The White House staff darted back and forth even busier than usual on September 20, 1961. A State dinner was to be held for Peruvian President Manuel Prado, but the Diplomatic Reception Room, the first room that President Prado and the other guests would see was filled with workmen, paint cans and drop cloths.
The staff was used to preparing dinners and receptions for President John F. Kennedy and his wife, but they weren’t used to having to make the preparations while weaving in between workmen who were redecorating one of the rooms they needed to prepare.
Peter Guertler of New York was in charge of redecorating the Diplomatic Reception Room with antique wallpaper acquired from the Stoner House in Thurmont.
“We just sneaked out as the guests arrived,” Guertler told the Associated Press at the time.
“Sitting on empty champagne cases, they were busy until the last minute carefully putting the scenic panels into place on the circular walls of the diplomatic reception room,” AP reported.
It was the completion of a three-week project by three artists. They had remounted the 1834 wallpaper and restored the frayed edges and holes.
Upon entering the White House through the Diplomatic Reception Room, the first thing the 90 guests at the State dinner saw was the antique wallpaper from Thurmont showing them an America that never quite was.
Saved from destruction
The historic wallpaper had been saved from destruction only a few months earlier and quickly found its way into the most-prestigious home in the America.
Peter Hill, a Washington DC resident, sold antiques and used the profits to spread the gospel as a lay preacher. In May, he needed cash to continue his missionary work. At that point, “as if by divine guidance,” he said in a Washington Post article, friends told him of an antique auction at the Stoner House in Thurmont, Maryland, a small town in central Maryland.
The stone house on East Main Street was built in 1838 by William Jones who owned a tannery along Hunting Creek. Eugenie and Daniel Rouzer purchased the home in 1891. The Rouzers’ daughter Gertrude and her husband, William Stoner, eventually inherited the house.
Gertrude Stoner sold the house in 1961 and it was scheduled for demolition to make room for a grocery store.
On Saturday, April 1, as Hill entered the house to view the furnishings that were to be auctioned off, he spied the wallpaper in the front hallway. The panoramic scenes showed a general view of New York City and its bay seen from atop Weehawken, the fortifications and parade ground at West Point, Niagara Falls covered in mist, Natural Bridge in Virginia and a view of Boston and its harbor. The set of wallpaper panels was called “Scenic America” and created in 1834. It had hung in the Stoner House since nearly that time.
“To American historians, the scenes of the U.S.A. may look strange,” Dorothy McCardle wrote in the Washington Post. “It is not pictorial American history as an Early American would have illustrated it. “
Dora Brahm, a member of the National Society of Interior Decorators, said at the time that the natural elements and buildings looked natural. It was the people in the pictures that gave the wallpaper its unusual appearance because they looked more Parisian than American.
Hill told Stoner he wanted to purchase the wallpaper, but she told him he would have to negotiate with Ralph Miller who was in charge of the demolition that was scheduled to start in two days.
Miller told Hill that a woman had offered $100 for the wallpaper, but would not be able to remove it before the house was demolished, according to a 1961 Frederick Post article.
“Hill invested his savings in buying the wallpaper on the spot,” McCardle wrote. “There was only one proviso. He would have to have it off the walls before the house was torn down at the end of next week.”
Hill paid $50 and spent three days removing the complete set of “Scenic America” wallpaper with a razor blade and putty knife.
“Knowing the value of his find, Hill also took time to measure the hall, and to take samples of woodwork in case a museum should want to reconstruct the entire hall,” reported The Frederick Post.
From France by way of Thurmont
William Jones was a prosperous tannery operator in Thurmont in the 1800’s. To show his prosperity, he built a six-room stone house on Main Street. That was not enough, though. To give his new home a touch of elegance and class, he ordered new panoramic wallpaper from the French company of Jean Zuber.
Gertrude Stoner had written to Gregory and Brown Co., an interior decorating firm, in 1929 trying to find out the history of the unusual wallpaper. J.C. Waterman replied saying the print was called “Scenic America” and manufactured by a French manufacturer J. Zuber in Rixheim, Alsace. The scenes were taken from a set of Currier and Ives prints.
In 1834 when the wallpaper was manufactured, it would have taken about a year to produce a complete set, which consisted of 32 strips. Each strip was 18.5 inches wide and 11.5 feet long.
Producing a new design of wallpaper was a major investment for the company. Besides research and design time, production time was extensive. It could take the efforts of up to 50 men applying 223 colors to 1,674 wood blocks to produce the wallpaper. The wood blocks were carved to leave various portions of the print raised. The paint was applied to the raised portions and then pressed against the fine linen rag paper. Design runs for each design was limited to about 50 sets.
“It was reported that Zuber’s wallpapers were so renowned that King Louis Philippe honored him with the Legion of Honor in 1834, the year that ‘Scenic America’ was printed,” reported The Frederick Post.
The wallpaper was an extravagant cost at the time of $10.
It journeyed from France to Thurmont in tin foil tubes of protect it from the moisture of an ocean crossing.
On to the White House
On Thursday, April 6, Hill notified the Smithsonian Institution of his find. He knew John Newton Pearce of the Cultural Historical Section through some previous antique sales he had made to the Smithsonian. The following day, Hill took the wallpaper to the White House and spread it out on the floor of Pearce’s wife’s office. Mildred Pearce was the White House curator.
First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy walked into the office around noon with two of her friends. “The historic paper, displaying the French flavor she likes so well, caught the first lady’s eye instantly,” wrote McCardle. Kennedy decided on the spot that she wanted the wallpaper.
The Diplomatic Reception Room was chosen as the room where the wallpaper would be hung, in part, because the National Society of Interior Designers was redesigning the room with an Americana theme. The round walls of the room also worked well to display the panoramic wallpaper. The First Lady asked the society to purchase the wallpaper for the room as part of what would be an $180,000 redecoration of the room.
However, the wallpaper from the Stoner House was not enough to finish the entire room. Mrs. Pearce was able to find an additional 25 feet in a New York antique shop to finish the project.
The original design was also too short for the space that needed to be filled, but Guertler came up with a solution. Where the paper was too short to fully reach the ceiling of the diplomatic reception room, he carefully painted in inches of blue sky, matching the color of the wallpaper.
The society purchased the wallpaper for $17,500, though it paid only $12,500 for it, which was the amount they could afford according to McCardle. In a letter dated Aug. 14, 1961, Hill told Stoner that the difference was “given in the name of Thurmont.”
Though not known at the time of purchase, the White House could have purchased a modern set of the wallpaper, produced by Jean Zuber and Co. The company has been in France since 1797 and is still in business (www.zuber.fr). The company’s web site claims it is the last factory in the world still producing wallpaper using wood blocks. It also still uses the original wood blocks. A new set of the wallpaper in 1961 would have cost around $2,200 and not needed repairs.
To view more of the historic Thurmont wallpaper in the White House, visit the White House Historical Association at www.whha.gov.