Presidential Preservation

Alum Works in Living Museum, the White House, for 40 Years
by Karen Shih ’09 | photos courtesy of The White House

When a new administration moves into the White House next year, everything from Cabinet secretaries to the Oval Office’s carpet will change. But it’s the job of Chief Curator William Allman ’74, welcoming his eighth president, to make sure its priceless art and furnishings are preserved for generations to come.

“The White House is not a traditional museum, with its collections under glass or behind ropes,” says Allman. “The greatest challenge is… letting people sit on the chairs, walk on the rugs or eat off the china.”

He and his staff of four are responsible for a wide range of pieces, including the famous full-length portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart, displayed at the White House since it opened in 1800; a Steinway grand piano with gold eagles for legs; and a chair carved from a single log and given to Herbert Hoover in 1932.

Growing up in Bethesda, Md., Allman often visited museums, historic houses and presidential libraries with his family, so a history major was the natural choice at Maryland. After graduating, he worked two temporary jobs with the National Park Service, where he researched furnishings for the White House. His work was so well received that he was invited to join the curator’s office in 1976.

He says all the presidents he’s served have left their marks on the White House. Most recently, first lady Michelle Obama requested the Old Family Dining Room be refurbished to display the abstract American art she and President Barack Obama favor.

There are unexpected perks to his job, like getting a last-minute spot at a state dinner for the emperor of Japan in 1994. But it’s a story like that of a simple armchair from 1817 that makes him happiest. It was sold in 1882 at auction, and early in Allman’s tenure at the curator’s office, the then-owner asked about its history.

“I told him all about it and asked if he would keep us in mind if he should ever choose to part with it,” Allman says. “Ten years later, he gave it back to the White House.”


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