Amazing articles on just about every subject...

First, Second And Third White Houses

( Originally Published 1908 )

AS STATED in the foregoing chapter, the White House, considered simply as a structure, may be divided historically into three periods. These periods may, for the sake of convenience, be said to embrace what may be called the first, second and third White Houses, thus :

First, The President's House—1800 to 1814, from its formal opening under President John Adams to its burning by the British, when Madison was President.

Second, The Executive Mansion—1818 to 19o2. This period covers the rebuilding of the structure, after the fire, and all the administrations down to Roosevelt.

Third, The White House—1902 to the present time. This period begins with the remodeling, or, more properly, the restoration of the building, and involves a description of the structure as it now stands and as President Roosevelt's successor, the twenty-seventh President of the United States, will find it.

The "President's House"—1800 to 1814

Though George Washington died one year before the completion of the White House, it was he who, more than any other man, brought his influence to bear upon its location, its construction 'and its architecture. Fully nine years before John Adams took possession of the "President's House," and eight years previous to Washington's death, Washington sent a message to the Second Congress, then sitting in Philadelphia (December 13, 1791), reading as follows:

"Gentlemen of the Senate and of the House of Representatives, I place before you the plan of a city that has been laid out within the District of ten miles square, which was fixed upon for the Permanent Seat of the Government of the United States." "G. WASHINGTON."

The District referred to is now known as the District of Columbia.

Of the work of Washington in establishing the National Capital at Washington in the District of Columbia, selecting the sites for the Houses of Congress and the residence of the President, a better understanding may be attained by the reader in the reminder that Washington's original profession was that of a surveyor and that all his life he was deeply interested in this field of work. It is not surprising, therefore, that those who were in power at the end of the Eighteenth Century, knowing Washington's fitness for the task of establishing a "Federal City," left the responsibility for the work largely with Washington.

Plans were called for in a competition open to all architects. The winner in this competition was the architect, James Hoban, referred to in the previous chapter as the builder of the White House. He received $500 as the First Prize, "for the best plans submitted in the contest for the construction of a residence for the Chief Executive." His design, Hoban admitted, was founded on the lines of the then newly-built mansion of the Duke of Leinster, in Dublin, Ireland (Hoban's native city,) the architect referring to the Duke's mansion as "a splendid example of Greek architecture."

It is not necessary here to dwell upon the details of the original work of constructing the White House. Our story begins properly with the entrance of President John Adams to the nearly completed structure, in November, 1800.

A description of the White House, as it was at that time, appeared in The Christian Herald, a few years ago, the account being written, the present writer believes, either by Mrs. Avery, or by Mrs. Abby G. Baker, of Washington, the last named being one of the foremost living authorities in the country on all matters pertaining to White House and Presidential life, extracts from her articles in The Christian Herald being used as authoritative statements in several different chapters in this history.

In the particular account here in question we find it recorded that, in i800, the Executive Mansion at Washington was a great unfinished building, standing in the midst of a sparsely settled district. In coming to take possession of it, President and Mrs. Adams had to drive over in a conveyance from Baltimore. The driver lost his way, and when they finally arrived at the new capital of the nation and the house which was being built for the President to live in, it was night, and the servants could hardly find lights enough to make the great rooms distinguishable, They looked "exceedingly barn like" to Mrs. Adams, in their unfinished and unfurnished state, and were pretty uncomfortable too, from the fact that she could not get enough firewood to keep them warm. That was in the fall of i800. By New Year's, 1801, the downstairs rooms were still unfinished and unfurnished. Mrs. Adams was using the East Room, which was then designated "the banqueting hall," in which to dry the household linen, and the State parlors were so in the name only.

The First Letter Written in the President's House

A letter written by Abigail Adams, wife of President John Adams, is alluded to briefly in the foregoing chapter. It is named as probably the first letter ever written in the White House. The full text of that letter is here given, with extracts from another letter written by Mrs. Adams within a few weeks of the first one. As human documents these letters are intensely interesting, and are of great value historically, since they embody a most graphic description of the White House as it was when it first became the residence of the Chief Magistrate. Mrs. Adams' first letter is dated November 21, 1800, and reads;

"Woods are all you see from Baltimore until you reach the city, which is only so in name. Here and there is a small cot, without a glass window, interspersed amongst the forests, through which you travel miles without seeing any human being. In the city there are buildings enough, if they were compact and finished, to accommodate Congress and those attached to it; but as they are, and scattered as they are, I see no great comfort for them. The river, which runs up to Alexandria, is in full view of my window, and I see the vessels as they pass and repass. The house is upon a grand and superb scale, requiring about thirty servants to attend and keep the apartments in proper order, and perform the ordinary business of the house and stables ; an establishment very well proportioned to the President's salary. The work of lighting the apartments, from the kitchen to parlors and chambers, is a tax indeed ; and the fires we are obliged to keep to secure us from daily agues are another very cheering comfort. To assist us in this great castle, and render less attendance necessary, bells are wholly wanting, not one single bell being hung through the whole house, and promises are all you can obtain. This is so great an inconvenience that I do not know what to do, nor how to do. The ladies from Georgetown and in the city have, many of them, visited me. Yesterday I returned fifteen visits but such a place as Georgetown appears why our Milton is beautiful. But no comparisons ; if they will put me up some bells, and let me have wood enough to keep fires, I design to be pleased. I could content myself almost anywhere three months; but, surrounded with forests, can you believe that wood is not to be had, because people cannot be found to cut and cart it? Briesler entered into a contract with a man to supply him with wood. A small part, a few cords only, has he been able to get. Most of that was expended to dry the walls of the house before we came in, and yesterday the man told him it was impossible for him to procure it to be cut and carted. He has had recourse to coals ; but we cannot get grates and set in. We have, indeed, come into a new country.

"The house is made habitable, but there is not a single apartment finished, and all withinside, except the plastering, has been done since Briesler came. We have not the least fence, yard, or other convenience, without, and the great unfinished audience room I make a drying room of, to hang up the clothes in. The principal stairs are not up, and will not be this winter. Six chambers are made comfortable; two are occupied by the President and Mr. Shaw ; two lower rooms for a common parlor, and one for a levee room. Upstairs there is the oval room, which is designed for the drawing-room, and has the crimson furniture in it. It is a very handsome room now; but when completed, it will be beautiful. If the twelve years in which this place has been considered as the future seat of government had been improved, as they would have been in New England, very many of the present inconveniences would have been removed. It is a beautiful spot, capable of every improvement, and the more I view it, the more I am delighted with it.

"Since I sat down to write, I have been called down to a servant from Mount Vernon, with a billet from Major Custis, and a haunch of venison, and a kind congratulatory letter from Mrs. Lewis, upon my arrival in the city, with Mrs. Washing-ton's love, inviting me to Mount Vernon, where, health permitting, I will go, before I leave this place."

In a second letter, Mrs. Adams writes :

"Briesler procured nine cords of wood ; between six and seven of that was kindly burnt up to dry the walls of the house, which ought to have been done by the Commissioners, but which, if left to them, would have remained undone to this day.

"The vessel which has my clothes and other matters, is not arrived. The ladies are impatient for a drawing-room; I have no looking glasses but dwarfs for this house; nor a twentieth part lamps enough to light it. Many things were stolen, many more broken by the removal ; amongst the number, my tea china is more than half missing. Georgetown affords nothing. My rooms are very pleasant and warm whilst the doors of the hall are closed.

"You can scarcely believe it that here in this wilderness city, I should find my time so occupied as it is. My visitors, some of them, come three and four miles. The return of one of them is the work of one day; most of the ladies reside in Georgetown, or in scattered parts of the city at two and three miles distance.

"We have all been very well as yet'; if we can by any means get wood, we shall not let our fires go out, but it is at a price indeed; from four dollars it has risen to nine. Some say it will fall, but there must be more industry than is to be found here to bring half enough to the market for the consumption of the inhabitants."

This first White House, or President's House, was destroyed in 1814, when vandals of the British Army burned it and other public buildings—a full account of this being contained in the chapters headed "Fire Alarms" and in "Wives of the Early Presidents," and in "Portraits and Painters."

The Executive Mansion—1814 to 1902

The rebuilding of the White House after its burning in 1814, up to its final completion in 1829, increases one's admiration for its architectural beauties, and for its designer and builder, Hoban.

It should be stated here, however, that the building was not totally destroyed by the fire, the official accounts stating that "the vaulting that supports some of the floors is very little, if at all weakened by the burning, and parts of the walls, arches and columns are in a state requiring a small expense to preserve them."

Congress voted, nevertheless, the sum of $500,000 for "rebuilding and repairing the public buildings," the larger part of which money was spent on the Executive Mansion. For his magnificent work in "rebuilding and repairing" the Executive Mansion, Architect Hoban received a salary of $1,600 a year; while his Chief Inspector received $1,500; is clerk $4 a day: his foreman, $3.75, and his overseer, $2.

The first President to live in the rebuilt mansion was James Monroe, who formally opened his official residence on January i, 1818, when the public was received at the New Year's reception. Concerning the facts relating to Mr. Monroe's entrance to the newly restored mansion, two accounts have come down to us, the first being an entry in the diary of John Quincy Adams, dated September 20, 1817, and reading :

"The President, James Monroe, returned last Wednesday from a tour of nearly four months to the eastern and western parts of the United States. He is in the President's house, which is so far restored from the effects of the British visit in 1814, that it is now for the first time habitable. But he is apprehensive of the effects of the fresh painting and plastering, and very desirous of visiting his family at his seat in Virginia. He is, therefore, going again to leave the city in two or three days, but said his absence would only be for a short time."

The second account was printed in the National Intelligencer on January 2, 1818, in which is related the story of the formal opening of the mansion at the New Year's reception, thus :

"The charming weather of yesterday contributed to enliven the reciprocal salutations of kindness and good wishes which are customary at every return of New Year's Day. The President's house, for the first time since its re-erification, was thrown open for the general reception of visitors. It was thronged from twelve to three o'clock by an unusually large concourse of ladies and gentlemen, among whom were to be found the Senators, Representatives, heads of Departments, Foreign Ministers, and many of our distinguished citizens, residents and strangers. It was gratifying to be able once more to salute the President of the United States with the compliments of the season in his appropriate residence ; and the continuance of this truly Republican custom has given, as far as we have heard, very general satisfaction. The Marine Corps turned out on the occasion and made a fine appearance."

The White House—1902 to Date

In the preceding chapter it is related that complaints of the limitations of the White House, both for entertaining and for the transaction of business, occurred in all administrations even as far back as Jackson's time. When President Roosevelt became the tenant of the Mansion, he at once took steps for the enlarging and remodeling of the White House, and succeeded in accomplishing what is called officially "The Restoration."

Mr. Roosevelt secured an appropriation of some $600,000, from Congress, for the purpose of restoring the White House to an appearance as near as possible to the original design as approved by George Washington. Messrs. McKim, Mead and White, famous architects of New York, were placed in charge of the work, in the spring of 1902, with directions to complete the work in four months. This they did very successfully. Temporary Executive Offices were added completed on September 30, and occupied about October 15. The family apartments of the President were reoccupied on the fourth of November ; the first official function in the restored White House occurred on December 18, when a Cabinet Dinner was given; and at the New Year's reception, January 1, 1903, the new White House was reopened to the public.

When the architects sent their report of the completed work to the President, that document was promptly transmitted to Congress by the President, with the following comments showing his appreciation of the work done :

"Through a wise provision of the Congress at its last session, the White House, which had become disfigured by incongruous additions and changes, has now been restored to what it was planned to be by Washington. In making the restorations the utmost care has been exercised to come as near as possible to the early plans and to supplement these plans by a careful study of such buildings as that of the University of Virginia, which was built by Jefferson. The White House is the property of the nation, and so far as is compatible with living therein it should be kept as it originally was, for the same reasons that we keep Mount Vernon as it originally was. The stately simplicity of the architecture is an expression of the character of the period in which it was built, and is in accord with the purposes it was designed to serve. It is a good thing to preserve such buildings as historic monuments which keep alive our sense of continuity with the nation's past."

White House Centennial Day

After the lapse of a hundred years, the city of Washington fittingly celebrated "Centennial Day" December 12, 1900, this being the one hundredth anniversary of the establishment of the seat of national government at Washington and the opening of the White House, following the transfer of the National Capital from Philadelphia. The event was observed by a reception at the White House, a parade at the Capitol, and commemorative exercises in both houses of Congress.

The programme began with a morning reception at the Executive Mansion to the Governors of the States and Territories by President McKinley, followed by a display of the model and drawings of the proposed enlargement of the mansion.

Three addresses were delivered that morning at the Executive Mansion (the first formal addresses ever delivered in that place.)

One of the speeches in question was delivered by the Hon. Henry B. F. MacFarland, of Washington. His remarks concerning the White House are well worth quoting, thus :

"Every President, except George Washington, has performed the duties of his great office, the greatest in the world, within these White House walls. Simply to mention the names of John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, and then of Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant, brings before the mind a throng of great deeds done in this very house. Think of the expansion of the country by successive acts of the Presidents, beginning with Jefferson ! Think of the negotia tions with foreign powers, of the war making and of the peace making, of the formation of far reaching policies, and of all the dealings with Congress by President after President ! Think what went on here under President Lincoln alone, when the eyes of the whole world were for the first time fixed upon the Capitol of the United States.

"One hundred years ago the District of Columbia became the permanent seat of the Government of the United States. For the first time the young nation had a capital, after twenty-four years of wandering from one State to another. By July, 1800, the six Executive Departments of that day were all in full working order here. By November, President Adams, after a visit of inspection in June, was occupying this house, and Congress was in session preparatory to the regular session in December."

Architect's Report After the Restoration

On the twenty-fifth of February, 1903, the architects, who had so successfully accomplished the restoration of the White House, sent their report to President Roosevelt. From that document we gain instructive information regarding the structural conditions in the White House, together with enlightening information about the ground floor, the main floor, the elevator and the main stairway.

That part of the Architects relating to "Rooms and Furniture" (not given in this chapter), will be found in the chapter under that head, while a description of the new Executive Offices is given in the chapter following this one, headed : "President and Mrs. Roosevelt's White House Life."

Messrs. McKim, Mead and White, in the report in question, gave the following facts :

On making as careful an examination of the White House as was possible while the house was occupied, it was found that the entire lower floor was used for house service. The principal rooms at the southeast corner were occupied by the laundry; the central rooms on either side of the main corridor were used for the heating and mechanical plants; the kitchens occupied the northwest corner ; and much of the remainder of this floor was occupied by storerooms and servants' bedrooms.

Of the floors of the first story, those under the main hall, the private dining-room, and pantry, were found to be in good condition. The floor under the central portion of the East Room showed marked settlement, due to over loading and to hanging heating coils to the ceiling underneath. The base of the room gave evidence of the settlement of the floor, and the same was true in the Green and the Blue rooms. The floor of the State dining-room, while not showing settlement, was so insufficiently supported as to cause the dishes on the sideboards to rattle when the waiters were serving, and the plastering below was badly cracked from excessive vibration.

At large receptions, when potted plants were brought in from the greenhouses, and when the house was filled with people, it was the custom to put shores under the floors of the East Room, the State Dining-room and the main hall at both ends for safety.

In many places, where the plaster was removed, evidence of the fire of 1814 were visible. Also cut into the stonework were found many names, evidently of workmen employed on the construction.

The heating chamber, which contained the coils of the heating apparatus, had been built into the main corridor. The fresh air duct and the heat mains were suspended from the corridor ceiling, the masonry arches having been cut away in consequence. The whole ground floor was in bad condition; there was about it a general air of dilapidation, and the wood-work particularly was out of repair.

There was scarcely a room in the house in which the plaster was in good condition. In a number of instances as many as five layers of paper were found, and when the paper was removed the, plaster came also.

The second floor showed such a degree of settlement as to make an entire new floor necessary. The floors of the rooms heretofore devoted to the offices, also the library, were so insufficient that steel beams were required.

The enlargement of the State Dining-room by the removal of the north wall of the room, which wall carried the floor beams of the upper stories, made it necessary to build a heavy steel truss in the attic, from which the second floor is suspended.

The attic, occupied by servants, was reached only by the elevator. It is true that from the attic there was a narrow winding stairway leading to a mezzanine floor adjacent to the elevator; and from this mezzanine floor a swinging iron ladder let down from a trapdoor directly in front of the elevator, a most dangerous arrangement in case of fire.

The roof drainage had been carried through the roof, and thence on top of the attic floor to central points, descending to the ground through the house itself. The conductors were troughs hollowed out of logs. These troughs have been replaced with wrought iron pipes, carried down along the external walls. The roof itself which, under a fresh coat of paint, appeared in good condition, was found to be in such bad shape as to require almost entire renewal.

At first it was thought that the old heating apparatus could remain, at least in large part. Upon further examination, how-ever, it was found that only by the removal of all the duct work and heating coils, which were suspended from the ceilings throughout the ground floor, could this floor be made available for any uses other than those of service. The removal of ducts, etc., involved lowering the boiler and placing all pipes and ducts in trenches under the floor. The change necessitated a large unexpected expenditure, but in return the finely proportioned room under the Blue Room has become a recption room for guests of honor, and ample dressing-room accommodations not only for these guests, but for all the guests at public receptions have been added.

The electric wiring was not only old, defective and obsolete, but actually dangerous, as in many places beams and studding were found charred for a considerable distance about the wires where the insulation had completely worn off. Where wires had carried through wood joists a porcelain insulating tube is usually placed through the beam and the wire threaded through that, but in the White House, in very many cases, the only protection was the insulation on the wire itself, and that had been worn off by contact with the rough timber. The entire wiring system is now in accordance with the very best modern practice, all wires being run inside wrought iron pipes, so that if at any future time the wires should be burnt out or in any way damaged they can be withdrawn and new ones put in.

A new standpipe with fire hose has been provided, running from the ground floor to the attic and carried outside the house to a point which is accessible to the city fire department, so that in case of fire the attic of the house has the same protection as a modern office building.

In short, 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.

The East and West terraces are first found on a plan drawn by Latrobe in 1807. The West Terrace had degenerated into workshops connected with the numerous greenhouses that had been constructed from time to time in such manner as not only to take away from it light and air, but entirely to conceal it. The East Terrace was removed some time prior to 1870. This terrace has been rebuilt in a substantial manner, with the addition of a porte-cochère opposite the Treasury Department. In excavating for the new terrace wing the foundations of the old one were discovered. A semicircular drive leads to this new entrance, which now is used on all occasions of large entertainments. The porte-cochère, which is glassed-in during the winter, is flanked by watchmen's quarters, thus doing away with the small wooden pavilion in the grounds. The East Terrace is occupied by coatrooms containing boxes for 2,500 wraps, umbrella stands and other conveniences, thus doing away with the necessity of pressing into service as cloakrooms the main hall and the State and Private dining-rooms.

In the house proper, more than one-half of the lower floor is given up to dressing-rooms, with toilet rooms attached, conveniences heretofore entirely lacking. The removal of the pipes from the corridor gives a spacious passageway, dignified by the fine architectural features constructed by Hoban. Decorated with portraits and plants, and furnished with sofas and large chairs, this corridor. is made comfortable for those who wish to wait for an opportunity to enter the line formed for the receptions.

A stone floor has been laid, and a broad and easy flight of stone stairs leads to the main floor of the house. The kitchens have not been changed materially, but a new refrigerating room and many other conveniences have been added.

The West Terrace wing now accommodates the Laundry and Ironing rooms, the maids' dining-room, and separate quarters for men and women servants.

The removal of the greenhouses, besides adding materially to the healthfulness of the White House, has restored to the south front of the building that sense of dignity of which, during the past forty years, it had been deprived by the various encroachments. The fine colonnades on the south fronts of the terraces, now restored, once more give to the White House the long base from which the main structure rises with great architectural effect.

The main floor is devoted to what may be termed the State Apartments, as opposed to the rooms given over to the family life of the President's household. The only family room on this floor is the Private Dining-room, and even to this the public has access on formal occasions. Every room on this floor has been completely remade and refurnished.

In connection with the elevator it is interesting to note that a part of the oak wood work in the new elevator-car was made from roof trusses of the Old South Church in Boston, which, in its day, sheltered the Boston Tea Party. Mr. Norcross had the timbers in his yard since the time he replaced the old roof of the church with a new one.

The main stairway to the second story is of Joliet stone, and consists of a broad flight from the main floor to the landing, where it divides into two flights. The railing is of forged iron and brass, with hand rail covered with velvet. A double gate of wrought iron, which rolls back into pockets in the walls, has been placed at the foot of the staircase.

Home | More Articles | Email: