White House renovator: First Lady Pat Nixon pictured with curator Clement Conger, daughter Julie Nixon Eisenhower, designer David Richmond Byers III (left, from left to right), and architect Edward Vason Jones (right) in the Green Room in 1971.
Much has been written about First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy’s refurbishment and redecoration of the White House, home and principal workplace of the President of the United States. While Mrs. Kennedy’s efforts were successful in restoring many artifacts to the Executive Mansion, Mrs. Nixon’s efforts were enormously successful in furthering White House improvements. Mrs. Nixon incorporated other ideas into Mrs. Kennedy’s plans, producing marvelous and lasting results.
Mrs. Nixon did not receive immense press coverage for her work but she did not seek immediate publicity. Still, though, her story needs to be told and her efforts need to be highlighted.
French bergères: Pat Nixon returned President James Monroe’s special-order armchairs to the Blue Room.
Pat Nixon added more than 600 paintings and furnishings to the White House, the single largest acquisition by any presidential administration. Among many notable improvements, she returned President James Monroe’s original special-order French bergères (or armchairs), to the Blue Room and replaced replicas of Gilbert Stuart’s portraits of John Quincy and Louisa Adams with the originals. With the help of a new White House Curator, Clement Conger, whom Mrs. Nixon hired, and Sarah Jackson Doyle, a design consultant who had worked with Mrs. Nixon since 1965, the First Lady redecorated both private family rooms in the upper quarters and public rooms on the State Floor. She refurbished nine rooms, and renovated the Map Room and the China Room, which displays samplings of all the White House china.
The White House China Room circa 1975: With the help of White House curator Clement Conger, Pat Nixon renovated the China Room.
But Mrs. Nixon’s efforts went beyond simply restoration. She made the White House accessible for the disabled by adding wheelchair ramps. For the convenience of foreign tourists, Mrs. Nixon had White House guide pamphlets translated into foreign languages. She opened the White House for tours in the evenings which were enjoyed by over half a million visitors; the tours at Christmas were lighted by candles.
The exterior of the mansion glows a soft-white every night due to the efforts of Pat Nixon. Julie Nixon Eisenhower’s reflection in Pat Nixon: The Untold Story is the best description of this:
The White House illuminated: The soft glow of the White House at nightfall is the work of Pat Nixon.
“[Mrs. Nixon] began work on the lighting of the White House… National Park Service engineers spent months studying diagrams of the house and grounds and submitted various plans for illumination which Mother studied. Great care was taken that the lighting be subtle but still reveal the architectural beauty of the President’s house.
“In August 1970, when my parents returned to Washington from a trip, as their helicopter neared the mansion, suddenly hundreds of carefully concealed lights on the White House grounds were switched on. The softly glowing mansion was a breathtaking sight from the air. Mother had not told my father that the project was completed, wanting him to be surprised. He was elated. Excited, he ordered the pilot to circle once, twice, a third time. Mother beamed with pleasure.
“On November 25, at a small ceremony, Patricia Nixon pressed a button to light the White House officially as the Marine Band played “America the Beautiful.” Ever since that evening, the White House has been illuminated after dusk and a lighted flag has flown by presidential proclamation, day and night. It was an exhilarating moment for my mother midpoint in the first Nixon Administration.”
As Mrs. Eisenhower alluded to, the American flag flies atop the White House twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, even when the president is not within the confines of the White House, as a result of the successful efforts of Pat Nixon.
Upon her death in 1993, the Washington Post wrote that Mrs. Nixon, with the help of Conger, “restore[d] the White House to its golden age” and left “as one of her legacies a more historically accurate, and perhaps a more American, White House.” Though she did not seek publicity in regards to any of these numerous accomplishments, the credit she deserves should be dutifully given to this determined, hardworking woman.
Stars and Stripes Forever: Because of Pat Nixon, the American Flag flies atop the White House twenty-four hours per day, seven days per week.