• U.S.

The Presidency: A Republic’s Palace

4 minute read
Hugh Sidey

At first George Washington and that singular French genius Pierre l’Enfant planned a “President’s palace” five times larger than the present structure. But many Americans were opposed to such monarchical pretensions, so Washington acquiesced. When workmen came to him in 1792 with L’Enfant’s grand design for a capital city in which the President’s house was to be at the center, Washington paced the ground and set the stakes marking the north wall of the more modest residence designed by James Hoban, which Theodore Roosevelt would dub the “White House” in 1901.

The first occupant of the building was Secretary of State (later Chief Justice) John Marshall. He could not find suitable lodging in the fall of 1800, and since President John Adams was not certain he wanted to live there, Marshall moved in upstairs for a few weeks. Abigail Adams made immediate history when she did arrive. She hung out the wash in the East Room so critics would not ridicule the sight of the President’s underdrawers flapping in the breeze.

What a story the White House and its people make. Historian William Seale spent ten years rummaging through thousands of letters, vouchers and diaries to come up with two volumes, 1,224 pages of rich lore, The President’s House, published by the White House Historical Association. A few days ago, Seale presented the Reagans with the first set, fittingly in the East Room, where he noted Meriwether Lewis had slept in a corner screened off by sailcloth before heading west to the Pacific with William Clark in 1803.

For a stately building, Seale found, the White House has had its bawdy moments. An early problem was Betsy Donahue, a carpenter’s wife who established a whorehouse on the construction site. When she began dragging men in off the street, the new city’s normally tolerant commissioners had her removed. When that British rascal Rear Admiral George Cockburn broke into the White House with 150 of his sailors on Aug. 24, 1814, they ate the dinner prepared for James and Dolley Madison, who had fled. Then, before firing the place, Cockburn claimed a chair cushion, declaring that it would help him remember Mrs. Madison’s seat. The remark was considered so risque it was not printed for years.

Author Seale rates the eminently forgettable Millard Fillmore as having had the best head for design and doing as much as any other President to improve the White House grounds and the beauty of Washington. The mounds on the South Lawn are not Jefferson’s after all, says Seale, but the result of dumping excess dirt from excavation for the Treasury Department when Franklin Pierce was President.

Benjamin Harrison’s household was afraid of the new electric lights and would avoid the switches. Result: lights often burned through the night. When the William Howard Tafts celebrated their silver wedding anniversary on June 19, 1911, the house, the trees, the bushes were festooned with thousands of electric lights, and 8,000 guests came from all over the nation. The Tafts loved it so much they did it again for the public the next night.

For all of Seale’s diligence, mysteries still abound. Did a courthouse in Charleston, S.C., inspire George Washington and lead to the White House design? Seale thinks so, but there is no exact record. One mystery was solved: the reason for a lonely stone fountain on White House ground commemorating Artist Francis Millet and Archibald Willingham Butt. Since the only other such commemoration on the grounds is the statue of Andrew Jackson, the fountain bore investigating. Archie Butt, it turns out, was a popular bachelor who served as White House military aide for both Theodore Roosevelt and Taft. Returning from a vacation in Europe with his friend Millet, he booked passage on the Titanic. Butt would have continued to elude historians had he not left three volumes of intimate correspondence of his years in the White House. To Author Seale, Archie Butt is a genuine hero.

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