|Subject: Lorraine Pearce, First White House Curator, Hired by the Kennedys
Dead at 82
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Date Posted: Friday, April 07, 01:12:20pm
Lorraine Pearce Dies at 82; First White House Curator, Hired by the Kennedys
By RICHARD SANDOMIR
APRIL 7, 2017
Lorraine Waxman Pearce, a decorative arts scholar who, as the first White House curator, helped Jacqueline Kennedy restore the presidential mansion to its 19th-century historic splendor, died on March 14 in Charlottesville, Va. She was 82.
Her son, David, recently confirmed her death. He said she had been treated for Alzheimer’s disease.
Ms. Pearce joined the White House in late March 1961, only weeks after John F. Kennedy’s inauguration and Mrs. Kennedy’s announcement of her plans to change the building’s interiors from the modern look of the renovation undertaken during Harry Truman’s presidency to one that reflected its early historic character.
Much of the emphasis was on reviving the style of the White House after the completion of its reconstruction in 1817. During the War of 1812, British troops had set it ablaze. Rebuilt under James Madison, it was reoccupied by his successor, James Monroe, several months after he took office.
Working from an office that had been a presidential map room, Ms. Pearce, then in her 20s, invented the curator’s job. She cataloged the White House’s period furniture, paintings, statues and antiques, sifted through letters from citizens offering to sell or donate items to help the restoration (including a toothbrush that belonged to Ulysses S. Grant) and rummaged through storage areas. She also wrote the first guidebook to the White House’s historic furnishings.
Discoveries were made, like John Tyler’s china cake basket, a mirror that belonged to George Washington and a tufted chair from Abraham Lincoln’s bedroom. Dolley Madison’s Empire sofa was donated by C. Douglas Dillon, Mr. Kennedy’s Treasury secretary.
In a note to President Kennedy in September 1961, Ms. Pearce wrote that the donated walnut highchest newly placed in his bedroom was a “much finer and more representative example of American craftsmanship” than the one it had replaced. And, in a memo to the president a month later, she described various furnishings that had been brought to the Blue, East, Red and Green Rooms.
“The gilt pier table was ordered by President Monroe from Paris in 1817,” she wrote. “It is now back in its original location in the Blue Room. The matching gilt armchair is part of the same set and was recently returned to the White House.”
In the East Room, she added, “The new portraits are of Judge Bushrod Washington and his wife, Mrs. Bushrod Washington. Judge Washington was the nephew of George Washington.” Also in the East Room were two pairs of Monroe’s gilt bronze candelabras.
Ms. Pearce told the alumni magazine of the University of Delaware decades later that President Kennedy asked her one day if any interesting new artifacts had been added to the collection. Yes, she said, two armchairs from Monroe’s White House. The president decided to make the chairs a surprise gift to the first lady, and Ms. Pearce wrapped them in paper and tied them up with bows.
“She was thrilled, absolutely thrilled,” Ms. Pearce said. “She loved them.”
But there were apparently tensions between her and the first lady. After Ms. Pearce left the White House in August 1962, Mrs. Kennedy wrote a note to the new curator, William Voss Elder III, saying that having him in the job instead of Ms. Pearce “is paradise.” She complained that “all Lorraine ever wanted to do” was “receive grand curators and take important groups on tours.”
David Pearce said his mother had told him that Mrs. Kennedy “could be imperious and once said something to her like, ‘If I want to paint the White House pink, the White House will be pink!’” By the time his mother had left, he said, she believed that her job had been completed. But, he added, she had also tired of “palace intrigue” over “other, less qualified people wanting her job.”
She was born Lorraine Waxman in the Bronx on April 14, 1934, to Benjamin Waxman, a house painter, and the former Rose Dayan, a homemaker. After graduating from the City College of New York and studying in Strasbourg, France, on a Fulbright Scholarship, she received a master’s degree in early American culture in Delaware from the Winterthur Program, which was created by the Winterthur Museum and the University of Delaware.
The museum was founded by Henry Francis du Pont, the millionaire collector of Americana who served as chairman of the White House Fine Arts Committee. The panel oversaw the Executive Mansion’s restoration and recommended Ms. Pearce for the curator’s job.
Betty Monkman, the White House curator from 1997 to 2002, said that Ms. Pearce’s legacy was in her research on the historic objects acquired for the White House and for the guidebook that has been revised many times since.
“She was certainly talented and contributed a great deal,” she said in an interview.
Throughout most of her post-White House years, Ms. Pearce taught private slide-show classes in Washington about decorative and fine arts, mostly at the Victorian house on Capitol Hill that she and her husband at the time, John Newton Pearce, a former curator of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, had restored. She took her classes on European field trips and started an antiques business in the 1980s to cater to some of her wealthy students.
Diane Rehm, the former NPR radio host, attended Ms. Pearce’s classes for a semester in the 1960s.
“She was warm, she was gracious, and she knew how to intrigue us,” Ms. Rehm, who now hosts a weekly podcast, said in an interview. “She trained my eye in new ways. She trained my mind and my sensitivities in new ways toward antiquity.”
In addition to her son, Ms. Pearce is survived by her daughter, Hannah Pearce; four grandchildren; and a brother, Jack. Her marriage to Mr. Pearce ended in divorce. They had met while studying at Winterthur.
The White House restoration had its most public moment during Mrs. Kennedy’s network television tour of the mansion with the CBS News correspondent Charles Collingwood on Feb. 14, 1962. It was seen by 80 million viewers. Afterward, Ms. Pearce’s office was deluged with letters from people offering suggestions and asking questions.
“I’m not complaining, mind you,” she told The Associated Press a few months later. “I think this is a wonderful sign of the nation’s pride in this house.”
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