Why Does the White House Have A Red Room? And How Is It Used?

The rooms in the White House that are named for colors have gotten these names because of the fabrics, tapestries and floor coverings chosen to decorate them. But they have not always been the color they are now. And their functions have also changed over the years.

The presidents and First Ladies are free to assign different functions to the different White House rooms. So changes in the functions of rooms have changed often as frequently as from one administration to another.  Take the Red Room for example:

This painting of First Lady Dolly Madison hung on the west wall of the Red Room.

This painting of First Lady Dolly Madison hung on the west wall of the Red Room.

  • Thomas Jefferson often ate dinner in the Red Room and kept his caged magpie here.
  • Dolly Madison had her special pianoforte placed in the Red Room and used the room as a music chamber during her husband’s administration. She held her popular and fashionable Wednesday night receptions (levees) here. But the room was decorated in yellowthen until Dolly ordered red velvet curtains for the windows.
  • Mary Lincoln favored the Red Room as a sitting room and for receiving private guests. And her husband, President Abraham Lincoln (our 16th president) usually met with his friends here for a quiet time after dinner.  
  • First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt (wife of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, our 32nd   president) held press conferences in the Red Room for woman reporters who were not permitted to attend regular press conferences at the time. Only male reporters were allowed to attend regular White House Press conferences. 
  • During more recent administrations the Red Room has served as a favored parlor or sitting room for First Ladies. And recent Presidents have had small dinner parties here, in the Red Room.

Yellow dominated the current Red Room until 1845 when President and Mrs. Polk (James K. Polk was our 11th president.) furnished the room with a dark, crimson French antique style furniture and added a ruby carpet. From then on, the room has been called the Red Room.

Later, in 1882, President Chester Arthur  (our 20th president) commissioned Louis Tiffany to totally redecorate the Red Room. Mr. Tiffany painted the walls red and added a tawny red frieze of abstract stars on the ceiling. He also added a new mantel, stained a deep red color and inlaid with brown, amber and red glass tiles that changed in tone with the light.The room was definitely the Red Room now!

In 1962 during President John F. Kennedy’s Administration (our 35th president) and in 1971 during President Richard Nixon’s administration (our 37th president), the Red Room was again renovated. Both renovations kept the red color of the room and used the Empire style of furnishing and decorations.

Today the walls of the Red Room are not painted but covered in a red twill satin fabric with a gold scroll design in the border. The furniture is richly carved and is finished with decorative hardware made of gilded bronze in characteristic designs such as dolphins, acanthus leaves, lion's heads, and sphinxes.

*** It’s important to note that the interior of the Red Room is well documented by written description. But these written, historical records do not actually show us the original colors of the room. We do have samples of the aesthetic preferences of the time that can help us see what these color of the Red Room might have been.  

Information for this blog came from the following sources:
http://whitehousemuseum.org/floor1/red-room.htm--- for historical photos of the White House rooms.  http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2008677147/