Saturday, March 3, 2018

Inside the White House: The Red Room

For visitors of the White House in Washington D.C., the Red Room is a favorite on the tour--and it's also been a favorite of many members of presidential families. As one of the three parlors on the state floor, it's been used as a reception room for decades, but it hasn't always been that way. Nor has the room always been red!
The Red Room during the Clinton Administration. Public Domain. 
In 1803, Jefferson appointed Benjamin Latrobe as "Surveyor of Public Buildings," and Latrobe set about overseeing repairs and modifications to the house. When he drew his design for the state floor of the White House (what is now the first floor), he referred to what we now call The Red Room as the "President's Antichamber" (sic) for the Cabinet Room or the President's Library (now the State Dining Room).

When Dolley Madison became first lady in 1809, she transformed the space into a Yellow Drawing Room, where she held her Wednesday night receptions. It's assumed the walls and furnishings were gold or yellow, but the curtains she ordered were made of scarlet velvet. 

After the White House was gutted in the fire of 1814, President Monroe's administration oversaw the reconstruction. He ordered furnishings in the Empire style: carved wood mounted with ormulu (decorative gilded bronze hardware in designs like dolphins, leaves, and sphinxes). The chamber still doesn't appear to have been called the Red Room, however; it was known as the Washington Parlor during the Polk and Tyler Administrations because Gilbert Stuart's portrait of George Washington hung in the room.

While the name may have changed, the furnishings do not appear to have changed much between Monroe's time and the Lincoln Administration, for contemporary journalist Noah Brooks described the ormulu work, crimson and gold furnishings, and age of the pieces dating from Madison's time. The Lincolns used it as a music room and informal meeting place; Mary Todd Lincoln received private callers here, and President Lincoln met his friends for social evenings in this room. 
The Red Room during the Grant Administration, which was used as their family living room. Note the light color of the walls. Public Domain.
Hand-tinted etching of the Red Room, 1887, Cleveland Administration. Library of Congress
During the Theodore Roosevelt Administration, renovations were completed on the White House, including the Red Room, by architectural firm McKim, Mead & White. The walls were hung with burgundy silk velvet, and the Empire style furnishings were replaced with late nineteenth-century pieces.

The Red Room During the Theodore Roosevelt Administration, hand-tinted. Public Domain
When the White House was reconstructed during the Truman Administration, the Red Room was dismantled and rebuilt with lower ceilings to accommodate air conditioning. Few pieces of furniture remained in the house that were original, so B. Altman's stores' design department was hired to furnish the rooms. The walls were papered with red silk damask and curtains to match, and a large matching rug covered the floor.

Jacqueline Kennedy's refurbishment of the White House began in the Red Room, and it was done in a French style. The walls were hung with a pinkish-red color, cerise, and authentic Empire-style pieces were purchased to augment sofas donated from the families of Martha Washington and Dolley Madison, as well as items pulled from storage. 
Funeral Reception for John F. Kennedy, 1963. Public Domain.
Most of the furniture still present in the Red Room came from the Kennedy Administration and the Nixon Administration. During the Nixon renovation, the walls were changed from cerise to scarlet, and the 1842 portrait of Van Buren's daughter-in-law and hostess, Angelica Van Buren, was placed over the fireplace--where it remains to this day.

Nancy Reagan, 1981. Note the painting of Angelica Van Buren over the mantel. Public Domain.
The Clinton Administration changed the walls to a deeper scarlet color, which is more in keeping to the early nineteenth-century decor. Each piece of furniture is covered in fabric woven in the United States.

Whatever its decor has been over the past two hundred years, the Red Room has remained a popular place for gathering: a family living room for the Grants, a cozy setting for tea parties for the Eisenhowers, a place for intimate dining parties for the Clintons, a spot to receive female members of the press for Eleanor Roosevelt, and a favorite room of Nancy Reagan. 

It's my favorite, too.



Susanne Dietze began writing love stories in high school, casting her friends in the starring roles. Today, she's the award-winning author of a dozen new and upcoming historical romances. A pastor's wife and mom of two, she loves fancy-schmancy tea parties, the beach, and curling up on the couch with a costume drama and a plate of nachos. You can visit her on her website,, to learn about her new romance, A Mother For His Family


  1. Thank you for sharing this wonderful bit of history, Susanne. The White House is certainly something to see and anyone should take the opportunity if given the chance.

    1. I'm so glad you enjoyed the post, Melanie! I visited the White House years ago and look forward to taking my children at some point.

  2. Thanks for the information! The history of that room alone is amazing!

    1. Isn't it a beautiful room, Connie? I love the color red, but everything about it is just stunning to me.

  3. Thank you so much Susanne for sharing this interesting history of the White House. I remember visiting there as a child with my parents.
    Blessings, Tina

    1. What a fun memory, Tina! I loved visiting the White House. It was before 9/11, but even then we were rushed through, and I would have loved to linger in the Red Room for a few minutes to soak it all in.

  4. Suzanne, thank you for sharing this informative history of the White House.

    1. I'm so glad you enjoyed it, Marilyn! The White House has such a rich and fascinating history, doesn't it?

  5. Thanks for sharing about the White House changes, Susie. I haven't heard about the current president's changes, but then he's been in the news for so many other things that perhaps something as mundane as house furnishings haven't reached us yet. Has he changed anything? Is the Red Room still red?

    1. I was wondering the same thing, Anita. I know there has been some restorative work done at the White House in the past year, but I don't think any of the decor has changed. Nowadays there are committees etc to ensure the historic public rooms aren't just changed willy nilly, so I think it's still the same! I'll let you know if I find out differently!