The family had inherited a post-war mansion, the appearance of which denigrated the presidency. There were flea, termite and other vermin in the soiled furniture, carpets were worn and curtains were tattered from handling and also souvenir hunters. Martha Patterson immediately worked on cleaning the state floor and making it presentable, assuming the job of housekeeper and assigning tasks to the servants. At the family’s first public appearance, at the 1866 New Year’s Day Reception, the Marine Band music, presence of the small presidential grandchildren and their friends, and a profusion of flowers helped distract the crowds from the removed East Room furniture and the soiled rugs being covered in linen. She also efficiently streamlined the cloakroom procedures for arriving and departing guests, resulting in no delay of their greeting the President.
When money for updates was allocated, Martha Patterson was very careful in how she used it to make it go as far as she could:
As First Lady, she used considerable skill in assuming the personal management of an April 1866 $30,000 congressional redecorating appropriation. Rather than expend it on the private quarters and executive offices alone, she apportioned it with tremendous care and consciousness so that the overall appearance of the public rooms was uplifted. Rather than purchase new and expensive items, she had furniture repaired and recovered. Unable to afford new papering of all the state rooms, she had panels and gilt decorations affixed to them. The wood floors, doors and trim were refinished and repainted. Rather than expend any of the appropriation to pay interior design contractors, Martha Patterson made all the purchases and directed the carpenters, painters and reupholsters herself. She worked on the project alongside them through the intense heat of Washington’s summer to ensure the project’s completion by the fall social season of 1866.
Under Martha Patterson’s stewardship, there was a conscientious effort to begin a collection of portraits of former residents, including those of Martin Van Buren, John Quincy Adams, John Tyler, James Polk, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, Angelica Van Buren, Sarah Polk and Julia Tyler. Hung on the wall of the cross hall of the state floor, President Johnson was especially proud of the small gallery created by his daughter and enjoying telling stories about his predecessors as he and guests strolled by each one. Mrs. Tyler personally presented her own portrait for the fledgling collection.