Amazing articles on just about every subject...

Over A Century Of The White House

( Originally Published 1908 )

THE people of the United States are more attached to the White House and its associations than to any other building in America. So intimated President Roosevelt in his message to Congress in 1902, when he reported that "the White House has now been restored to what it was planned to be by Washington." As a result of that restoration of the historical structure six years ago, by which all the disfiguring and incongruous additions and changes of a century were eliminated, the White House of today stands and looks and is as it was meant to be as originally conceived by "The Father of His Country."

Thousands of pilgrims from every State in the Union, hundreds of tourists from every country in the world, visit the White House in the course of each year. To them the building and grounds form a sort of Mecca to which they are drawn through much reading, day by day, of the dramas, comedies and tragedies enacted within its beloved walls.

The people's interest n the White House is quite different from their interest in the Capitol building. They hold the Capitol in awe because of the business transacted there, because of the laws enacted there affecting the whole nation. Their interest in the Capitol is an interest of the brain. But the common interest in the White House is a heart interest. The Capitol is, in a sense, the office of the nation. But the White House is the national hearthstone where gather the members at the First Family of The Land.

Ever since the White House was opened to the public for the first time, by President John Adams, one hundred and eight years ago, the people of this country h‚ve read of the joys and griefs; the births, marriages and deaths; the festivities and the mournings ; the love and laughter and daily life of the men and women who, each for a brief time, have been its tenants. And so, the White House, through its associations, has become invested with a deep human interest for all the people all the time. And it is this human side of the residence of the "First Gentleman" and "First Lady," in its various aspects and kaleidoscopic changes, that is set forth in the following pages.

Every patriotic person in the country loves his President next to his flag. Each one of us likes to read what the President does day by day, how he looks, how he spends his time, how he passes the Sabbath, where he worships, what recreations he takes, how he treats his guests and what he says to them. Each one of us likes to know the details of the domestic, as well as the private life, of the "First Lady" and the other members of the President's family. We like to know of the tastes and habits of the wife and daughter and son of the Chief Executive, how they conduct themselves at receptions, and how, in a thousand and one ways, they endear themselves to the people from coast to coast. Scenes of sorrow and scenes of joy within the White House are equally interesting, each in their way, to the heart of the American. And it is such information concerning the Presidents and their families, and a description of such scenes within the Executive Mansion that are described in the ensuing chapters.

The three chief events of human life are birth, marriage and death, The White House has had its share of each of these events, and a record of each such happening is here included. Every entertainment in the White House is more or less an historical event. The scenes and incidents inseparable from such entertainments, whether pathetic, tragic or amusing, are part of this history.

If any distinguished American, man or woman, visits the White House; if any foreign visitor, royal or titled, is entertained in the mansion of the President, every act of such guest or visitor has peculiar interest to the public. Hence the comings and goings of notable guests are here chronicled.

In particular when the guest at the White House happens to be a near relative of the President, we like to read the story of how such relative was received. President Garfield's mother was a notable figure at her son's reception and welcome at the White House on the day of inauguration, and the touching incident of Garfield giving his aged mother his first kiss as President of the United States was described everywhere in the press ; and the nation loved Garfield all the better for that act. Buchanan's niece, Miss Harriet Lane, acted as the "First Lady" during her uncle's administration, and the nation learned to love her. President Cleveland's sister, Miss Rose Cleveland, acted for a time as "First Lady," and everything she did and said became of real interest to the public. And as for the visit of a father of a President to the White House the first President's father that, we are told, visited his son in the White House was Mr. Fillmore's aged parent. When he appeared at one of the levees people could not believe that the tall, erect gentleman was actually an octogenarian.

Mention of the foregoing Presidential relatives and their presence at the White House and the interest taken in them by Americans, suggest the hundreds of such incidents that are to be set forth in this book in detail.

The Three Great Periods of White House History

Now as to the story of the White House itself. The history of the one hundred and eight years of the existence of the Presidential mansion in Washington is divided into three periods, thus: The first period covers the story of the first White House at the time it was called the "President's House," from 1800 when President John Adams moved into the house, to the burning of the house by the British in 1814. The second period deals with the White House in all the years from its restoration in 1818 (though the work was not completed until 1829), to its remodeling in 1902, during which time it was known officially as the Executive Mansion. The third period embraces the immediate past and the presentófrom 1902, when the building was remodeled under direction of President Roosevelt, to the present time when the twenty-seventh President is about to take possession of it.

The present chapter contains an historical summary of the century and more of White House and Presidential life included in the three great periods of the existence of the mansion.

Opening the White House in 1800

George C. Evans, in his book on Washington, referring to the completion of the mansion now known as the White House, tells us that : The cornerstone of the President's House was laid October 13, 1792, and that of the Capitol September 18, 1793. The work on these important buildings was carried on as rapidly as the meagre appropriations of Congress would allow. Had it not been for gifts and loans made by Maryland and Virginia, it is doubtful if they would have been ready for occupancy at the appointed time, 1800. However, the White House was so far finished that the President's family could live in it.

A confidential letter from Mrs. John Adams to her daughter (probably the first letter ever written in the White House) gives a graphic description of her sensations upon entering the "wilderness city," and the bleak appearance of the empty "castle" to which they were ushered. It was cold and damp,nd the principal stairs had not been put up. There were twenty rooms, each twenty-two feet high; but only six of these were habitable. There were no looking-glasses, except "dwarfs" and the East Room, which measured eighty-two by forty feet, was used to hang the family wash to dry. Mrs. Adams sums up the list of her grievances by saying : "If they will put up some bells and let me have wood enough to keep up fires, I design to be pleased." Although not able "to see wood for 'trees," fuel was scarce and had risen in price from four dollars to nine dollars a cord.

Various Changes in the White House

"The Palace" was the name given occasionally to the White House by its first tenants. "But," we are informed by one historian writing in a Munsey publication, "conditions changed as Washington developed from a wilderness into a rich and hand-some city, as the nation grew in wealth and numbers, as the business of the Executive Office increased, and as the railroads began to bring vast throngs of politicians, office-seekers and sightseers with a claim, real or fancied, upon the time and attention of the republic's chief servant, the President. As a result, the White House became unequal to the demand upon it."

As the public's demands upon the President's house increased, his family and his home life were correspondingly encroached upon. As early as Jackson's day, as quoted above, there were complaints of lack of room for the reception of visitors. These complaints continued intermittantly right down to the administration of President Roosevelt, when, as already recorded, the White House was at last enlarged by two wings and by other improvements and accommodations, to meet modern requirements.

Money Spent on the President's Home

Much money has been spent upon this abode of the Presidents, though Congress has more than once been called "spend-thrift" in respect to appropriations for its maintenance. However, the architects, who remodeled the building only a few years ago, Messrs. McKim, Mead and White, after a careful study of the structure, said that, way back in the time when the nation was in its infancy, those who planned the White House performed their work on "a scale that is adequate to the purposes even today."

Its elegance, its roominess, its dignity, are characteristics of this historical building that were given to it, not by any latter-day architect, but by the original architect and builders over a hundred years ago. One member of Congress, in delivering an address on the White House in 1840, said of it, with something more than patriotic zeal, that "it is a Palace as splendid as that of the Caesar's, and as richly adorned as the proudest Asiatic mansion, the building alone costing $333,207 previous to its destruction by the British, and $301,496.25 more since that time to the present (1840) date."

In every decade, and with the incoming of each new President, more and more money has been appropriated to "run the White House" until today the budget for White House expenses amounts to an average of one thousand dollars a week.

A source of continual expense, it is recorded, is the fact that the mansion, being constructed of Virginia freestone, exceedingly porous, a thick coat of white lead has to be applied every ten years to prevent dampness from penetrating to the interior.

By some historians, and by certain tenants of the White House, too, it has been stated that despite all the money lavished upon the home of the Presidents, it was not until President Roosevelt remodeled the building that it was made entirely sanitary and healthful. When President William Henry Harrison died there, and later when President Taylor passed away within its walls, the newspapers, and even the windows of the Presidents named, declared the White House to be "in a dangerously unsanitary state." The daughter of Senator Benton, of Missouri, Mrs. Fremont, writes of precautions taken by President Van Buren against sickness in the White House, saying :

"Mr. Van Buren had the glass screen put quite across that windy entrance hall, and great wood fires made a struggle against the chill of the house, but it was so badly underdrained that in all long rains the floors of kitchens and cellars were actually under water.

N. P. Willis Describes the White House of Seventy Years Ago

An account of the White House as it was in 1840, when the famous American poet, N. P. Willis, visited it, is found in that author's "American Scenes," in which it is stated that:

"The residence of the Chief Magistrate of the United States resembles the country seat of an English nobleman, in its architecture and size; but it is to be regretted that the paralel ceases when we come to the grounds. By itself it is a commodious and creditable building, serving its purpose without too much state for a republican country, yet likely, as long as the country exists without primogeniture and rank, to be sufficiently superior to all other dwelling houses to mark it as the residence of the nation's chief.

"The President's House stands neat the centre of an area of some twenty acres, occupying a very advantageous elevation, open to the view of the Potomac and about forty-four feet above high water, and possessing from its balcony one of the loveliest prospects in our country the junction of the two branches of the Potomac which border the District and the swelling and varied shores beyond the States of Maryland and Virginia. The building is 170 feet front and 86 deep, and is built of white freestone, with Ionic pilasters, comprehending two lofty stories, with a stone balustrade. The north front is ornamented with a portico sustained by four Ionic columns, with three columns of projection, the outer intercolumniation affording a shelter for carriages to drive under. The garden front on the river is varied by what is called a rusticated basement story, in the Ionic style, and by a semicircular projecting colonnade of six columns, with two spacious and airy flights of steps leading to a balustrade on the level of the principal story.

"The interior of the President's House is well disposed and possesses one superb reception room and two oval drawing-rooms (one in each story) of very beautiful proportions. The other rooms are not remarkable, and there is an inequality in the furniture of the whole house (owing to the unwillingness and piecemeal manner with which Congress votes any moneys for its decoration) which destroys its effect as a comfortable dwelling. The oval rooms are carpeted with Gobelin tapestry, worked with the National emblems, and are altogether in a more consistent style than the other parts of the house. It is to be hoped that Congress will not always consider the furniture of the President's House as the scapegoat of all sumptuary and aristocratic sins, and that we shall soon be able to introduce strangers not only to a comfortable and well-appointed, but to a properly served and nicely kept, Presidential Mansion."

The White House of the Civil War

One description of the White House as it was during and right after the Civil War, tells of the entrance of President Johnson to the mansion, following the assassination of Lincoln. From this account we learn that the White House itself was "in anything but an inviting condition." Soldiers had tramped over the Brussels carpets, and guards had slept on the sofas till all the furniture on the first floor was worn and soiled. In the spring of 1866 an appropriation of $30,000 was made to refurnish the mansion, and under the wise, economical care of Mrs. Patterson, President Johnson's daughter, this sum produced a simple but elegant result. Only necessary changes were made. Old wall paper was brightened by adding gilt panels and ornaments, and the interior was pronounced handsomer than ever. Several fine paintings of former Presidents, which were lying in the dust of the garret, were, by order of Mr. Johnson, brought down, set in new frames, and placed upon the walls as the most appropriate decoration. It was not until after the war that the White House grounds were graded, the stone embankment, which rose several feet above the level of the street, removed, and the present iron fence substituted.

The President's House Today

As already stated, President Roosevelt rebuilt the White House in 1902, his orders being executed in such a way that the building was restored to conform to its original design, though two wings were added, one being used as the Temporary Executive Offices, the other for use on social occasions. These changes and improvements were made at a cost of over $600,000. Thus President Roosevelt has done more for the White House than any of his predecessors. Yet each President, from Adams down, made certain changes, each according to his notion of what the Executive Mansion should look like and stand for.

As the architects who worked under Mr. Roosevelt's direction said, "it was necessary to reconstruct the interior of the White House from basement to attic, in order to secure comfort, safety and necessary sanitary conditions."

And now experts declare that the long standing problem of an appropriate home for the President is settled for years to come.

White House Facts of History

In 1900, was celebrated the one hundredth anniversary of the opening of the White House, all Washington joining in the festivities. On that occasion many speeches were made by public officials, and no end of Government reports were printed, from which we glean the following information :

In pursuance of law, in May, 1800, the archives and general offices of the Federal Government were removed to Washington. On May 28, 'Soo, a notice was posted on the office door of the Secretary of State in Philadelphia, the old capital, of which the following is a copy :

"The office of the Department of State will be removed this day from Philadelphia. All letters and applications are therefore to be addressed to that Department at the city of Washington from this date."

President Adams had left Philadelphia the preceding day, and made the journey to Washington overland. The books, papers, furniture, etc., of the Government were brought by water transportation and landed at one of the wharves and thence carted to the several offices. Washington was lien a mere village and poorly prepared to entertain the officers of the Government, although the number was small. The employees for the first year in the new city, apportioned among the Departments, were as follows : State Department, 8 clerks ; Treasury Department, 75 ; War Department, 17 ; Navy Department, 16, and Post Office Department, 1o; making in all 126 clerks. The total sum paid in salaries in that year was $125,881. The population of Washington was estimated to be about 3,000. The statistics show that on May 15, 1800, there were 199 brick and 253 framed houses in the city.

Under an enactment of Congress George Washington appointed commissioners to take charge of the Iaying out of Washington city as a national capital for all time. The commissioners thus named employed Major l'Enfant, a French engineer and a friend of Thomas Jefferson, to lay out the city. He adopted the plan of Versailles, the seat of the Government of France, as a basis for his work. The admirable location of the Capitol and the White House is due to him.

Further information of historic interest, given in Government documents, include these facts about the work, from time to time, on the White House :

The architect of the White House was James Hoban, a native of Dublin, Ireland, whose plans were selected as the result of a competition which closed on July 15, 1792. Hoban's design called for a central building with wings ; but his original drawings have been lost, and only the plans for the main building remain. Hoban superintended both the erection of the 'White House and its restoration after it was burned by the British in 1814. The cornerstone was laid October 13, 1792. Funds for the original construction of the building came from the sale of lots in the Federal City and from the moneys furnished by Maryland and Virginia for the construction of Government buildings. The house was first occupied by President and Mrs. John Adams in November, 1800. The first appropriation from the Treasury for the White House was one of $15,000, made April 24, i800, to provide furniture ; and the first appropriation for repairs was one of like amount, made on March 3, 1807.

President Jefferson had his office outside the White House on the site occupied by the present Executive offices ; and in 1819 Congress appropriated $8,137 for enlarging "the offices west of the President's House." The South portico was finished subsequent to 1823, at a cost of $19,000; the East Room was finished and furnished by virtue of an appropriation of $25,000 made in 1826; and three years later the North Portico was added, in accordance with the original plan, at an expense of $24,769.25. The White House was first lighted by gas in 1848; and a system of heating and ventilating was installed in 1853. Four years later the stables and conservatory east of the White House were removed to make room for the extension of the Treasury Building.

How the White House Got Its Name

At variance are the historians as to how the White House came to be so called. One has it that the abode of the Presidents got its name from the fact that it happened to be painted white. Another says that Washington so named it in honor of the name borne by the house in which Mrs. Washington passed her girlhood. From the various published accounts bearing on this point, the following are quoted :

One writer says : "Its corner-stone was laid October 13, 1792, and in 1796 General Washington named it `The White House', while in course of construction, in honor of his wife's old home."

Another has it that "our `First Lady' of the White House never lived in the building which now bears that name, bestowed upon it in honor of her early home, the `White House,' where the engagement of Martha Custis and General Washington took place."

From a third source we learn that at first "the house in which the President lived was called `The Palace', but a strong anti-monarchical sentiment frowned on this designation, and finally Congress formally declared it `The Executive Mansion', and by that name and `The President's House', it was popularly known, until it was burned by the British in 1814. Then, when its blackened free-stone walls were repainted white to hide the traces of the fire, it was rechristened `The White House', a name that has clung to it ever since."

But however much the historians may differ as to how or where the term White House originated, all are in accord as to the various official names accorded to the building at different times. For instance, it is agreed that during the terms of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, the building was best known as "President's House." Then from the administrations of Monroe to the beginning of the Roosevelt administration, the structure was officially the "Executive Mansion." When Mr. Roosevelt came to Washington as President, he changed the official name to its present and most popular appellation, all documents, messages and letters of the President, and all the correspondence of his family, being dated from "The White House."

President Thomas Jefferson's granddaughter, Mrs. Randolph, wrote years after she left the mansion : "My grandfather did not allow the presents proffered by the Tunisan Ambassadors to be brought to the President's House, as it was then called a name which, it seems, is too plain English to suit modern notions of dignified refinement, for it has been superseded by the more stately appellation of `Executive Mansion'."

Home | More Articles | Email: