A sign just inside the front door of the West Wing greets White House staff this week: “Welcome back to the West Wing!”
The very minute President Donald Trump boarded Marine One for his working vacation in Bedminster, New Jersey, a team of more than 200 people began 17 days of much-needed renovations to the West Wing and the home’s exterior.
Working around the clock from his August 6 departure through his Sunday return, the team of multiple agencies, including the General Services Administration and the National Park Service, replaced the overworked HVAC systems, refreshed flooring, woodworking and paint, and made other cosmetic and infrastructural updates to the “people’s house.”
“There was an emphasis on bringing back the history to this building and the elegance,” deputy press secretary Lindsay Walters told reporters during a tour of the results Wednesday.
That directive came from none other than the President himself. The real estate mogul, who is known for his attention to detail on construction projects, was personally involved with the renovation, including the selection of new wallpaper for his Oval Office.
“A lot of this was (Trump’s) influence. He wanted to bring back the luster and the glory of the White House. He wanted to enhance a lot of things, for instance, the infrastructure. He was kind enough to leave for the vacation time period because it was really a working time,” a White House official said. “It wasn’t very easy but he definitely supported us in saying, let’s get the HVAC ready, let’s get the electrical supplies ready, let’s fix those portico steps that have not been touched since Truman.”
The HVAC improvements, which cost $1.965 million, per a GSA spokesperson, were approved during the Obama administration following an initial around of renovations. The spokesperson noted that the HVAC systems would have failed “in the near future without intervention.”
Carpet replacement cost $1.17 million and the painting refresh cost $275,000.
“This expenditure is in line, or under, what the past three prior administrations have spent,” the spokesperson said, noting that “carpet and painting is typically done in close proximity to Inauguration Day, but the administration chose to defer until the August break.”
A key request from the Trump administration was that all of the materials used in the renovation were made in America.
“It was important to this administration that we use American-made products, so everything that we used was made in America. It was also important for the administration to use small businesses,” said GSA White House Service Center director Alan Zawatsky, noting that they used “several” Native American firms and women-owned businesses.
Limestone in the new steps on the South Portico came from Indiana, and the Oval Office wallpaper hails from York, Pennsylvania. The HVAC contractor was Calvary Mechanical Co. Inc., and the carpet contractor was Microbase Corp., both of which are minority-owned small businesses.
When Trump assumed office in January, the Oval Office was decorated with President Ronald Reagan’s rug, President George W. Bush’s sofas, and President Bill Clinton’s drapes. The Resolute Desk and side chairs are traditionally used throughout administrations. All of that furniture was temporarily moved into storage as the new wallpaper was installed and the wood floors were refinished.
Obama-era wallpaper was damaged and stained, the White House official said, and needed to be replaced.
Trump was presented with different ideas, samples and concepts for the wallpaper, Office of Administration interior designer and preservation specialist John Botello said.
The President ultimately chose a classic motif that includes sea scrolls and encompassed leaves surrounding floral medallions reflecting the flora and fauna of the Rose Garden, Botello said.
But this new wallpaper may be temporary: As is customary with each administration, the President will be involved in the design of a new rug for the office, and it’s possible a change in wallpaper would be necessary to match the design. A timeline for the new rug has not yet been set.
The West Wing itself, which is attached to the White House, was first envisioned by President George Washington, but did not become a reality until 1902. Since then, each administration has left its own mark on the space.
“We’re trying to take different aspects from each administration and make them feel a little bit cohesive together,” Botello said.
The goal, GSA historic preservation officer George Kanellos said, was to ensure that the paintings, furniture, and subtleties “all work in perfect harmony to create something that is worthy of the President’s office.”
That is particularly challenging given that the building houses both a residence and workspace.
“Working at the White House, you have to work on a fine balance between aesthetics and function. It’s not only just a beautiful museum-like place, but there’s a working aspect as well,” interior designer Taifa Coger said.
The aesthetic aspects of the renovation were inspired by motifs and medallions found on site, including the Greek key, flowers in the Rose Garden, Scottish masons’ carved rosettes, and eagles.
After pulling over during a bad thunderstorm a few weeks ago, Kanellos happened upon an antique shop in Funkstown, Maryland, where he personally procured two gold carved wooden eagles that now reside in the Roosevelt Room.
The design team said to expect more eagles in the White House.
Even though Trump returned from New Jersey over the weekend, some of the exterior updates are still ongoing. The putting green has been “temporarily” removed, and there was still a smattering of wheelbarrows, tools and jugs of water on the South Lawn of the White House Wednesday. Workers smoothed cement and laid stone at a patio adjacent to the Rose Garden as reporters walked toward the South Portico steps.
The iconic steps were originally completed during the Monroe administration in 1824 and are in the spotlight during state arrivals, the Easter Egg Roll and the Christmas tree lighting, among other key White House events. The previous steps dated back to the Truman administration and were made of limestone, which degrades over time and can pose a safety hazard. Per National Park Service White House liaison John Stanwich, work on the steps should be completed by Sunday.
“The administration really felt that was something that was worth taking on,” Stanwich said, noting that rather than break work up into two separate phases for each side of the staircase, the administration opted to do it all in one fell swoop, saving taxpayers money in the process.
Other additions include new drapery in the first floor offices in the style of the Franklin Roosevelt administration; 12 additional 19th century chairs carved with eagles in hallway corridors; and increased ambient lighting in the Rose Garden for nighttime events. An 18th century bookcase in the VIP lobby was refreshed, displaying Presidential papers and newly added china in the style of Martha Washington’s.
Just before the interior renovations were completed Sunday night, the team noticed that the tassels hanging off the 1930s light fixture in the lobby needed painting.
Kanellos climbed a ladder and painted the gilded tassels himself.
“There’s always the look of attention for detail,” he said.