The White House - The people's house





The tempo of politics surrounding the White House rose to a fever pitch in the 1820s with factions in a newly expanded nation battling for control. John Quincy Adams ultimately paid dearly for what was termed a fixed election in 1824, that paved the way for Andrew Jackson's election in 1828. Jackson's inaugural on 4 March 1829, amounted to mass hysteria, as thousands accompanied him from the Capitol to the White House. Jackson, professing to take his mandate from the people rather than from politicians, rode to the White House on horseback in what became the first inaugural parade. The teeming crowd did not disperse when the doors of the executive mansion opened. Where once a few supporters had come to toss back a glass with the new president, now crowds flowed in. Jackson eventually had to flee the White House; he was held up and carried down the steps of the new South Portico to a carriage and then on to a hotel for the night. The unruly crowd, unaware that the president was gone, celebrated on; the steward of the house eventually had washtubs full of whiskey-laced orange juice put out on the south grounds, to draw the visitors outside so that the doors of the residence could be locked.

It was during Jackson's administration that the White House was at last finished. Construction of the North Portico commenced at once, having been planned along with the South Portico in the rebuilding of the White House after the 1814 fire. It was completed in 1831. The vast East Room, which up until then had been furnished somewhat arbitrarily, was now given a proper presidential decor. Major William B. Lewis, a Jackson crony who lived at the White House, went to Philadelphia and selected wall-paper, curtains, chandeliers, colossal mirrors, carpets, tables, lamps, and "twenty-two spittoons" to complete the room. Not least, he ordered 150 gilt stars to be pasted over the room's arched door; the stars formed a galaxy over Old Hickory as he entered the room to attend receptions.

Jackson built a new stable for his numerous horses, including the racehorses that he regularly ran in competition. Probably to rescue a sago palm extracted from the burning greenhouses at Mount Vernon in 1835, President Jackson ordered an orangery built in the garden just southeast of the house. This became a delightful private retreat inaccessible to the public, where on snowy days the president and his company could enjoy not only the warmth of the tropics, but camellias, lilies, oranges, and lemons. Formal gardens soon extended beyond the tall, southward glass windows of the orangery. Garden and orangery stood where the south wing of the Treasury building now stands.

It was also in the decade of the 1820s and the early 1830s that the setting of the White House developed into a more or less permanent configuration. Originally Pennsylvania Avenue did not pass in front of the White House. In L'Enfant's conception, the avenue and New York Avenue, both diagonals in the city plan, were to terminate in each direction at the grounds of the presidential residence, which, with Sixteenth Street going due north, was to have radial avenues to a forecourt at its north or principal facade. When L'Enfant's "palace" was scrapped and Hoban's design built, these plans were altered, and what was to have been a forecourt was simply open land, used for a time as a common and market place. James Monroe ordered it marked off into a park in 1820; this space became Lafayette Park in 1824, named for the nation's first guest of state. Pennsylvania Avenue was at about that time brought in front of the White House.

The British had burned George Washington's two executive office buildings the morning after the White House. These were replaced with four new buildings, each with columned porches. East of the White House stood the State Department, to the north, and Treasury, to the south; west of the White House were the Navy Department, which faced south, and the War Department facing north. During the time these buildings stood, a large sand-bottom pool existed between the two buildings on the east, a feature of the running water system Andrew Jackson installed in the White House in 1833.

When the Treasury building burned in 1836, the architect Robert Mills designed a grand new structure that is the Treasury building we know today, occupying the entire space on the east. The buildings on the west, together with the State Department, were combined into the gigantic granite building on the west, completed about 1873 in the French Second Empire or "General Grant" style by Supervising Architect of the U.S. Treasury, Alfred Mullet. Known for many years as the State, War, and Navy building, it is today the Old Executive Office Building (OEOB in White House jargon), housing the vice president and part of the president's staff. Very little of a radical character was done to the White House for many years after Jackson. The residence had two distinct parts, the office in the east end of the second floor and the family quarters, seven or eight rooms in the west end, both parts connected by the long, tall transverse corridor, itself divided into three sections by fan-transomed glass doors. The state rooms on the main floor were generally for entertaining and receiving, although the Red Room and the small dining room on the north were often used by the presidential families in their everyday lives.

The rooms were all wallpapered, with carpets wall to wall and heavy window hangings crowned by gilded cornices. Furniture was mostly mahogany, upholstered in satin or silk, damask or brocade, with fringe and tassels. Interior decorating is continual in such a place, where wear and tear is accelerated far beyond that in the average house. Monroe had painted one of the parlors green in 1818 and made it forever the Green Room; Martin Van Buren followed in 1838 with the oval Blue Room; and James Knox Polk in 1846 with the Red Room.

Jefferson installed the first waterclosets in 1801, one at each end of the second floor, and while many subsequent fixtures replaced his, there were not more than three waterclosets in the house until after the Civil War. The first kitchen range was also Jefferson's, although many followed. As late as Lincoln's time the old brick bread ovens remained, although since Polk the White House had received its bread supplies from local bakeries. Under Madison, central heating (a furnace in the basement) was installed in the parlors and dining room, but neither Madison nor Monroe apparently cared to replace this system after the fire. Van Buren had the major rooms centrally heated with a gravity system, which relied on rising heat to distribute warm air. Sarah Polk ordered gas lighting, and the lights of the White House went out at nine at night when the gas company closed. At receptions, Sarah Polk, the First Lady, strategically positioned herself beneath the candle chandelier in the Blue Room, and her guests, plunged into darkness at nine, were drawn through the dark rooms to the light.

Polk had a marble statue of Jefferson erected on the north lawn, so that Polk, who had seen the nation expand to the Pacific, might be identified with so great a founding father. Sarah Polk checkmated this effort by hanging a captured portrait of the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés in the Blue Room. And so the White House changed in small ways through the 1830s, 1840s, and 1850s, but the familiar image of the house remained unaltered.

Management of the house initially fell to a steward, who hired and managed the servants. Southern presidents brought slaves to the White House and they lived in the private quarters with the family; slaves were continually in conflict with the stewards, from whom they refused to take orders. The early stewards were European; most had seen duty in domestic service before. President Tyler brought armed Metropolitan Police officers into the house in plain-clothes as the first guard force. In idle time these officers would supervise cleaning, preparation for receptions, and purchasing from merchants and suppliers. So much were they a part of the running of the White House by the late 1850s that President Buchanan changed their titles from "doorkeepers" to "ushers." Today the head official is the chief usher, who is in charge of the residence and grounds. All household staff is under this person's jurisdiction.

Like any place where legendary people have lived, the White House gained a mystique, especially during and after the tenure of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln's brief time in the residence, a little over four years, presented a domestic melodrama that paralleled the greater movements of the age and put in human terms for Americans the incomprehensible devastation of the Civil War. The Lincolns—rather than just Lincoln—sanctified the White House by epitomizing the American family in a time of personal and national crisis. After the triumph of Lincoln's attaining of the presidency, the family was torn apart by death and sacrifice. Major Elmer Ellsworth, a close friend of Lincoln's who had lived with the family at the White House, in 1861 became the first Union casualty of note in the war. In 1862 the Lincolns' twelve-year-old son William ("Willie") died of typhoid fever. Throughout her time in the White House Mary Todd Lincoln was vilified by the opposition press, which among other things accused her of spying for the Confederacy. In 1865 President Lincoln was assassinated, martyred to a world far wider than his own domestic circle, and his wife, left the White House, grief-stricken and mentally unstable. So compelling a story touched chords north and south. The White House had been Lincoln's home and and would be cherished for that ever after.





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