Vice-Presidents Ceremonial Meeting Room – Washington, D.C.

Historic Information

The Eisenhower Executive Office Building is located next to the West Wing, and houses the majority of offices for White House staff.   Originally built for the State, War and Navy Departments between 1871 and 1888, the EEOB is an impressive building that commands a unique position in both our national history and architectural heritage.  Designed by Supervising Architect of the Treasury Alfred Mullett, the granite, slate and cast iron exterior makes the EEOB one of America’s best examples of the French Second Empire style of architecture.    It took 17 years to complete construction.   When the EEOB was finished in 1888, it was the largest office building in Washington, with nearly 2 miles of black and white tiled corridors.    It has housed 16 Secretaries of the Navy, 21 Secretaries of War, and 24 Secretaries of State.   Gradually, the original tenants of the EEOB vacated the building – the Navy Department left in 1918, followed by the War Department in 1938, and finally by the State Department in 1947.   The White House staff took over the building in the 1950’s.  The building was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1969.

Vice President’s Ceremonial Office – Rooms 231, originally the Secretary of War’s Reception Room, was specially designed by Stephen Decatur Hatch (1839-1894).    He finished room 231 with elaborate, multicolored friezes and frescoes, gold- and silver-leaf accents, massive chandeliers, cherry wainscoting and oak-paneled floors.   The design called for the use of more wood than any other room in the building, including a parquet floor of finely cut sections of mahogany, maple, and black walnut.   The wainscoting, door and window frames were all made of mahogany.  The reception room had a large mantel supported by enormous winged griffins.   The ceiling was painted in trompe l’oeil frescoes by New York artist C. Otto Ficht. He used more than fifteen different colors to fool the eye into thinking that the shadows on the heavily carved details were cast from the light of the room’s windows.   The ceiling was painted using oil paints and depicted allegorical figures including the Roman god Mars in his chariot, and Victoria, the goddess of victory.   The ceiling borders and cove details show tools-of-war with helmeted heads, flags and historic weapons.    Unfortunately, the frescoes were painted over sometime around 1932, and have been covered ever since.    Since its partial restoration in 1980, this office is now called the Vice President’s Ceremonial Office. Today, the Vice President uses the office for meetings and press interviews.

Artifact's Condition Prior to Treatment

It was not until water damaged the paint and plaster on the ceiling that the amazing murals were discovered in Room 231, the Vice President’s Ceremonial Meeting Room.   Although the walls were intricately paneled, the griffins flanked the fireplace, and the dazzling marquetry floor survived, no one knew that the ceiling was highly decorated.   President Bush authorized conservation of this office suite as a part of renovation of the entire building, which will take many years to complete.    After 21 layers of paint were painstakingly removed by conservators, the importance of this ceiling was once again revealed.    Plaster needed to be replaced and restored, windows and systems needed to be upgraded, and woodwork and floors refinished. 

Treatment of the Artifact

From October 2006 to May 2007 (7 months) John Hartmann was sub-contracted to Page Conservation of Washington, D.C. to help inpaint one of the most highly decorated offices in Washington.   Working on scaffolding, he reconstructed over 200’ of decorative trompe l’oeil borders, 14 heraldic groupings, hundreds of decorative plant elements, several larger than life figurative heads, and reconstructed and inpainted 16 foreign flags depicted in large corner cartouches.    The ceiling decoration was so deteriorated that many of the important, non-repeating design elements were incomplete or barely distinguishable.     John was tasked with conducting research to determine what foreign flags were on the ceiling and to find and analyze any existing historic photographs of the room to aid in reconstruction of any of the missing or damaged elements.    This was not an easy task.    Surviving historic images were found at the National Archives II building in Maryland.   In many cases, a ¼” wide section on a 3” x 5” or 8” x 10” blurry black and white photograph needed to be blown up as large as possible to recreate a 6’ wide section of the ceiling.    John enhanced these photographs on the computer to gain any small amount of information about sections that were still missing.    He also painstakingly, visually analyzed tiny remnants of paint on the walls or ceiling to help reconstruct these missing figures, elements or groupings.  In several cases, he affixed clear Mylar sheets to the ceiling and traced remnants of figures, adding information from the blown up sections of photographs.   To this tracing was added sections from similar design elements that retained a different part of the missing image.    These drawings were instrumental in the reconstruction of a number of missing figures.    When miniscule remnants of foreign flags were originally analyzed, no one could tell what countries they represented or which of these country’s many flags were depicted.    The White House Historians didn’t know whether they represented countries that were our allies, enemies, ones that we had defeated, or were historic flags throughout the breadth of history.    After many hours of research, tracing of flag remnants on the ceiling, discussions with historians or vexillologists (people who study flags), and study of the enlarged sections of historic photographs, some of the flags were definitively identified.   Part of the problem with studying historic black and white photographs was that it was difficult to determine whether grey or black was red, blue, green or purple.    In the end, after all of the research was completed, the resulting answer was unexpected.    The artist who designed the ceiling simply picked interesting foreign flags of different colors from the “Flags of the World” page from an early 1880’s world atlas.    All of the images were flags in use in the 1870’s or early 80’s, and they weren’t just a country’s national flag; they were merchant flags, naval flags, or flags of war.    Following official agreement of the depicted flags, John was tasked with repainting or reconstructing the waving flags based around the surviving, now recognizable, remnants.    Following the completion of this room, John was extended the honor and privilege of attending the formal dedication and ribbon cutting ceremony in the fall of 2008 with President and Mrs. Bush.   He had the opportunity to personally meet the Bush’s and to have a formal photograph taken, which is included in the About Us – Awards and Testimonial section of this web site.

Photographic Documentation