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  • When the First Family Leaves, the Staff Remains: Transitions at the White House

    Video produced by Charlie Weber | View transcript

    As we look ahead to the inauguration of the forty-sixth president of the United States on January 20, the Center also looks back at its previous research on White House workers—one of the most distinctive occupational groups on the planet.

    Since the early 1990s, the Center has been documenting the occupational techniques, customs, values, knowledge, and experiences of the butlers, carpenters, chefs, electricians, engineers, florists, housekeepers, plumbers, ushers, and more who work at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW in Washington, D.C. While presidents and their families come and go every four or eight years, most of the workers in the White House residence remain, helping the new arrivals adjust to life in a building that simultaneously serves many different functions.

    The Center’s earliest research led to a 1992 Folklife Festival program, Workers at the White House, curated by folklorist Marjorie Hunt, in conjunction with the 200th anniversary of the laying of the White House cornerstone in 1792, and in collaboration with the White House Historical Association. Marjorie continued the work with a thirty-two-minute documentary film, Workers at the White House (1994), and an exhibition of the same name that was on display in presidential libraries and museums in 1993 and 1994.

    Fifteen years later, the Center and the White House Historical Association produced another traveling exhibition, The Working White House: 200 Years of Traditions and Memories, which I curated. Expanding the historical perspective of the earlier projects, this exhibition traveled to museums from 2008 to 2011. The research included interviews in 2007 with former White House workers, several of whom recalled the logistical and emotional challenges that occur before, during, and after a presidential inauguration.

    For instance, Wilson Jerman, who worked thirty-six years at the White House, starting as a houseman in 1957 and retiring as a butler in 1993, observes that a transition between presidents is “like losing part of your family.”

    Christine Limerick, who worked as executive housekeeper from 1979 to 1987 and from 1991 to 2007, recalls the tearful scenes in the State Dining Room when the staff gathers to bid farewell to the outgoing First Family: “It’s very emotional.”

    Roland Mesnier, who worked as executive pastry chef from 1980 to 2005, describes the funeral-like atmosphere when one president leaves—followed by the initial surprise of encountering different residents, but then the gradual acceptance of, and attachment to, the new family.

    Nancy Mitchell, who worked as assistant usher from 1981 to 2006, recalls the learning experiences—from the perspectives of both the new residents and the continuing staff—even to such mundane details as how to make a phone call from inside the White House.

    Nelson Pierce, who worked as assistant usher from 1961 to 1987, describes how the resident staff would pack up one moving van, and then unload the next, so that the beds are made and everything is ready for the new family as soon as they return from the inaugural viewing stand.

    Gary Walters, who worked at the White House from 1970 to 2007, including twenty-one years as chief usher, explains the detailed preparations for ensuring that every transition goes as smoothly as possible, and how there may be a period of several months before a new family and a new administration may feel completely comfortable inside the White House.

    The full DVD, White House Workers: Traditions and Memories, includes two and a half hours of interviews that were conducted with ten retired White House workers in 2007, the Workers at the White House documentary film from 1994, a twelve-minute film produced to accompany the exhibition in 2009, and a thirty-eight-page booklet with essays by Marjorie Hunt and me on the distinctive traditions of White House workers. The DVD is available for purchase through Smithsonian Folkways.

    James Deutsch is a curator at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. In 2007, he and Charlie Weber, the Center’s media director, interviewed retired White House workers for the DVD that Weber produced.

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