Washington DC – Executive Mansion: The White House

FROM the beginning of the century to the, present time the Presidents of the United States have resided, during their official life, in the Executive Mansion, popularly known as the White House, and as one walks through the rooms of the ancient mansion recollections of these historic characters throng the memory. Here the men chosen to guide the affairs of the Nation have lived from day to day, have had their joys and their sorrows, their domestic felicity, the honors of high position, and the cares and burdens which accompany great office. Here have been many brilliant scenes of festivity— the joyous nuptial ceremony, the pomp and glitter of fetes and receptions ; and here, likewise, have been scenes of anguish— the lights and shades of human existence. Nearly a hundred years ago Washington was present at the laying of the corner-stone, and month by month watched the beautiful structure rise, and on one day, but a few weeks before his death, he walked through the house with his beloved wife. It was then the only completed public building in the new capital city, and its pure classic elegance won the admiration of the first President and all who looked upon it. The tradition is that it was called the ” White House ” out of respect for Martha Washington, whose early home on the Pamunkey River, in Virginia, was known by that name; but as its color was always white, it is more probable that the popular name came into use from that. It is always officially styled ” The Executive Mansion,” but this dignified appellation is seldom heard outside of government circles.

The first commissioners of the city of Washington advertised on the 14th of March, 1792, for a design of “The President’s House,” offering a premium of $500 for the best one. Among the number submitted was one by a talented young architect named James Hoban, and his design being approved, the premium was awarded to him, and he was engaged at a salary of one hundred guineas per year to superintend the construction of the mansion. Hoban had resided for some years in Charleston, South Carolina, before he came to Washington to enter the ranks of the contestants for the honor of designing the White House, and was considered one of the leading architects in the country. He had studied in Europe, and was familiar with the most notable examples of foreign architecture. In his design he followed that of the palace of the Duke of Leinster, in Dublin, and the White House, as it stands to-day, bears a marked resemblance to its foreign prototype. Hoban resided in Washington until his death in 1831, and accumulated a large estate by the practice of his profession.

On the 13th of October, 1792, the corner-stone of the White House was laid, in accordance with the rites of Masonry. It was an import-ant event to those who were deeply interested in the embryo capital, and several thousand people assembled to witness the ceremony. President Washington, the commissioners, the architect, the Masons, and others formed a procession and solemnly marched to the spot, and there held formal and impressive exercises. The work of construction was begun at once, but on account of some difficulty in raising money the building was not entirely c omp?eted until 1799. Up to 1814, when the interior was partially burned by the British troops, the total cost of construction was $333,207. The reconstruction and re-furnishing, after the fire, cost about $300,000, and since then many thousands of dollars have been expended in various improvements, and in the laying out and ornamentation of the spacious grounds. When the house was re-opened on the 1st of January, 1818, it was pronounced ” a grand edifice” ; and from that day to this it has been an object of admiration.

The White House is situated on the government reservation called ” The President’s Grounds,” and fronts on Pennsylvania Avenue at Lafayette Square. It is in the centre of an enclosed plat of twenty acres, and the main entrance is reached by two broad semi-circular driveways lined with noble trees. The grounds are filled with flower-beds and well-kept lawns, and adorned with marble fountains, and at the back of the house is a park sloping gradually to the river bank, which opens a far-reaching prospect of the Potomac and the blue hills of Virginia. Stately oaks, sycamores, and poplars give the grounds in summer a most beautiful sylvan appearance, and the official mansion then is almost hidden by expansive foliage. The building is constructed of Virginia freestone, painted white. It is of the Grecian order of architecture, has two stories and a basement, and is surmounted by a wide balustrade. It is one hundred and seventy feet in length and eighty-six feet in width. At the main entrance is a grand portico of Ionic columns, and at the rear is a semi-circular colonnade. Adjoining the house on the west is a large conservatory containing a choice and varied collection of plants.

The state parlors on the first floor are usually accessible to the public during certain hours of each week-day. The main entrance door opens into a spacious vestibule which is elegantly frescoed. From the vestibule the great East Room is reached. This is the largest apartment in the house, and until 1837 it was used as a banquet hall. It is eighty by forty feet, and is designed in Grecian style and richly ornamented. Its lofty ceiling is composed of three large panels, profusely decorated, and in the centre of each panel hangs a massive crystal chandelier. Eight long, magnificent mirrors, sup-ported on carved mantels, in white and gold, are placed around the room, and a costly velvet carpet covers the broad floor. The hangings and upholstery are exceedingly rich and handsome. A full-length painting of Washington, by Gilbert Stuart, purchased in 1803, hangs on the walls, and also one of Martha Washington, by E. F. Andrews, purchased in 1878. When evening receptions are given by the President, the room is fragrant and beautiful with masses of flowers. Festoons of smilax encircle the chandeliers, the mantels are banked with precious roses, and the windows and angles are filled with tall palms and comely exotic plants, the luxuriant floral display adding a charming effect to the gay and brilliant surroundings.

Leading from the East Room is the Green Room, in which all the furniture and decorations are pale green. In this room hangs the life-size painting of Mrs. Rutherford B. Hayes, which was presented to the government in May, 1881, by the National Temperance Union. It is by Huntington, and the canvas is over seven feet high, and the elaborately carved oaken frame, made by the Cincinnati School of Design, is nearly ten feet high. Mrs. Hayes is represented standing in a graceful attitude, holding a bunch of roses. She is attired in crimson velvet, and has white lace around her neck and arms.

The Blue Room is the next in the suite. It is here that the President receives his guests at public and private receptions. The room is oval, and is decorated and furnished in light blue. The walls are profusely yet very tastefully embellished, and the upholstery, consisting of delicate silk with gilt trimmings, is unique and attractive.

It is in the Red Room, the last of the apartments on the first floor open to the inspection of the public, that the President sits at night, and it is furnished and arranged as a family parlor. Here are books and periodicals, numerous bric-a-brac, a mahogany table over one hundred years old, a fine portrait of Lincoln above the mantel, and elegant red plush furniture. The walls and hangings are red, and the room has a cheerful, cosy appearance — an atmosphere of home life about it.

The state parlors open into a long corridor, which is used on the occasion of fetes as a grand promenade for the guests. Paintings of the Presidents cover the wall of the corridor, and here and there on the floor are placed tropical plants. The corridor is separated from the vestibule by a handsome sash screen.

The state dining-room, in which the President gives ceremonious dinners during the winter to the members of the Cabinet, Senators and Representatives, the Justices of the Supreme Court, the diplomatic corps, and other distinguished personages, is at the western end of the corridor. It is magnificently furnished, and at its table over fifty persons can dine. When state dinners are given, the White House is brilliant with lights and flowers, with court costumes and splendid toilets, with fair women and stately men. The table is set with the sumptuous state china, on which is finely depicted the fauna and flora of America, and with masses of silver and delicately cut glass. Gold and silver candlesticks and mirrored sconces in broad silver frames contain wax-lights, which brightly illuminate the table, and special floral designs of exquisite beauty add rich color and perfume to the banquet. Corsage bouquets are provided for the ladies, and boutonnieres for the gentlemen. The President leads the way to the table at eight o’clock, and the dinner of many courses continues for three hours, during which time the Marine Band, stationed in the vestibule, discourses soft, delicious music.

In the second story are the executive offices, the President’s reception-room, where he receives those who call during the day on business or to pay their respects ; the Cabinet room, and the various family rooms. All the rooms on the east side of the house are used for the government business, and all on the west are private.

The Cabinet room is spacious and well arranged. Here the President meets the members of his Cabinet every Tuesday and Friday at noon, and around a long table, covered with books and documents, they discuss affairs of state. The President sits at the head of the table, with the Secretary of State at his right, and the Secretary of the Treasury at his left hand. The Cabinet meetings usually continue for two hours.

The President’s reception-room is a large, finely furnished apartment, oval in shape. The windows are hung with silk curtains, and the furniture is of mahogany, upholstered in red leather. At the sides of the room are long, low book-cases, filled with richly bound volumes and before these are chairs for persons waiting to be received. In front of the windows is the President’s desk, a massive oak structure of historic interest. It was constructed of timber which formed part of Her Majesty’s ship Resolute,” sent to the Arctic Sea in 1852 by the English government, to search for Sir John Franklin. The ship was abandoned in the ice, but afterward was discovered and restored by an American whaler. This souvenir was expressly made for the White House, and came into it in 1881. The room has a pleasant appearance : portraits of the first five Presidents look down from the walls, and disposed in various nooks are bronzes and art decorations.

It is proper to call on the President on any public business, or simply to pay respects, and he is ” at home” to visitors from ten A. M. to one P. M. on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, and at such hours on other days as suit his convenience. Visitors are shown into a waiting-room at the head of the stairs leading from the first story, and their cards taken to the private secretary. Afterward they are escorted to the reception-room, where the President receives each person in turn. The customary form of address is ” Mr. President.”

The President receives a compensation of $50,000 per year. He furnishes his personal servants, all household supplies, and horses and carriages. The government provides the furniture for the White House, keeps the house and grounds in order, and pays the salaries of the private secretaries and clerks, and other employes. The private secretary has a salary of $3,250 per year, and the assistant secretary $2,250. Two executive clerks have salaries of $2,000, and a stenographer is employed at a salary of $1,800. There are also six clerks, a steward, three ushers, five messengers, two door-keepers, a watchman and a fireman. The total compensation of the house-hold force provided by the government amounts to $36,000 per year. There are $8,000 allowed for the contingent expenses of the executive offices, $15,000 for lighting the house and grounds, which require considerable illumination every evening ; $5,500 for the care of the conservatory, and $25,000 for the other expenses. Thus it will be seen that it costs the government $89,500 per year to maintain the Executive Mansion.

Every morning the private secretary examines the enormous mail which comes to the White House from all parts of the world, selects the letters which it is necessary for the President to see, and turns the others over to the clerks who have charge of the correspondence. He also arranges the details of the social life which forms no small part of the duty of the President, especially during the congressional season, and in many ways relieves him of official burdens. His relations with the President are very confidential. The assistant secretary has charge of all papers concerning Presidential appointments, and also of all matters between the President and Congress. A complete record is kept of the appointments, the confirmations and rejections by the Senate, and the removals from office, and the history of every appointment or removal can be readily ascertained from the record-books.

A large part of each day’s mail consists of letters relating to the affairs of the various departments of the government. These letters are recorded, and then are transmitted to the departments to which they belong, to be answered. From two hundred to three hundred newspapers are received daily from all sections of the United States and from Europe. Editors who desire that the President should see certain political articles send marked copies of their publications, and many others favor him with printed matter. He subscribes for the leading newspapers and periodicals. A clerk is specially detailed to carefully examine all the newspapers, and to cut out the articles he thinks the President would like to read. The cuttings are put in a scrap-book, which is laid before the President every morning. He looks it over, and thus is enabled, in a half-hour, to become familiar with she good things and the bad things printed of his administration, and also with the general drift of political affairs.

The President’s business day begins at ten o’clock in the morning, and an hour before he has entered his office, the outer waiting-room will contain a number of persons seeking an interview with him. He first reads the many letters on his desk, and to the least important of them rapidly dictates answers, keeping his private secretary and his stenographer busy for some time. The letters requiring careful attention are put aside to be attended to when the stress of business is over for the day, and he has time to properly consider them. When the correspondence is disposed of visitors are admitted.

The visitors are always numerous. They come on all sorts of business, with all sorts of stories, from the east and west, from the north and south, and from lands beyond the sea. As the President has the appointment of a vast army of office-holders—nearly 100,000, it is estimated — much of his time in the morning hours, and for that matter in all hours, has to be given up to the seekers for office and their friends. He has to listen to all the urgent claims, all the requests of statesmen and politicians, that this or that office shall be awarded to this or that patriot whose valuable services to the country (that is ” the party”) have entitled him to feed at the public crib. Aspirants for every office in his gift are at hand — for bureau offices, for first-class and second-class or any class missions, for judicial offices, for marshal-ships, for post-offices, for collectorships, for territorial commissions, for the army and navy, and, in fact, for everything in the long list. They throng around the President day after day and insist, with many strong reasons, that their claims shall be allowed—insist with indomitable perseverance. Delegations from various states arrive in the city and hurry to the White House, eager in the hunt of some good office which has just become vacant, each delegation striving to be in advance of the other, so as to influence the President in making up his mind as to the new appointment. Senators and Representatives send in their cards with requests for ” a few minutes’ interview on import-ant business.” High officials, diplomats, eminent strangers, seek an audience, and until the President closes his doors at luncheon-time his reception-room is constantly full of visitors, and he is entirely occupied in attending to them.

The hours of the afternoon are devoted by the President to studying the questions of state which have been brought to his attention. As he is charged with the duty of ascertaining if the immense and important business of the government is properly conducted, it is necessary for him to continually review the work of the department officials. Certainly a day of arduous toil at its best. And then there is the pain of disappointing many whose desires cannot be gratified, and there is the difficulty in arriving at the exact truth in order that justice may be done, and withal the need of making momentous decisions which are likely to be criticised harshly in every section of the country, howsoever they are made. This is the President’s usual routine of life, commingled with incessant social duties, no portion of which can be remitted in any way.

The regular dinner hour at the White House is seven o’clock, and at this meal the President usually has a few intimate friends at his table, and for a while banishes the cares of his position. He rarely accepts invitations to dinner, except with the members of his Cabinet, and never makes ceremonious calls ; but he invites officials and friends to dine with him, and visits in official circles without ceremony at his pleasure. An invitation to dine with the President must be always accepted, unless illness compels declination. No previous engagement has precedence, and when it is absolutely necessary to decline it is customary to send a full explanation in writing.

The etiquette regulating the social intercourse of the President and his family with officials and the public has been in vogue since the administration of Washington, modified more or less by the different Presidents, but retaining its salient points to the present day. In the early years of the White House there were many courtly ceremonials, but they have been long since laid away with the powdered wigs, the lace ruffs, and all the ancient styles of dress, and the certain polite forms now prescribed, the careful observance of which is expected, are very simple in comparison with the ceremony once prevailing.

The annual series of presidential receptions begins on New Year’s day, and continues until spring. On New Year’s day the President has a public reception. The first to pay their respects to him are the members of the Cabinet, the Justices of the Supreme Court, the Sena-tors and Representatives, and the high officials of the government. Then the diplomatic corps, in court costumes, and the officers of the army and navy, in full uniform, present themselves. Afterward the public are admitted. From this time until the season wanes there are fetes and grand dinners at the White House every week.

The President usually gives a number of public evening receptions during the winter, which are open to everybody of respectability. Al-though there is no rule about the matter, it is customary to appear at these receptions in full evening costume, and the finest of toilets are always to be seen. On these occasions the White House assumes a fascinating appearance. The grounds are brightly illuminated, long lines of carriages fill the great driveways, and throngs of people assemble on the walks, and are slowly admitted into the house. The interior _s lavishly adorned with flowers, the state apartments and the conservatory are open, and are dazzling with a thousand lights. Ushers conduct the guests to the cloak-rooms, and thence to the Blue Room, where presentations are made to the President by the Marshal of the District of Columbia. A brilliant and distinguished group al-ways surrounds the President — members of the Cabinet, famous generals and congressmen, diplomats, high officials, with their wives and daughters. After the presentation, which is necessarily brief, the guests can stroll through the gorgeous rooms and down the floral pathways of the conservatory, and for two hours enjoy the music, the gay conversation, and the brightness of the festival.

The ladies of the presidential household have weekly afternoon receptions during the winter, generally on Saturday, from two to five o’clock. No invitations are issued, and every one is at liberty to attend. Prominent society ladies assist at these receptions, and the President is often present. The dress is that customary for morning calls.