Saturday, November 3, 2018

Inside the White House: The State Dining Room

The State Dining Room is one of the most heavily-used chambers in the White House. For over two hundred years, it's served as a formal dining room for up to 140 guests, a place for business meetings and forums, a presidential office, a cabinet room, and a drawing room. It's also where the annual gingerbread house is displayed each holiday season.
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State Dining Room after June, 2015 refurbishment. Public Domain.
The current look of the State Dining Room is the result of work by Michelle Obama and the Committee for the Preservation of the White House, and it features a wool rug that mimics the plaster molding of the ceiling and 34 mahogany chairs. Creamy silk draperies are accented with stripes of bright blue, which complements the Kailua blue in the Obama china pattern, honoring Obama's home state of Hawaii. The drapes hang from carved and gilded poles, which complement the drapery poles in the Red and Green Rooms.

However, the State Dining Room looks quite different today than it did in its original form. The northern third of the room was once part of the Cross Hall. When President John Adams moved into the White House, he was its first occupant, and he found the house far too large for his personal needs. The State Dining Room was partitioned into smaller spaces, and while part of it was used as a dining room, the southwest corner was used as a "levee room,"or drawing room, where the president could chat with members of the public.

In 1801, Thomas Jefferson used this "levee room" as an office. Over the course of his terms, he furnished the room with bookshelves, stools, three tables, armchairs, and a step stool--all mahogany. The floor was covered in green-painted canvas (much like he did in the "dining room" which is now known as the "Green Room"), and he also kept his gardening tools here.

However, the next occupants of the White House, James and Dolley Madison, wanted the room to serve as a dining room, as intended. After some construction work, they replaced the canvas flooring with an ingrain carpet, hung paintings of Washington, Adams, and Jefferson on the walls, and furnished the chamber with a sideboard and a table that could seat 40. The Madisons ordered blue-and-gold china from England, and a centerpiece.

"The President's House" by George Munger, 1814-1815, Public Domain
The room did not stay this way for long, because the White House was burned and gutted in 1814 during the war against the British. When President James Monroe oversaw the restoration (his wife was too ill to assist), he chose to cover the walls of the State Dining Room in green silk. He ordered two mantels made of Italian Carrara marble for the fireplaces, and purchased several ormolu (gilt-bronze) pieces.

One such ormolu piece, an adjustable, mirrored "surtout de table," or "plateau" centerpiece, is still in use today. It came from France and is 14 feet long when at its full length. Garlands of fruit and flowers adorn the rim, and Roman goddesses serve as candle holders. Many Americans hadn't seen pieces like this, and found it to be elegant and impressive. (The photo below shows the plateau, but to see a better resolution photo of the plateau, click here. Alas, the photo is copyrighted and I am unable to share it here.)

The Monroe Plateau is somewhat visible in this photo, taken in the 2000s. Public Domain.

Monroe also ordered tableware and dishes, including 72 place settings of silver, platters, soup tureens, and other dishes. He also ordered 36 settings of vermeil (gold-covered silver) flatware. A 30-setting dessert service from France also arrived at the White House.
The Monroe China made by by P.L. Dagoty, Paris, France, c. 1817. Public Domain.
The State Dining Room was refurbished several times over the next century. President Andrew Jackson replaced the wallpaper with a blue, green, yellow, and white style that also featured gilt borders and gold stars. It was during his administration that the room was first called the "State Dining Room." However, his greatest gift to the State Dining Room might have been moving the stables, which were located outside the room's south window at the time. When windows were opened, it did not make for a pleasant dining experience. 

The color scheme was changed by President Van Buren, and again by President Polk (this time to purple and gold). It was in this room that the first photograph was taken of a president and his advisers, when John Plumbe, Jr., photographed James K. Polk and his cabinet at the start of the Mexican War. 

Eight years later, President Franklin Pierce switched out the carpet and drapes, repainted, and converted the chandeliers to natural gas.
State Dining Room during Pierce Administration (1853-1857). Public Domain.
By the 1850s, it was acknowledged that the State Dining Room was too small for many state functions, and overflow guests were often seated in the Cross Hall. Nevertheless, dining here was a formal affair. Guests walked in to music, and were seated by a chart. The president was served first, and no one could leave the table until he did.
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State Dinner at the White House, 1871. Public Domain.
Furnishings seem to have changed often according to the taste of the first family, and it was redecorated several times. In the 1880s, during the administration of President Chester A. Arthur, Tiffany & Co. was contracted to redecorate the room and re-gild pieces, including the Monroe tableau.
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The State Dining Room in 1891, about  the time electricity was added. Public Domian.
In 1891, the room was electrified and electric wall sconces were added.

During the Roosevelt renovation of 1902, when many White House rooms saw a major overhaul, the State Dining Room took on a "baronial" appearance, with tapestries on the wall, cooking racks over the fireplace, dark English oak paneling, and oak flooring. A new, massive stone fireplace with the famous "Buffalo mantel" (so called because a buffalo head is carved into it) was added where a door had once been. Game trophies of North American animals were mounted above the oak panels: bison, caribou, Alaskan sheep, and Kodiak bear. A moose head went over the fireplace. 
State Dining Room after 1904. Public Domain
One of the first things First Lady First Ellen Axson Wilson did upon occupying the White House in 1913 was removing the game trophies.

In 1939, George P. A. Healy’s 1869 portrait of Abraham Lincoln was hung above the mantel. It is still there today. Another feature of the room today was installed in 1945, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered John Adams' famous blessing carved into the fireplace. Written in 1800, the blessing reads:  "I pray Heaven to bestow the best of Blessings on this House and on all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but honest and wise Men ever rule under this roof."

A reconstruction of the house was found to be necessary during the administration of Harry S Truman, and the building was dismantled so a steel superstructure could be inserted within the sandstone walls. much of the State Dining Room's features didn't withstand the renovations well, and the wood paneling was painted celadon green to cover its new flaws. The Buffalo mantel went with Truman to his presidential library.

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The State Dining Room following its refurbishment during the Truman Administration. Public Domain.
First Lady Mamie Eisenhower decorated the State Dining Room for each holiday, with cornstalks and jack o'-lanterns at Halloween, green ribbon for St. Patrick's Day, and hearts at Valentine's Day.

Naturally, when Jackie Kennedy set about to refurbish the White House, she set her eye on the State Dining Room. A copy of the Buffalo mantel was installed, the paneling was painted bone color, and many items were re-gilded to match the Monroe centerpiece. The Kennedys also changed the structure of the tables, preferring rounds to the E-shaped table used by previous administrations.

Because the room is so heavily used, it requires upgrading and updating frequently. It has been redecorated or refurbished in some way or another during the administrations of most presidents who followed Kennedy, including Johnson, Nixon, Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Clinton, and Obama.

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Michelle Obama and military families prepare honey tea stirrers and crafts in 2012, before the Obama refurbishment. Photo by Chuck Kennedy. Public Domain.
The State Dining Room continues to be a busy place. During the holiday season in 2006, 45,000 guests would enter the room, either as part of a tour, on official business, or as a guest for a meal. That month, 20,000 Christmas cookies, 15,000 Chocolate Truffles, 3,000 racks of lamb, and 500 Filets of Beef would be consumed in the room. Little wonder it requires new carpeting and updates so often!
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Holiday decorations in 2006 by Shealah Craighead. Public Domain.

If one is fortunate enough to secure an invitation to the White House and dine here, one could only imagine the mealtime discussions that have occurred here.

Susanne Dietze began writing love stories in high school, casting her friends in the starring roles. Today, she's the award-winning author of over a dozen  romances who's seen her work on the ECPA, Amazon, and Publisher's Weekly Bestseller Lists for Inspirational Fiction. Married to a pastor and the mom of two, Susanne lives in California and enjoys fancy-schmancy tea parties, genealogy, the beach, and curling up on the couch with a costume drama and a plate of nachos. You can learn more at her website,


  1. I just love these tours. Thank you!

    1. I'm so glad you could come back for a visit in this room! Thanks for saying hi, Connie. Have a great day.

  2. Very interesting! Thanks for posting.

    1. I'm glad you enjoyed it, KayM! Thanks! Have a wonderful evening!