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Gateway to the Mountains

George Wireman

Chapter 35: Historic Wallpaper Decorates White House

One hundred and thirty-one years ago, William Jones, a prosperous Thurmont tannery operator, purchased a pattern of fashion-able scenic wallpaper from France to decorate the front hall of his big stone house on East Main Street. Known as "Scenic America," the pattern imitated the sweeping panoramic paintings of early American history, and was hand-printed from 1,674 wood blocks on fine linen rag paper. The purchase amounted to about 50 francs or $ 10.00, and consisted of thirty-two strips, each 18 inches wide. The paper made the ocean voyage wrapped in tin foil tubes to protect it from the dampness. Since 1836, the property of William Jones changed hands many times, but the wallpaper remained in the hallway, adding a touch of French elegance and representing a Frenchman's conception of early Nineteenth Century America. As each new owner acquired the property, he must have found it difficult to part with the scenic wallpaper, and so it hung in the hall-way for 125 years.

In the Spring of 1961, Mrs. William J. Stoner, owner of the property, had sale and the historic wallpaper together with the house it-self, was abandoned to a wrecking crew. The new owner, planning to build a super market on the site, had ordered the demolition crew to complete the job as soon as possible.

It was during the demolition of the old stone house that Peter Hill, a young Washingtonian, appeared on the scene. The paper in the dark and dusty hallway intrigued him and led him to contact the wrecking crew. The foreman of the crew advised Mr. Hill that some lady was also interested in the wallpaper and had offered him S 100.00, but had given up the idea for fear that she could not re-move it within the three-day deadline posed by the demolition crew. Mr. Hill offered the foreman S50.00 and the deal was closed. This was a considerable sum to gamble on such old wallpaper, for Hill's financial circumstances were not very strong. He immediately returned to Washington to gather tools for the task of removing the paper from the walls.

Armed with a putty knife, a razor blade, and an insecticide sprayer filled with water, he went to work. Plaster and dust from the crumbling house showered around him as he worked. He soon realized that the tempera paint with which the paper had been printed had been mixed with glue at the Zuber factory where it was made. When he sprayed water on the paper it only re-activated the glue and soaked the paper. Had it not been that the paper having been on the walls for such a long time and no longer adhering strongly to the plaster, the job might have been very difficult indeed. By pulling gently Hill was able to remove three strips as a single piece.

Between 5 and 6:30 P.M. that first afternoon, Hill managed to remove 13 running feet. In order to minimize the damage to the paper, he thought it best to remove it strip by strip. He used the razor blade to separate the strips and the putty knife served as a means of keeping the paper taut. The job went well until he reached a section of about six square feet, which was found to be sticking tightly to the plaster. It appeared that this section might have at one time been loose and was reglued.

Mr. Hill worked patiently, cutting away small, neat scraps, laying them in order in a small carton. When the job was completed, he found that only a few square inches had been lost. He took the paper to a friend of his at the Smithsonian and found it to be a very rare pattern. His friend urged him to interest the White House in it. Several days later Hill took his paper to the office of the White House curator, who in turn called Mrs. Kennedy in to see it. The First Lady was delighted by it and settled on the Diplomatic Reception Room, a large gracious salon, as its resting place.

The National Society of Interior Designers purchased the paper from Mr. Hill for $12,500.00, and presented it to the White House as a gift.

Mr. Hill had removed some 48 running feet from the Stoner home, which made up one complete pattern but was insufficient to cover the large reception room. After a brief search, Mrs. John Pearce, White House curator, found 25 feet of the same paper in a New York antique shop. The National Society of Interior Designers agreed to finance the project and a New York firm was engaged to restore and hang the panorama.

The restoration involved the repairing of certain holes and tears. The color of the pattern was unfaded, a result of the marvelous inks used by the manufacturer. It might be well to mention here that the manufacturer, Jean Zuber, was honored by King Louis Philippe in 1834 when he was presented with the Legion of Honor. It was in this same year that "Scenic America" was first printed.

French scenic wallpaper was designed to be used above a wainscotting, as it is in the White House, and was purposely made with a deep expanse of background, part of which could be cut off to accommodate a low-ceilinged room. The firm restoring the paper ran into a small problem in the lofty reception room. This was solved on one portion of the paper by painting in a few inches of blue sky.

The richly colored paper adds much to a roomful of graceful Federal furniture which was donated by the National Society of Interior Designers during the Eisenhower Administration. A beige oval rug in the style of Aubusson has a border in yellow, blue and green which incorporates the symbols of all the states. Crystal light fixtures, brass accessories, and sunny yellow silk damask upholstery are fresh notes against the white woodwork.

Tourists to the White House, have on occasions, voiced their disappointment for not being able to see this historic wallpaper. The reason, of course, is that the ground floor has never been open to the public on the regular sight-seeing schedule. The Diplomatic Reception Room is used too much by the President and the First Lady, for it to become a "public room." So who gets to see the "Scenic America" wallpaper, which once graced the walls of the Stoner property in Thurmont? Only those few important people who have friends on Capitol Hill or in the government. Special tours are arranged through the offices of Congressmen, Senators and Cabinet members. All guests at state dinners at the White House get to see what has been dubbed "the wallpaper room." This is a good name too, for it is the only room at the White House which is papered.

The accompanying photos, perhaps the only ones ever taken, show some of the scenes of the historic wallpaper as it appeared on the walls of the Stoner home shortly before it was removed. Credit for these photos belong to photographer William Riffle, who wishes now, that he had taken the wallpaper itself. rather than just pictures of it.

Chapter Index | Chapter 36: The Master of Philips Delight

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