Aestheticism hits the White House, the Tiffany/Arthur collaboration 1882

Like a fragile St.John preaching in the desert, St. Oscar lands upon our barren shores on January 3rd 1882 ready to preach the Gospel of Aestheticism.

St. John the Baptist



(the above completely gratuitous , hunky men never fail to please)

Oscar Wilde had intended to spend four months cultivating the Cave-people of North America, poor fellow found himself stuck here for a year.

cartoon of Wilde by Keller, 1882

I feel for Wilde, I doubt most Americans were open to his fey notions of  Aesthetic Beauty. We tend to favor a robust expression of architecture, the infestation of Richardson Romanesque piles providing suitable argument.

Yet his wit and taste clearly affected at least one very important dandy, President Chester A. Arthur.

21st President Chester A. Arthur

term Sep. 19th 1881-Mar.4th 1885

20th President James A. Garfield and his Vice President Chester A. Arthur

“Chet” finding himself  President after the tragic assassination of President James A. Garfield, was  confronted with a new home loathsome to his own rarefied tastes. Finding the White House and its decor  outmoded and decrepit; Arthur shed the house of 24 wagonloads of furnishings and 30 barrels of old china. Like many of my readers, I cringe at what was lost.

Foolish where it concerns our heritage, he was quite wise in hiring the young buck Louis Comfort Tiffany, son of his friend Charles Lewis Tiffany. Tiffany the younger had recently formed the design firm Associated Artists. Arthur assigns them the commission to redecorate the Entry Hall, East Room, Blue Room, Red Room, and State Dining Room in 1882. The decision was made not to redecorate the Green Room. Furnishings were not to be commissioned, but architectural enhancements such as glass screens, lighting, and decorative finishes were to be employed to create this Aesthetic Palace we know as the White House.

a youthful Louis Comfort Tiffany

The Entry Hall

The Entry had long posed a problem in its draftiness. In 1837 President Martin Van Buren installs a decorative screen to combat the problem. In 1853 President Franklin Pierce hires the Philadelphian architect Thomas Ustick Walter to fashion a more agreeable screen. This screen was apparently handsome enough for Tiffany to fabricate his own wonder upon it’s skeleton.

This scene from 1881 shows the Walter screen of 1853

Tiffany transforms the Entry Hall into a harem worthy of any Pasha’s attention.

Entrance 1882

Tiffany’s jewel like vision was not to be long lived. The delicate red, white, and blue opalescent splendor  was not suitably American for Teddy and his Big Stick. Soon enough, that Big Stick would send crashing to the ground all that Aesthetic prettiness.

ca. 1889

either the Cleveland or Harrison administration.

ca. 1893

Cleveland administration.

The skeleton of the Walter’s screen very visible.

I like the eagle motif between the arches.

ca. 1894

Cleveland administration.

I particularly like the ungodly overmantle decoration. not sure if its Tiffany’s doing. Seems a bit un-Aesthetic, but is typical of my preference for the vulgar.

The Roosevelt Big Stick has entered the room!


The 26th President,Theodore Roosevelt’s

the McKim, Mead, & White renovation full steam ahead.

A tragic and beautiful image, reminiscent of Pompeii.

ca. 1903

Almost completed and ready for its close up.

As I mentioned Tiffany was in charge of the Red, Blue, Dining, and East Room, I will present a few glimpses.

Red Room

ca. 1883

Tiffany’s dreamy vision

ca. 1888

Mrs. Cleveland tainted the Aesthetic purity with conventional touches, the Asian vases selected by Tiffany, replaced with the following commonplace urns.

(do like the lampshade.)

The Blue Room

I’ve discussed this room before, but it’s worth revisiting.

ca. 1882

Note the patriotic shields in the ceiling decoration, proving  Aestheticism can indeed be red blooded American.

ca. 188g

digital reconstruction by Nest magazine.

The East Room

ca. 1883

I was unable to find any images of the State dining Room attributed to Tiffany, the following is dated the 1880’s. It may have been from the Garfield administration. It’s pretty conventional, so that is most likely.

ca. 1880’s

I’ll bet you a nickel it ISN’T Lewis Comfort’s work.

As I said this Eastern Splendor was short-lived.

The magnificent glass screen which had cost $15,000.00 to fashion, was auctioned off in 1902  for $275.00. The screen ultimately met its sad end when its new home the Belvedere Hotel in Chesepeake Maryland burnt to the ground. For more information concerning the ill-fated screen follow this link

As in all things, ashes to ashes and dust to dust.

Have a great week.

12 Responses to “Aestheticism hits the White House, the Tiffany/Arthur collaboration 1882”

  1. LoveloveLOVE your blog, I think I got here from Chateau Thombeau. Just one thing: The difference between it’s and its. It’s is used when you can say “it is” when you’re talking about possession it’s always “its”.

    For example, when talking about a newly acquired Eastern Bloc houseboy:
    “It’s named Ivan, and I’d like to remove its pants with my teeth.”

    • babylonbaroque Says:

      Dear Miss Plumcake,
      First thank you.
      You have caught me with my Eastern Bloc pants down. One of my great shames, and trust me I have many, is my grammar. I am self educated, and so often that shows. Have heart dear Reader, I am in school sittin’ with the young’uns’ trying to catch up.
      I must say i will NEVER forget your ditty.
      Please keep following , bad grammar or not.
      Sincerely grateful,

  2. My Dear Leonard~ I adore Tiffany! My poor husband is tortured by my never ending efforts to install any type of beautiful asthetic glass in the house.
    In reference to the digitalization of the blue room; aside from the gorgeous colors, is the lighting. Thank you for another wonderful lesson!

    • Oh I’m glad you like the post.

      Do you mean you admire Tiffany’s lighting selection? I do of course, the Starburst so moderne.
      From what I have read Tiffany specified the walls to have a gradated coloring, it must have been luminous.

      And please, tell your husband all will be well when the art glass is installed, PLUS, dear wife will be pleased.
      Thanks for responding,

  3. I know it seems an odd thing to say considering all the seeming oppulence in the photographs, but Tiffany seemed to have a surprisingly light touch.

    • I agree completely, it’s actual spare when compared to conventional opulence, be it Grant’s White House, Mucha’s studio or the average Victorian parlor. Tiffany certainly made very edited decisions.
      He created such artistic interiors.

  4. taylorhaywood Says:

    First, I must thank you for this glorious post. Though I have always considered patriotic display somewhat distasteful, and politics extremely so, for years I have kept an engraving of Chester Arthur on my wall. He is probably the only former president whose company would have been tolerable to me, and the White House under his influence was certainly at its most tolerable (by which I mean “deliciously inappropriate” in this instance). If I possessed whichever psychiatric disorder causes presidential aspirations, Arthur would be my role model.

    Secondly: have you seen the recent paintings of the Tiffany rooms? The artist (I would prefer the word artisan) is called Peter Waddell. I just discovered them today, in the same search that led me here, and they’re really quite marvelous. The photography of the period was so ill-equipped to document those particular interiors.

    And thirdly: Your writing is witty, insightful, and well-crafted (excepting the aforementioned, very insignificant blunders), and it addresses the sort of weighty subject matter to which I devote most of my attention. I will read further, and may even be inspired to take up the pen again myself!


    • babylonbaroque Says:

      I am pleased, I agree, the White House, the presidency,politics, all seemed so very dry, until I discovered Chester.He piqued my interest.
      I have seen the paintings, I confess I am unsure of how i feel, a bit too much of a recreation perhaps, I actually love the moodiness and melancholy of the period photos. I am happy to see the colors that the paintings provide.
      I am also pleased you enjoy the blog, it brings me pleasure, particularly when I receive such thoughtful feedback.School has taken quite the toll on my posting time, but I am taking the summer off, I hope to devote some of that time to BabylonBaroque.
      Thank you for your kind words,

  5. I’m researching items sold off by T. Roosevelt in renovations. Where did you get your infomation?

    • babylonbaroque Says:

      President Arthur, not Teddy was responsible for the sale.
      A font of information is John Whitcomb’s Real Life at the White House:200 Years of Daily Life at America’s Most Famous Residence. I would be very eager to hear of what you unearth, I believe much is yet to be discovered. The NYT came across some unearthed White House glassware, unattributed; I believe it was from the Arthur purge.
      Take care and good luck!

  6. Robyn Hunt Says:

    I very much enjoyed this web page about the Tiffany/Arthur collaboration. Especially liked seeing the photos circa 1882 of the different rooms in the White House. I am researching the Aesthetic Movement because I have a piece of furniture I am trying to find out more about…. and I believe it could have been a wedding gift from President Chester Arthur to my great grandmother. My great grandmother’s parents were personal friends of Pres. Arthur, and my great grandmother was married in 1882 in Washington, D.C. I was told by a family member that Pres. Arthur attended the wedding. I have a small mahogany table which belonged to this same great grandmother, Henrietta Drum Hunt. This table actually opens at the top revealing a shallow, turquoise blue silk lined drawer which may have been designed to hold silverware, because there is a gold-colored plaque inside that says “Tiffany & Co. Silversmiths.” I think there is a chance that Pres. Arthur gave this as a wedding gift to my great grandmother. Unfortunately there is no family member still alive who would be able to confirm this.

    • babylonbaroque Says:

      How interesting and frustrating. Is it in the Aesthetic style or is it more “Classical”-Hepplewhitesque etc.? Have you contacted Tiffany and Co.? If indeed Arthur purchased the piece that fact might be in their records. I know the company did a brisk business in home furnishings during that period; how scrupulous was their record keeping is another matter. Keep me posted, this is just the sort of info I love. Thanks for popping in and good luck.

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