Washington DC – A Curious Visit

Not only was an Irishman, Hoban, the architect of the White House, but it is generally said to have been made from the inspiration of an Irish model. It is said to have been inspired by the mansion of the Duke of Leinster, near Dublin; but although this supposition is frequently referred to, it is with difficulty that one finds a picture of the Irish house; but I am fortunately able to reproduce an engraving of “the Seat of His Grace the Duke of Leinster,” named “Carton,” in the County of Kildare, from an engraving of the year 1824, and it shows consider-able similarity in general style to the White House, as the White House was in early days, before the projecting portico was added. For the front and rear porticoes, which are such important features of the White House as it now is, were not part of the structure until about 1825.

Hoban’s White House was one hundred and sixty feet long, of stone, two stories in height, with a front of great dignity. The driveway now sweeps up across the broad dawn and under the portico, with its four Corinthian columns and classic pediment. On the first floor, on either side, are four windows with tops alternately pointed and rounding. Along the roof runs a balustrade. All is simple, all is dignified and fine with heedful care of proportions. Above the fan-lighted front door hangs a large lantern for electric light, and from this door one looks beyond a charming water basin, into Lafayette Square, with its statues and memories, and on to the long vista of Sixteenth Street.

The building is one of evolution, of additions, of accretions. Hoban was a man of fortunate temperament. He made governmental connections and held them. He rebuilt the White House after its burning. In all he worked for the Government for some forty years.

The pillared centers of the front and rear seem to have been the idea of the Englishman Latrobe, who had so much to do with the Capitol, for they show in a drawing made by him a score of years before the idea was carried out.

The rear of the building is even more charming than the front. It is very beautiful indeed. The front and rear are greatly alike, as to windows and the balustrade along the roof, and in general air, but at the rear there are effective pilasters between the windows, reaching cornice-high, and the portico is higher than at front, also reaching cornice-high, without the angle-topped pediment of the front: and the projective portico with six taller pillars than at the front, is semi-circular instead of square. It is a house of spirited dignity, seen from either view: and from the house itself, looking toward the south, the eye sweeps the broad enclosed acreage of the White House grounds and on to the stretches of the Potomac and the heights beyond.

Beautiful as the White House is, for it is beautiful in its interior as its exterior, no less a man than Mark Twain said that, “It is ugly enough outside, but that is nothing to what it is inside”: though, when one thinks of it, this is so stated in “The Gilded Age,” so it may represent Charles Dudley Warner, Mark Twain’s collaborator in that book, and not Clemens himself, except in the sense that each man must necessarily be responsible for the statements of either.

Nor was this criticism meant as humor : it was very literally a deliberate opinion: but it is only fair to realize that at the time that book was written, the White House, although ready to be made beautiful, had so many features of ugliness outside and in, barnacles acquired in the course of decades of bad taste, that perhaps Mark Twain was somewhat justified at that time after all.

It was in the administration of “the prodigious Roosevelt,” that the building was given its full beauty: President Roosevelt so deplored the many unbeautiful, disfiguring things that had come to the building as its adjuncts, that he asked for and was given an appropriation sufficient for restoration, and he went ahead with all the forcefulness of his forceful nature, and with heedfulness of the intelligent advice of those whom he called into consultation. And the result is what we now see.

There was clutter of the unsightly against the building on each of the four sides. At one point there was an unsightly greenhouse for Presidential grapes. At another point there was a lean-to green-house for a Presidential lover of cucumbers ! There was a structure for a cow to give milk for Presidential grandchildren. There was very much that needed clearing away.

Roosevelt, in announcing the plans regarding the removal of the ill-looking and unfit, that had been allowed to gather there, and the making of the White House into what it ought to be, said: “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.” And he finally expressed the feeling that such a building ought to be preserved as an historic monument, “to keep alive our sense of continuity with the nation’s past.”

The terraces which we now see, follow a design by Latrobe made in 1803, but are now adapted for entranceway and for offices. The modern architects of restoration of the original designs were McKim, Mead and White. The public has always given greater credit for what is positively beautiful in the designs of that firm to Stanford White more than to the others, but it is only fair to say that McKim especially had consultations with Roosevelt before the work was begun.

One feature of great interest was added during the Roosevelt administration : the collection of the historical china of the White House. This is a getting together, in addition to the little already possessed, of what could be gathered of Presidential china of the various administrations. Not from the standpoint of beauty, but of historical succession, the success was all that ardent china lovers could ask: and the fact that the gathering was done by Theodore Roosevelt displays another side, an unexpected side, of his myriad-sided nature. No wonder—not apropos of old china but of everything concerning Roosevelt’s remarkable personality—a distinguished Englishman, John Morley, went home and declared: “I have seen, in America, two great forces of Nature : Niagara Falls and Theodore Roosevelt.”

The china of the White House is unavoidably irregular in quantity as to the different administrations. For some there had been the purchase of entire new dinner services, in hundreds of pieces, giving opportunity for excellent choice for this collection: for other administrations there had been but the purchase, from time to time, of such new pieces as were absolutely needed, leaving little for the collection. And as to early days, much of the belongings ,of the White House, of all descriptions, was destroyed or lost at the time of the burning of the building by the British, in the War of 1812. Dolly Madison, vigorous and capable woman that she was, saw to the saving of as much as possible, even in the time of fright and excitement when the British soldiers were momently expected, but it was impossible for her to save any great amount.

One of my visits to the White House was under most curious conditions. President Wilson was ill and the White House was closed. My last previous visit had been several years before, and I feared that I should miss another visit through a long closing for house-cleaning, after the arrival of the Hardings.

For over a year the White House was shut to visitors: a house giving the impression of being full of gloomy secrets, for the public knew nothing of the mental and physical condition of their ruler : except for such impressions as could be gathered when he went out for a motor ride. Such ostensible information as was given out was often contradicted and generally held in doubt. Yet the Governmental system which had been established was such that the rule of the man hidden from sight in the fine white mansion was still unbroken.

A curious report likely to grow into a tradition of our times in future years, has to do with iron bars on the White House windows. It is not surprising that such a story should be current, for the ruler of our Republic was secluded from public sight under circumstances of great mystery, and there were the bars in the windows ! Many gazed through the fence and saw them, many crossed States and returned to tell of them. But as a matter of fact, the bars on the windows which caused such awe, can be seen in photographs of the White House, taken in the happy administration of Roosevelt: and perhaps the bars were put up for the safety of the children of even earlier administrations.

A request for permission to go through the White House was promptly and courteously answered; so that, on a chill afternoon, a few days before the Wilson occupancy was to end, with his removal to his new home on S Street, I found uniformed and plain-clothes un-uniformed guards, and locks—even a literal padlock on a gate which had in other days always been open—yielding to the power of a permit, and I was passed from those outside to care-takers inside, who were to accompany me.

From the first, the building was solemn and lonely. We entered the East Room; the great apartment which hundreds of thousands have in the course of our history entered and looked upon as most typical of the White House. It was not only lonely—it was pitch dark ! The curtains of the room, which had seen so many meetings of distinguished folk, where the great people of the world had come, were tight drawn—because the darkening had been made for the exhibition of moving pictures, and the apparatus, the gift of a famous film actor, stood, sheeted, ready for removal, in the middle of the room, as was evident as my guide first fumbled for some electric lights and then drew aside a curtain that let in the light of a bright wintry afternoon. And it was curious to think of the President, one of the greatest men in the world’s history, a man who had outwitted and controlled people by balancing one set of views and persons against another, a man who had come within an infinitesimal distance of being himself actual ruler of the world, sitting lonely here, in the seclusion of the East Room, of all rooms, to watch the dramas of the screen unravel to interest his brain ! How recently had that wonderful brain, that intense determination, been engaged in bringing about world results infinitely greater than any film could picture ! From the first, in this mansion, I felt that I was in touch with tremendous history.

On the east wall had hung a beautiful tapestry, the gift of the French government to Mrs. Wilson, and removed only the day before to the S Street home—where, made as the tapestry was, for a pal-ace, it was quite too large for its new situation and had to be tucked in at top and bottom with astonishingly ineffective result.

In the mingled glow of electric light and daylight, the East Room was revealed : a splendid room with its elaborate ceiling gloriously wrought, with its striking decoration above the main entrance door, with its great crystal chandeliers, with its splendid classic cornicing, with its exquisite hardwood floor, rich in beauty and in wide expanse like the floor of some superb French palace. The room is eighty-two feet long, forty feet in width and twenty-two feet high.

There is a smaller Green Room, a room of dignity and charm, a room of beauty. There is the wonderful Blue Room, superbly proportioned, with its beauty markedly increased by its elliptical shape. The golden eagles above the windows, the marble mantel, are but some of the special features of this room.

A prominent southern novelist tells of being taken, young secessionist though she was, to a Lincoln reception and of his standing at the door of this Green Room speaking gently to her and taking her hand in his, and of how even toward the close of her life, as she writes of it, “I can distinctly remember that the power of Abraham Lincoln’s personality impressed itself upon me for a lifetime. Everything faded out of sight beside the apparition of the new President towering there.”

Curiously, Roosevelt writes much like this young Southern girl: “I think of Lincoln shambling, homely, with his strong, sad, deeply-furrowed face, all the time. I see him in the different rooms and in the halls. For some reason or other he is to me infinitely the most real of the dead Presidents.”

One of the most curious facts in regard to Lincoln is that when he was an unnoticed Congressman be-fore the Civil War, he so little felt his own high destiny that he made an effort to become a Washington office-holder, securing the endorsement of a number of influential Senators and Representatives to his application. It is rather appalling to think that if he had become a Washington deskman he would never, in all probability, have had a career worthy of even the most casual notice.

The Red Room is another apartment, palatial in its effectiveness although, like the last mentioned two, it is intended for more intimate use than the spacious East Room.

And how brave were the early Americans who dared to plan so large and beautiful a palace in what was a wilderness ! It was to quite an extent for effect upon foreign nations as well as upon America. Washington himself believed in the necessity for a fitting habitation for the coming line of Presidents. The best American homes of the time were beautiful, therefore the White House ought to be fittingly beautiful.

To walk through these great and splendid rooms, as we did on almost the last day of the Wilson administration, gave an effect as if, in their richness of beauty, they were abandoned, deserted, forsaken, and that we were ghosts softly treading from room to room. – I knew that in another portion of the house were the private apartments of the President. I knew that in that wing to the westward, so admirably constructed to be utilitarian without injury to artistic outlines, were the busy executive offices; but none of that busy life and none of the family life was indicated as we went slowly through the splendid deserted apartments.

We went into the State dining room, a sumptuous apartment of rich and restrained effectiveness, finely paneled, with a great fireplace of stone of elaborate workmanship, finely worked out in beauty of detail. And here, in the room made for friends and hospitality, for the glow of wit and life, the loneliness was more marked than even in the great East Room. “I felt like one who treads alone some banquet hall deserted”: never before had I recognized the full strength of those simple old lines. I have been in deserted old-time palaces in Europe and have felt the loneliness of effect, but here, in this building which would normally be full of present-day life, it was almost uncanny.

There has been more individual talking in this dining room than in any other room in America. For every President has found that all his guests were ready to listen silently when he talked, and the temptation to talk was irresistible. Even the grim President Jackson talked. “Indeed, he did nothing but talk,” wrote Harriet Martineau after dining with him.

No President loved to talk in the White House as did Roosevelt, who frequently said that he “had a bully time” there. And no President so loved to ask all sorts of distinguished or about-to-be-distinguished men to lunch with him as did Roosevelt. And thousands treasured the big square envelopes which held the precious paste-boards of invitation to sit at luncheon with this delightful monologuist.

In contrast to all this comes the haunting story of George Washington and Mrs. Washington driving up from Mount Vernon and walking slowly through the almost completed White House, without companions of any sort. For they felt intense personal interest in the building although John and Abigail Adams were to be the first occupants. But I do not remember any allusion by Washington to his thus going through the building, near the end of his life, not even in his diary. And so the story comes down as a sort of myth, true though it must have been.

Of especial interest, in the White House, are the portraits, for there are many here, of Presidents and the wives of Presidents and many others. No other record is so good, for enabling a final historical judgment to be made, as are the portraits of national leaders.

After all, to become President requires much of greatness, and there have been many degrees of greatness in the White House. Healy’s numerous portraits possess the veritable quality which he usually managed to show, but most of the others are not even as good as Healy’s, though one may gain a fairly good general idea from them. What one would most of all like to see is an excellent George Washington, an excellent Lincoln, and, whether or not one likes him and his methods, one would like to see a realistic Wilson. And will not the future be concerned with Roosevelt?

There is a portrait of Washington in the White House, and it is of curious interest, for it is the one which Dolly Madison ordered taken from its frame and carried to distant safety at the time of the raid in the War of 1812. It is often referred to as a genuine Gilbert Stuart, and Dolly Madison herself took it to be a Stuart. But in reality it is one of the copies made by that Winstanley who had an uncanny faculty of following Stuart’s style, without any scruple whatever as to passing his products off as genuine Stuarts. Stuart, naturally, abhorred him, and drove him from his studio in Germantown, when he went there to ask Stuart to make two or three brush marks on each of his Washingtons, so that without contradiction he could declare them to be the work of Stuart; the two to divide the money thus made. Stuart himself painted a constant line of replicas of his own best Washington, which is now in Boston, and these he readily sold, calling them his hundred dollar bills, for they were always in demand. The portrait of Mrs. Washington at the White House is of no real value, as it was painted but a few years ago.

It was in front of the Winstanley Washington that John Adams, on one of his choleric and hasty days, stood and shook his fist, squeaking in the high notes into which his voice sometimes ran : “If that wooden-headed man hadn’t kept his mouth shut, he’d have been found out ! ”

Next to the Washington portrait in interest, is that of Benjamin Franklin. It was carried away without permission by Major Andre from Franklin’s home in Philadelphia. Andre gave it to the vigorous General Grey, his superior on whose staff he was. General Grey carried it to England. It was shown to Ambassador Choate, in 1900, at Howick Hall, in Northumberland, by a descendant of General Grey, Earl Grey. As a consequence, within a few years, in the administration of Roosevelt, Earl Grey sent the painting back to America, with the request that it be kept in the White House, and Roosevelt placed it there.

The entrance to the spot where stood the fine house of Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia, built by him after prosperity and fame had come, is by means of little Orianna Street; leading off Market; and on Orianna Street was the little printing house where James Wilson, the Irish immigrant grand-father of Woodrow Wilson, worked as a journeyman printer.

When we turned to leave the White House after our curious visit of loneliness, we went out past the door of the East Room, and glancing in at the moving picture machine, there again came vivid thoughts of the immolated President sitting in that great room, perhaps entirely alone, feeding his strange mentality with dreams from the pictures.

On leaving, it was quietly suggested that if we cared to see President Wilson closely, face to face, we need but go down to a remote rear gate, used by the President on returning from his motor rides. We waited there until there was an odd sound of a horn from the rear of the White House. It was curiously like the signal that used to be made when the Kaiser was entering Unter den Linden. There was a scarcely perceptible sign from the head police-man, and instantly all traffic was stopped on three streets and with absolute unobtrusiveness of action. A few seconds, and a great open motor car came swiftly on. It turned into the gateway, which was so narrow that the car had to check its speed almost to nothingness. A car followed, literally loaded with secret service men. Standing at this gate I looked directly into the President’s face at the distance of not more than four feet. His face was pallor-stricken, a face of grayish white, an unforgetable, an uncanny face. Forcefulness, will power, unshakable determination were there, and the eyes had a burning intentness. The car passed on, and the thought came of the contrasts in this man : ruler of the world, devoted attendant on vaudeville shows, close student of the world’s history, lover of moving pictures, staid college president, tosser of base balls, rager at those who opposed him, and happy utterer of such dry humor as, “The A, B, C, of politics, is in the Primary.”