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New book calls White House ‘house next door’

"Dream House: The White House as an American Home,” by Ulysses Grant Dietz and Sam Watters, describes the history of the presidential residence, and how changes made to it have reflected Americans' changing ideals about what a home should be.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Lady Bird Johnson said walking through the White House was like walking "through history." Hillary Clinton called the home "a repository of America's storied past." Michelle Obama has called it "awe inspiring."

The authors of a new book have another name for the president's residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue: "the American house next door."

"Americans have this sense of the White House as something apart ... it doesn't seem to change from the outside, but that doesn't mean it hasn't changed constantly," said Ulysses Grant Dietz, the great-great grandson of the 18th president and co-author of "Dream House: The White House as an American Home."

Dietz and Sam Watters write that over the past 200 years, the White House has morphed from a country house to a suburban home to a museum. In the process, they say, changes the presidents have made have reflected Americans' changing ideals about what a home should be.

The authors go over some basic history. John Adams, the second president, was the home's first occupant, taking up residence in 1800. The home survived a fire started by the British in 1814 during the War of 1812.

But their main concern is how the home has changed. Thomas Jefferson added colonnades. Teddy Roosevelt got rid of the Victorian furniture he considered in bad taste. And in the 1940s and 1950s as millions began moving into suburbs, President Harry Truman added a balcony and President Dwight Eisenhower barbecued on the third-floor terrace.

The authors managed to get in to see the Obama family's vegetable garden and swing set, noting there was also a playground on the White House lawn in 1933 when Franklin D. Roosevelt's grandchildren played there.

"I think it's a surprise to people that the White House went through so many decorating styles," said Dietz, curator of decorative arts at New Jersey's Newark Museum.

The book, released in September by Acanthus Press, follows a line of works about the first family's home.

The Library of Congress holds more than 700 books on the subject of the White House. They range from a definitive 1,500-page, two-volume set written by William Seale to books by the home's longtime curator, Betty C. Monkman. There's even a book dictated to Barbara Bush by Millie, the president's dog.

But the authors say their coffee-table style book — selling for $75 — is the only one to look at the first house as a home that has changed with the times.

People who read the book or hear them talk may be surprised, the authors say. For example, until Sarah Polk in the 1840s, it was the men who decorated the home. And at one point, the house was in such disrepair that the legs of a piano came through the ceiling of another room.

Watters says the hardest thing for many, however, may be that Jacqueline Kennedy's 1960s restoration of the home isn't historically accurate.

Her "period rooms" — the Green Room, the Blue Room, the Red Room and others — were furnished to look stately and grand, but while they contained antiques the rooms were not historically accurate. Though the house is "sold as a museum," it's really not, Watters said.

The Lincoln Bedroom, originally Abraham Lincoln's office, is the only room that even comes close to the way a president had rooms decorated, the authors write.

"What you see today is Mrs. Kennedy's idea of how presidents should have lived," Watters said. "It may be beautiful, but it is not how John Adams moves into the White House."