THE HOME OF EVERY PRESIDENT SINCE WASHINGTON
When, in 1792, James Hoban suggested to the commission appointed to supervise the erection of public buildings at Washington that the Executive Mansion be modelled after the palace of the Duke of Leinster in Dublin, his proposition was accepted, and he was given a premium of five hundred dollars for the plan. More, he was engaged, at the same amount per year, to take charge of the builders.
No time was lost in laying the corner stone. The ceremony was performed on October 13, 1792, and operations were pushed with such speed that the building was completed ten years later !
In November, 1800, six months after the transfer of the government offices from Philadelphia to Washington, Mrs. Adams joined President Adams at the White House. She had a hard time getting there. A few days after her arrival she wrote to her daughter :
” I arrived here on Sunday last, and without meeting any accident worth noticing, except losing ourselves when we left Baltimore, and going eight or nine miles on the Frederick road, by which means we were obliged to go the other eight miles through woods, where we wandered for two hours, without finding a guide, or the path. Fortunately, a straggling black came up with us, and we engaged him as a guide to extricate us out of our difficulty; but 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 furnished, to accommodate Congress and those attached to it; but as they are, and scattered as they are, I see no great comfort for them.”
Mrs. Adams found no great comfort in the White House; either. ” To assist us in this great castle,” she wrote, ” and render less attendance necessary, bells are wholly wanting, not one single one being hung through the whole house, and promises are all you can obtain. .. . If they will Out me up some bells, and let me have wood enough to keep fires, I design to be pleased. .. . But, surrounded with forests, can you believe that wood is not to be had, because people cannot be found to cut and cart it. . . . The house is made habitable, but there is not a single apartment finished. . . . 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.”
The building itself was in good condition, though the surroundings were far from prepossessing, when it was burned by the British in 1814. President and Mrs. Madison moved to the Octagon House, and spent more than a year in this comfortable winter home of Colonel John Tayloe.
The cost of rebuilding and refurnishing the Executive Mansion was about three hundred thousand dollars. The work was begun in 1814, and in September, 1817, the building was so far completed that President Monroe was able to take up his quarters there in some degree of comfort, though the floor in the East Room had not yet been laid and some of the walls were still without plastering. On January 1, 1818, the first New Year’s reception was held there. ” It was gratifying to be able to salute the President of the United States with the compliments of the season in his appropriate residence,” the National Intelligencer said. It may be added that the editor called the building ” the President’s House.” The title, ” the White House,” was not yet in common use.
For many years the successive occupants of the building were subject to all sorts of criticism. Mrs. Monroe refused both to make first calls and to return calls. President Monroe bought foreign-made furnishings ! John Quincy Adams actually introduced a billiard table, and the use of public money to buy ” a gaming table ” was bitterly attacked ! (Of course the purchase was made with personal funds.) Mrs. Adams was cold and haughty ! When President Van Buren left Washington he took with him the gold spoons and the gilt dessert service that had attracted attention ! But these were private property.
However, most criticisms like these have been in-spired by pride in the President and his household, and a pardonable feeling of possession in them and the White House.
Until within recent years the President’s offices were in the east end of the White House. A pleasing description of these offices has come down from Isaac N. Arnold, who thus spoke of the quarters of President Lincoln :
” The furniture of the room consisted of a large oak table, covered with cloth extending north and south, and it was round this table that the Cabinet sat when it held its meetings. Near the end of the table and between the windows was another table, on the west side of which the President sat, in a large arm-chair, and at this table he wrote. A tall desk, with pigeon holes for paper, stood against the south wall. The only books usually found in this room were the Bible, the United States Statutes, and a copy of Shakespeare. There were a few chairs and two plain hair-covered sofas. There were two or three map frames, from which hung military maps, on which the positions and movements of the armies were traced. There was an old and discolored engraving of General Jackson over the mantel and a later photograph of John Bright. Doors open into this room from the room of the secretary and from the outside hall, running east and west across the house. A bell-cord within reach of his hand extended to the secretary’s office. A messenger sat at the door opening from the hall, and took in the cards and names of visitors.”
During the time of President Roosevelt, outside Executive offices were built, and rooms that had long been needed for the personal uses of the President’s household were released. The change has increased patriotic pride in the White House, one of the simplest mansions provided for the rulers of the nations.