A Historic Hunt

Mrs. Kennedy quickly learned that many White House furnishings of the past were kept in government storage facilities throughout Washington, D.C. Presidential families had kept some pieces when they left the White House; others had been sold at public auctions in the 19th century.

Her goal was to restore the state rooms of the White House to reflect the artistic and architectural history of the presidential mansion. Within a month of becoming first lady, she established a White House Fine Arts Committee made up of experts in historic preservation and decorative arts.

Mrs. Kennedy and her committee located many pieces of furniture and artwork that had been owned by presidents, had been part of the White House collection, or exemplified the period portrayed in the different rooms. They also persuaded many owners of historic furnishings to donate them to the White House.

Most important among their finds were items that had belonged to Presidents Washington, Lincoln, and Madison. Mrs. Kennedy personally went through each White House storage room unearthing forgotten pieces. She then had them restored and returned to places of prominence.

She began with the restoration of the Oval Office. Among the pieces of furniture she found in the White House was a desk made from the timbers of the British sailing ship HMS Resolute, presented by Queen Victoria in 1878 to President Rutherford B. Hayes.  Mrs. Kennedy had it dusted off and moved into the Oval Office where it remains today.  An exact replica of the desk can be found in the Kennedy Library and Museum's Oval Office exhibit.

The White House Historical Association

To avoid the politically controversial use of public money for this work, Mrs. Kennedy established the White House Historical Association, which would publish the first official White House guidebook in 1962. All profits from the sale of the guidebook to the millions who toured the White House would be used to fund the restoration project and to purchase the furnishings and other historic materials located by the Fine Arts Committee.

Together with the newly appointed White House curator, she approved the guidebook's text, chose which photographs would be featured, and designed the layout. Within ten months of publication, 500,000 copies were sold. The White House: An Historic Guide continues to support the work of the White House Historical Association.