The White House as architecture and as a home
Washington — Ever since November 1800, when John Adams became the first president to live there, the White House has been an enduring symbol of America. Today, one is hard pressed to think of a more famous residence in the entire world. Despite changes, the White House remains what it was intended to be, a home for the president. With that in mind, after a decade of writing and research, architectural historian William Seale has completed the first history of the executive mansion since 1907. ``The President's House,'' 1,300 pages in two volumes, was published by the White House Historical Association in cooperation with the National Geographic Society ($39.95; distributed through bookstores by Harry N. Abrams Inc.; also available from the association, 740 Jackson Place, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20506). Mr. Seale describes his book as a social history that includes architecture. ``It is a study of distinguished people all living in the same place, and how they reacted to it,'' Seale says.
Seale's favorite find was the discovery that the men who cut the blocks of Aquia Creek sandstone that form the walls were from Scotland and that many were members of the same Masonic lodge. Seale describes how Harry Truman, prowling the scaffold during major renovation during the late 1940s, found markings on a number of the stone blocks that he identified as masonic. Since the stones would be hidden again once the renovation was complete, Truman ordered them moved and displayed in the kitchen. He also had a number of the stones sent to masonic lodges around the country.
Seale's story is filled with fascinating glimpses into history. Pierre Charles L'Enfant's original scheme for the presidential ``palace,'' as he described it, called for a building nearly 700 feet long and 200 feet deep (the White House measures approximately 170 feet by 85 feet).
Despite the fact that George Washington commissioned the White House, ``the father of our country'' never slept there. Even at its reduced scale, Thomas Jefferson did not approve and used only a small portion of the space. When Theodore Roosevelt moved in with his wife, six children, a staff of servants, and countless pets, they found the space very confining. During his administration, the east and west wings were constructed, removing the office function from the second floor and converting that area to the private family quarters. During the Woodrow Wilson administration, the attic was altered into a fully usable third floor for overnight guests of the president. The book ends with the Truman era renovation, because, Seale notes, ``that is the White House as we know it today.'' He adds that to have continued the story would have been difficult because of the need to maintain some balance and to avoid becoming too personality oriented.
At a reception honoring publication of ``The President's House,'' President Reagan related Seale's tale in the book of how President and Mrs. Grant acquired a sterling silver fruit stand with the figure of Hiawatha on it for the State Dining Room. Recalling his school days when he had to memorize Longfellow's poem ``Hiawatha,'' Reagan arranged for the old centerpiece to be used that day, noting it ``keeps a little part of the past alive.''
The stewardship of the White House by its occupants for almost 200 years is an alluring tale well told. The story has a tight focus, centered as it is around a single home, but the subject is treated with a broad brush, covering architecture, landscaping, interior design, cuisine, customs, and politics. While there are more than 70 pages of footnotes, the text does not read as a dry, scholarly treatise. Rather, Seale's delightful, anecdote-filled narrative is for anyone intrigued by the march of history.
Carleton Knight III reports regularly on architecture for The Monitor.