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South end of the Secretary of War's Reception Room (Room 231), ca. 1925. Photo courtesy of the National Archives.
Evidence of the painted Palmette pattern on the plaster cove in room 231. EOP Preservation Office photo.
Also prominent in the design were two mahogany fireplace mantels. The reception room had a large mantel supported by enormous winged griffins, and the office had a simpler design. Both had overmantle mirrors consisting of small beveled panes of glass.
The walls were covered with "Lincrusta Walton," a linseed oil-based wall covering made and finished to imitate tooled Moroccan leather, and the ceiling was painted in trompe l'oeil frescoes by New York artist C. Otto Ficht using more than fifteen different colors4 that fool the eye into thinking that the shadows on the heavily carved detail is cast from the light of the room's window.
South view in the Secretary of War's Reception Room in 1932. Note the ceiling fresco with the image of Mars in his chariot pulled by two horses. Photo courtesy of the National Archives.
Unfortunately, the frescoes were painted over sometime around 1932, and have been covered ever since. While much of the painted decoration remains beneath the paint, the 1980s paint analysis identified methods to uncover the design, recreate the patterns, and restore it to view.
1888 view north in the Secretary of War's Reception Room showing the original light fixture, the Lincrusta Walton wall covering, and the image on the ceiling of Mars in his chariot pulled by two horses. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Some of the many important activities to occur in these rooms include selection of the artist in 1887 to design the statue of General Lafayette that is located across the street in Lafayette Park, and selection and approval in 1891 of the design by sculptor St. Gaudens for a monument to General John Logan in Chicago, Illinois. On February 2, 1904, Governor William H. Taft took the oath of office in the reception room from outgoing Secretary of War, Elihu Root, to become the new Secretary of War. In 1908 while in his office in room 232, Secretary of War Taft received word by telephone that the Republican convention in Chicago had nominated him for the presidency.
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