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White House makeover

Each president has chance to redecorate

By JURA KONCIUS • The Washington Post • November 7, 2008

WASHINGTON - Every presidential election brings change to the 100-room, 208-year-old White House, which functions as an office, a setting for official ceremonies and entertaining, a museum and a private home.

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Soon after the election, the president-elect and his wife are invited for a meeting.

"As part of this, the outgoing first lady usually gives the incoming first lady a tour and talks about the spaces and how they use them," says William Allman, White House chief curator. First lady Laura Bush has already extended such an invitation to Michelle Obama, first lady to be.

Transition books prepared by the chief usher list available furnishings from the more than 40,000 pieces in the White House collection. "They also ask if they would prefer an antique bed or just a queen-size modern bed," Allman says.

It all happens quickly. When George W. Bush was getting ready for his inauguration on the morning of Jan. 20, 2001, he got a phone call from then-White House chief usher Gary Walters with a crucial question: Which of the rugs in storage did he want for the Oval Office?

Until the 1970s, presidents changed little of the decor in the nation's most powerful office. Now the Oval Office is redecorating project No. 1. In 1993, Little Rock designer Kaki Hockersmith was installing gold curtains in the room while Bill Clinton was being inaugurated at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.

Preserving and refreshing the White House has been the job of the dozens of families who have lived there. George and Laura Bush give a rare tour of the place Nov. 26 on a History Channel program, "The White House: Behind Closed Doors."

The historic State Floor, with its iconic Blue, Green and Red rooms as well as the spaces off the lower Ground Floor Corridor are public rooms overseen by the Committee for the Preservation of the White House. The top two floors become the private living quarters of the first family.

"I don't think any family is ever prepared for the public attention that is focused on them when they move in here," says former White House curator Betty Monkman.

Costs covered many ways

The White House reflects every family that has lived there and is always undergoing preservation.

The costs of maintenance and furnishings are covered by a variety of sources. Congress has appropriated $1.6 million a year for the repair and restoration of the White House, according to Sally McDonough, press secretary to Laura Bush.

As part of this appropriation, the president is granted $100,000 for refurbishment and maintenance of the family quarters every four years. (This figure was $50,000 until 1999.) Sometimes friends and supporters make private donations.

The president and his family often pay for things themselves. In addition, the White House Historical Association, a nonprofit educational institution, provides money for preservation. Its two sources of income, according to association president Neil Horstman, are the $33.8 million White House Endowment Trust, which is used to refurbish White House public rooms and conserve collections, and the $6 million White House Acquisition Trust, which is used to acquire fine and decorative arts for the permanent collection.

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