White House upgrade: First lady’s done a lot with the place

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This Sept. 17, 2019, photo shows refreshed wall fabric in the Red Room of the White House in Washington. Sunlight streaming into the Red Room had left wall fabric “so faded it was almost pink,” said Stewart McLaurin, president of the White House Historical Association. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

WASHINGTON (AP) — She’s done a lot with the place.

Like anyone who has ever spruced up their home, Melania Trump will have a few new touches to showcase Friday when guests visit the White House for only the second state dinner of the Trump presidency.

There’s refreshed wall fabric in the Red Room, repurposed draperies in the Green Room and restored furniture in the Blue Room. And those are just some of the home improvement projects the first lady has overseen to keep the well-trod public rooms at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. looking their museum-quality best.

Some of the projects were long overdue.

Sunlight streaming into the Red Room had left some of the wall fabric “so faded it was almost pink,” said Stewart McLaurin, president of the White House Historical Association, which helps finance upkeep of some rooms in the 132-room mansion. First lady Jacqueline Kennedy founded the private, nonprofit organization in 1961.

“Those rooms should always look their very best and it was just very faded and really, really needed to be done,” McLaurin said.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his wife, Jenny, and guests for Friday’s three-course state dinner in their honor should have an opportunity to check out the spiffed-up public rooms.

In her role as caretaker, the first lady — whoever she is — meets regularly with the chief usher, the head curator and other White House staff to figure out what improvements should top the to-do list.

Mrs. Trump, who keeps a relatively low profile as first lady, has put her interest in history to use overseeing the restoration projects.

“Our family is grateful to live in this true symbol of our nation’s history, but we are even more honored to play a part in restoring and enhancing our country’s sacred landmark,” she said at a May reception.

The first lady designed a new rug for the Diplomatic Reception Room, the main entrance off the South Lawn, after foot traffic wore a path across the old one, McLaurin said. The replacement has a border showing the flowers of the 50 states, a touch added by the first lady.

The White House also refreshed draperies in the Green Room by switching material from the backside to the front, eliminating the need — and cost — of replacing the curtains entirely, McLaurin said. Only the fringe had to be replaced.

Last year, Mrs. Trump returned to the Blue Room several restored pieces from a historic 53-piece furniture set known as the Bellangé suite.

Decor upgrades are a bit more complicated at the White House than for typical homeowners.

Renovation ideas are shared with the Kennedy-created Committee for the Preservation of the White House, which provides advice on preserving the public rooms on the Ground and State floors.

The committee requests funding from the historical association, whose board typically authorizes spending $1 million to $1.5 million on such projects each year.

The White House serves several purposes: It’s an office for the president and his staff, a home for his family and a living museum. Approximately half a million tourists visit every year, apart from dignitaries and others who attend receptions and other events.

“The White House does get a lot of wear and tear,” McLaurin said.

The Bellange suite furnishings were brought to the White House in 1817 by President James Monroe, formerly the U.S. ambassador to France.

But in 1860, nearly all the pieces were sold at an auction.

One hundred years later, Jacqueline Kennedy arrived and was appalled to discover the White House was furnished with reproductions from a New York department store, McLaurin said. She created the historical association, the advisory committee and a curator to help the White House collect and exhibit only the best, McLaurin said.

The White House has managed to reacquire 10 pieces from the original suite, made in Paris by Pierre-Antoine Bellangé. The rest of the collection is “lost to history,” McLaurin said.

The Bellangé restoration project began during Michelle Obama’s time as first lady and was completed last year, costing the historical association more than $450,000 since 2013.

The wood, brass and lighting inside an elevator that takes the president to and from the private living quarters has also been refinished.

Next up? New upholstery on chairs and benches in the high-traffic Diplomatic Reception Room.

Mrs. Trump also renovated a bowling alley in the White House residence that dates to the Nixon administration and was last renovated in 1994 under President Bill Clinton. The Bowling Proprietors’ Association of America paid for the renovation.

During the Obama years, the red carpet in the Cross Hall, or hallway, on the State Floor was replaced.

Mrs. Obama also oversaw projects with an eye on leaving her family’s mark on the White House, as is the case with every president and first lady. She replaced the rug, draperies and high-back chairs around the table in the State Dining Room.

Mrs. Obama also updated the Old Family Dining Room, a smaller room adjacent to the State Dining Room, by swapping its sunny yellow walls and drapery and light-toned rug for gray walls, contrasting red draperies and a rug with a contemporary design.

Four works of American abstract art also were added to the Old Family Dining Room, including a work that made Alma Thomas the first African-American female artist featured in the White House collection.

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