, Spottie, who was born at the White House. Millie became very adept at riding the elevator from the Ground Floor back upstairs to the Second Floor, if someone would just push the button for her. One day, she got on with me. When the door opened on the First Floor instead of the Second, she heard Mrs. Bush's voice and ran off. Streaming down the hallway on the marble floor, her legs went out from under her and she slid several yards along the shiny stone, ending up right at Mrs. Bush's feet.
Sabine, from Vienna writes:
Where's the tree-trunk-chair standing, and can one try it?
Sabine: The tree-trunk chair was one of those items in storage for a long time. But Mrs. Bush thought it would be a nice addition to the Solarium. This is a room on top of the South Portico in the private quarters. It has large glass windows and a great view of Washington. It is used by the First Family and guests as a comfortable sitting room. The chair fits in perfectly.
Lee, from Edina, Minnesota
Hi Bill. Thanks for taking the time to answer our questions. I have always noticed a small box that the President Bush, Clinton, Bush, Reagan have located in front of them in the cabinet room on the table next to their coffee. I have also seen this small box on the President's desk in the Oval and on the small table next to the fire place during press visits. What is that box for?? Thanks Lee
Dear Lee: The box has a buzzer so the President can call for something he might need.
pierre, from california writes:
i read on your website that Great Britian had lent a bust of winston churchill to Pres. Bush. Does the White House have any pieces out on loan to other governments? Or other places, for that matter?
Dear Pierre: When President Bush told British Prime Minister Tony Blair that he admired Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister lent a bust of Churchill by Sir Jacob Epstein for display in the Oval Office. We do not have any items similarly on loan to any other governments. In another reply earlier today, I explained a bit about our lending policy.
kyle, from athens, GA writes:
i went on a white house tour pretty recently...is it true that every president has a potrait in the White House? how is it decided where these pictures are placed? for example, JFK's in the main entryway?
Kyle: Yes, every president is represented by a portrait in the White House. Some are great works, some were not painted from life. In some cases, we have more than one portrait of some presidents. The portraits of the most recent former presidents hang on the State Floor - in the Entrance Hall, Cross Hall, and Grand Staircase. Often the two that face each other across the Entrance Hall have been the two most recent. When the portrait of former President George Bush arrived, President Bill Clinton asked if he could hang opposite it a portrait of one of his favorites, John F. Kennedy. That way both political parties - Republican and Democratic - would be represented. Since he was a Democrat, he wanted balance. Otherwise his two predecessors were both Republicans - George Bush and Ronald Reagan. In one case - President James Buchanan - a large portrait painted in 1902 long after he died - is not a best work of art, but we have more recently acquired a wonderful miniature portrait painted in 1850 from life. So the better, but smaller portrait, is the one currently on display in the house.
Rob, from Houston writes:
Mr. Allman, Who funds the purchase of new furniture, artwork, and the upkeep of the White House?
Rob: The government pays for the operation and maintenance of the White House. For major refurbishings of the public rooms, funds come from the White House Endowment Fund; for major acquisitions of artwork and furnishings, the White House Acquisition Trust can provide funds. Both of these sources are administered by the White House Historical Association from an endowment raised from public contributions. We also receive objects as gifts from generous private donors.
tim, from akron, ohio writes:
is there an indoor or outdoor basketball court at the white house? is it regulation length?
Dear Tim: The White House has a basketball hoop for half-court play outside. It is located on the South Grounds, not far from the tennis court. The swimming pool is also outdoors, although we once had an indoor pool.
Joan, from Kingston writes:
Somebody told me that the Blair House is actually larger than the White House.....is that true?
Dear Joan: Blair House, the government guest house for visiting dignitaries, is actually formed from several townhouses along Pennsylvania Avenue and Jackson Place. There is also a modern wing in the rear. It is a pretty large facility, but I do not know its exact size.
Stephanie, from Rockford,Illinois writes:
You are the curator of the Whitehouse...does that mean that the Whitehouse is a museum?
Dear Stephanie: The White House is a museum, but one that is a little different from most others historic house museums. Traditional museums do not let people touch their collections. But the White House also is a functioning official residence for the Presidents where people sit on the chairs, walk on the rugs, etc., all of which are museum objects in our collection. We still apply all of the other standard museum procedures for collections care and interpretation, and we have official museum accreditation by the American Association of Museums.
Jordan, from Seattle writes:
What is the most expensive piece of furniture in the white house and where is it located?
Dear Jordan: We do not worry about the value of pieces in our collection. Simply being in the White House gives a lot of extra market value to even the simplest of objects. Furniture that we acquired brand new in the 19th century may not have cost much at the time; but by being used in the White House for more than a hundred years those pieces have enormous value to the White House and the nation. We do not have things appraised for value because the Federal Government insures itself and its property. Certainly the Resolute desk in the Oval Office and the Lincoln Bed would be among the most valuable pieces because of their symbolic and historical importance.
Thanks again for sending in so many interesting questions. I hope that my responses were of as much value to you as your questions were valuable to us. With best wishes from your White House. Bill Allman