The most famous building in Washington, though one of the least pretentious, is the Executive Mansion, popularly known as the ” White House,” being constructed, like the older part of the Capitol, of freestone, and painted white. It stands within a park at some distance back from the street, a semi-circular driveway leading up to the Ionic colonnade supporting the front central portico. It is a plain building, without pretensions in anything but its august occupancy, and the ornamental grounds stretch down to the Potomac River, which flows about two hundred yards below its southern front. It is two stories high, about one hundred and seventy feet long, and eighty-six feet deep. This building, like the Capitol, was burnt in the British invasion of 1814 and afterwards restored. Unlike the nation, or the enormous public buildings that surround and dwarf it, the White House has in no sense grown, but remains as it was designed in the lifetime of Washington. It is nevertheless a comfortable mansion, though rigid in simplicity. The parlor of the house, the “East Room,” is the finest apartment, occupying the whole of that side, and is kept open for visitors during most of the day. The public wander through it in droves, walk upon the carpets and re-cline in the soft chairs, awaiting the President’s coming to his almost daily reception and handshaking; for they greatly prize this joint occupancy, as it were, and close communion with their highest ruler. This is an impressive room, and in earlier times was the scene of various inauguration feasts, when Presidents kept open house for their political friends and admirers.
The “East Room” was a famous entertainment hall in President Jackson’s time. On the evening of his inauguration day it was open to all comers, who were served with orange punch and lemonade. The crowds were large, and the punch was mixed in barrels, being brought in by the bucketful, the thirsty throngs rushing after the waiters, and in the turmoil upsetting the punch and ruining dresses and carpets. The punch receptacles were finally taken out into the gardens, and in this way the boisterous crowds were drawn off, and it became possible to serve cake and wine to the ladies. Various traditions are still told of this experience, and also of the monster cheese, as big as a hogshead, that was served to the multitude at Jackson’s farewell reception. It was cut up with long saw-blades, and each guest was given about a pound of cheese, this feast being the talk of the time. Jackson’s successor was Martin Van Buren, who came from New York, the land of big cheeses. Being bound to emulate his predecessor, an even larger cheese was sent him, and cut up in the ” East Room.” The crowds trampled the greasy crumbs into the carpets and hangings, and all the furniture and fittings were ruined. Now no guest comes un-bidden to dine at the White House ; but the change in the fashion aided in defeating Van Buren, who was a candidate for a second election in 1840. He stopped keeping open house in order to save the furniture and get some peace, and during several months preceding the election many persons arrived at the White House for breakfast or dinner and threatened to vote against Van Buren unless they were entertained. This, with the fact noised abroad that he had become such an aristocrat that his table service included gold spoons, then an unheard of extravagance, proved too much for him. Van Buren was beaten for re-election by ” Old Tippecanoe “General William Henry Harrison.
A corridor leads westward from the ” East Room,” through the centre of the White House, to the conservatories, which are prolonged nearly two hundred feet farther westward. A series of fine apartments, called the Green, Blue. and Red Rooms, from the predominant colors in their decorations, are south of this corridor, with their windows opening upon the gardens. These apartments open into each other, and finally into the State Dining Hall on the western side of the building, which is adjoined by a conservatory. North of the corridor the first floor contains the family rooms, and on the second floor are the sleeping-rooms and also the public offices. The Cabinet Room, about in the centre of the building, is a comparatively small apartment, where the Cabinet meetings assemble around a long table. On one side of it, at the head of a broad staircase, are the offices of the secretaries, over the East Room ; and on the other side, the President’s private apartment, which is called the Library. Here the President sits, with the southern sun streaming through the windows, to give audience to his visitors, who are passed in by the secretaries. One of the desks, which is usually the President’s personal work-table, has a history. The British ship “Resolute,” years ago, after many hardships in the fruitless search for Sir John Franklin, had to be abandoned in the Arctic seas. Portions of her oaken timbers were taken back to England, and from these, by the Queen’s command, the desk was made and presented to President Grant, and it has since been part of the furniture in the Library. An adjacent chamber, wherein the Prince of Wales slept on his only visit to America, and the chamber adjoining, are the two sleeping-rooms which have been usually occupied by the greatest Presidents. The accommodations are so restricted, however, that a movement is afoot for constructing another presidential residence, on higher land in the suburbs, so that the White House may be exclusively used for the executive offices.