BY TOM VARTABEDIAN
WASHINGTON—Somewhere inside the White House, stashed away inside an obscure storage room, lays an historic rug.
This colorful piece of tapestry, which measures 18 feet by 12 feet, lives up to its name: It has remained an “orphan” rug since it passed through the hands of President Calvin Coolidge in 1926.
The intricacy is woven with a passion unlike others of its kind, containing some 4 million knots made to characterize the biblical Garden of Eden with its collection of animals and other symbolic features.
The big loom was set up for an “Isfahan.” The 400 orphaned girls worked in shifts and spent 18 months on its completion. It was then sent to Washington and presented at a special ceremony to the White House in recognition of the help rendered by the American people to Armenian orphans.
Armenian historians and archivists are looking for a more permanent home, one that will avail itself to tourists and public acclaim. They’d like nothing better than to see this rug on permanent display in the White House, with credit given to Armenian Genocide survivors or, at the very least, have it showcased inside the Genocide Museum, or perhaps the Smithsonian.
They seem to think there are political ramifications preventing this rug from enjoying the life of nobility, for which it was intended.
“If you bring out the story of this rug, you’re talking genocide, and this country doesn’t recognize the Armenian Genocide,” laments Dr. H. Martin Deranian, a prominent Worcester historian and dentist who has documented every facet of this jewel. “It’ll open up the story of the orphans. I’ve taken responsibility to see this story brought to the surface and its meaning appreciated.”
Deranian has turned himself into a self-imposed rug ambassador in seeking the cause of justice. By unraveling this mystery, he’s hoping to bring greater credence to the Near East Relief and the scores of orphans saved during the genocide years of 1915-23.
He continues to pay homage to Dr. Jacob Kuenzler, or “Papa” Kuenzler as he was affectionately called, for evacuating thousands of Armenian orphans from Turkey to the relative security of Syria while working for the Near East Relief.
Kuenzler had the idea of starting a rug factory in Ghazir. He thought the girls would learn to weave rugs and go on earning a living this way.
It seemed to him that even on so small an outlay, much good could be achieved for these orphans. With only two looms, he started this rug factory in Ghazir, high up in the mountains.
President Coolidge was more than grateful for the rug. In a letter he wrote to Dr. John Finley, vice-president of the Near East Relief, Coolidge was overwhelmed by the gift.
“This beautiful rug woven by children in Lebanon has been received. This, their expression of gratitude for what we’ve been able to do for this country for their aid, is accepted by me as a token of their goodwill to the people of the United States who have assisted in the work of the Near East Relief. Please extend to these orphans my thanks and the thanks of the vast number of our citizens whose generosity this labor of love is intended to acknowledge. The rug has a place of honor in the White House where it will be a daily symbol of goodwill on earth.”
A “Golden Rule” Sunday had been instituted in the United States. Each year, on the first Sunday in December, people were asked to eat only a one-course meal and contribute the money they had saved to the Near East Relief. Some $2 million was collected annually.
The presentation of the Ghazir rug to the White House in 1925 was given such widespread publicity that contributions from Golden Rule Sunday doubled. The factory received numerous orders for special carpets and many of the girls ultimately found homes and became brides.
The event was covered in the New York Times, which carried the headline, “President receives rug woven by orphans of Near East and praises work on relief.”
Coolidge displayed the rug in the Blue Room under his administration. It remained there until 1928 when he took it to his residence in Northampton, Mass.
The orphan rug graced his living room at a place called the Beeches until his death in 1933. From there, Mrs. Coolidge kept the rug inside her home in Northampton until she died in 1957, eventually landing with a son John until he sold his Connecticut home in 1974.
The rug wound up in storage at the Coolidge Homestead in Plymouth, Vt., when it was returned to the White House and added to the collection in 1983. It was placed in storage and not on public view, and has remained there for the past 27 years.
Deranian was invited to the White House to view the rug with U.S. Senator Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Asbed Set Momjian, a former ambassador to the United Nations.
“The curator of the White House collection has indicated that it is highly unlikely the rug would be on exhibit in an official capacity,” said Deranian.
“It was an emotional feeling to touch this very rug. These girls with their nimble fingers wove their gratitude to America into every stitch. My interest dates back to my mother. During the deportation, she went through every indignity before ending up in Urfa.”
Call it fate but in 1995, Charlotte Movsesian of North Andover, Mass. observed a color photo in the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune of Hillary Clinton showing off the Blue Room during her husband’s administration. And there was the rug, bright and bold as ever.
She recognized that rug because her own mother Vartouhi (Hovsepian) Gulezian was one of those orphaned girls who helped weave it. Mrs. Gulezian was 14 years old and brought to America from Ghazir in 1926 to work at a loom as a demonstration during the sesquicentennial (150th anniversary) celebration of the founding of the United States. She was joined by another orphan, 15-year-old Gulunia Kehyaian.
Movsesian wrote to Clinton and inquired about the rug, never expecting a response. A month later, she received a letter from the White House curator, inviting the entire family to Washington.
Together with her husband Albert S., brother Martin, and mother, off they went by train to meet the appointment. They were welcomed not by Hillary Clinton but the White House curator and her assistant. And there was the rug Mrs. Gulezian had made with the others orphans. She recognized it.
“A rush of emotion came over me, not so much for the beauty but what it represented,” said Albert Movsesian, who promotes genocide education in local schools with stories of the rug.
“The fact the Near East Relief was responsible for helping so many orphans, including my mother-in-law, deserves our utmost appreciation,” he added. “I got down on my hands and knees and touched every part of the rug. I saw the Golden Rule Gratitude inscription in one of the corners.”
The Movsesians wound up spending 90 minutes at the White House that day, had photos taken by the rug, and off they went, laden with memories of a lifetime. No sign of any president, however.
“Very few people know the significance of this rug,” Movsesian brought out. “The story about it has been a well-kept secret in the Armenian community because these orphans didn’t talk about it. After we saw the rug, back into storage it went. It’s been there ever since, simply forsaken. We’re hoping to resurrect it into a place of honor where it belongs.”
If and when that might occur, the rug will represent a memorial to those orphans whose sad fingers wove into its warp and weft a permanent remembrance of the depths of Armenia’s blackest hour.
If it could only talk, it would speak volumes.
A close-up of the Armenian Orphan Rug with its intricate detail bearing colorful images of animals akin to the Garden of Eden. The rug was woven in 1924-25 and presented to President Calvin Coolidge. It now lies in storage inside the White House.
Not just any rug, but one created by 400 Armenian orphans from 1924-25 in a town called Ghazir, about 40 miles north of Beirut.
The Armenian Orphan Rug is viewed inside the White House in September 1984 by activists looking to preserve its identity. (L-R) U. S. Senator Carl Levin (D-Mich.), Dr. H. Martin Deranian, Worcester historian, and Set Momjian, a former ambassador to the United Nations.
An overall view of the Armenian Orphan Rug, which measures 18’x12′. Armenian activists are trying to have it removed from storage inside the White House and have it showcased.