Action Central

  • Share
  • Read Later
The White House will celebrate its 200th birthday on Nov. 1, and right now the White House Historical Association is searching for someone rotund enough to play the role of President John Adams, the first President to take up residence there. All he has to do is climb into an antique carriage on Pennsylvania Avenue around 1 p.m. that day and make his way to the White House to commemorate the fateful first entry, which at the time was barely noted. The original Adams had some doubts about the place even before he left Philadelphia; the mansion was too big and ostentatious for his ascetic New England soul, it was located by a smelly swamp--and it wasn't even finished. Nevertheless, when he got there he accepted what some called "Washington's palace," went in to do a little work, had supper and then, taking a candle, went up to bed--no doubt still wondering at the raw loneliness of that new building.

He never moved out, nor did any of his successors. The White House is now the most renowned and important building in the world and one of half a dozen symbols of liberty instantly recognized around this planet. An odd creature--part home and office, part museum--it may be one reason the U.S. has been so successful. President George Bush, a dedicated family man, says when things got tense during crisis meetings in the Cabinet Room or the Oval Office, he could always glance out the windows over the South Lawn and see his grandchildren playing with his dogs or chief gardener Irv Williams digging in the flower beds or perhaps a staff member warming up on the horseshoe pits that Bush had had installed. "It made you realize what being President was all about," insists Bush.

On Nov. 1, the faux Adams will be piped into the White House by the Army's fife and drums. Historian David McCullough, who is finishing a book on the difficult relationship between Adams and Thomas Jefferson, will deliver a brief address on the meaning of the moment. If President Bill Clinton is not out campaigning, he will add remarks for any and all citizens who want to stop by and listen from the front lawn and Lafayette Park, just like they did two centuries ago.

Like so many other things in that time, the White House came about because of the determination of George Washington. He never got to live there, but he made certain that James Hoban's design took shape. It was strongly hinted that Washington practiced favoritism in getting the real estate and construction materials, but he brushed the criticism aside and made regular inspection trips as construction lurched forward.

It took nearly 10 years to complete the building. The cornerstone was laid on Oct. 13, 1792, in one of those wonderfully proper Masonic rituals of the time. According to White House historian William Seale, people gathered at the Fountain Inn, a grand eating and drinking emporium in Georgetown. They shuffled down the dusty road to the White House site led by the Freemasons, who were followed by the federal district commissioners, and behind them came "gentlemen of the town and neighborhood" (as described in a Charleston, S.C., newspaper that provided the only written record of the event). There was a moving oration by the grand master; wet mortar was spread on a foundation block; a polished brass plate with the names of the dignitaries and the date was pressed into the mortar and the cornerstone lowered onto the plate. The assembly no doubt cheered and then marched back to the Fountain Inn for a sumptuous dinner, which included 16 toasts honoring just about anything in America the diners could dream up. It has recently been suggested that the participants grew so tiddly from the toasting that they forgot where they put the cornerstone. Though the Charleston newspaper story of 1792 suggested it was in the southwest corner, the truth is we do not know today which is the cornerstone. White House staff members of our era tried radar, X rays and even some noted dowsers to find the treasure. The experts all chose different stones, and the Presidents have never let workmen cut into any of them. The mystery is likely to live on. Seale, ever the realist about the past, suspects that a bunch of rowdies may have come around that night and stolen it. They did things like that even back then.

Gambling and enthusiastic boozing among the construction crews who lived in shacks in what is now Lafayette Park were common and taken for granted. But when Betsy Donahue, the entrepreneurial wife of a carpenter, set up what was discreetly called "a riotous and disorderly house" and her husband began dragging men in off the street to partake of her services, the district commissioners fined her and ordered her house removed. There followed such complaints from the stone carvers and masons that Betsy stayed in business without any interruption. Thus from the very beginning, there were, in and around the White House, the basic ingredients of all subsequent scandals--sex, money and power.

The still imperious British came back to America and captured Washington in 1814, burning the Capitol and the White House before leisurely returning to their ships in Annapolis. The worst insult may have come from British Rear Admiral George Cockburn, one of the commanders of the 150 seamen who skillfully torched the city, as the Federal Government's bureaucrats, including President James Madison and his Cabinet, ran like rabbits for the open country in Maryland and Virginia. Before ordering his men to set the building on fire, Admiral Cockburn told them to choose souvenirs from among the trivial things in the White House but nothing of real value that might bring charges of looting against the invaders. Then Cockburn scandalized the nation by brandishing a chair cushion and announcing it would help him remember Mrs. Madison's seat. By morning the White House was a blackened shell.

  1. Previous Page
  2. 1
  3. 2