The White House in 1904

A 1904 Description and History of the White House

by Barr Ferree

[The White House's] original architect was an Irishman, James Hoban, who not only superintended its construction, but also its rebuilding in 1814, after it had been partly burned by the British. A stately and beatuiful house it was he planned and built, and such it has since remained. It was but half finished when first occupied by Mrs. John Adams, on the removal of the seat of government from Philadelphia to Wahsington, in 1800. Twenty-five years later the north and south proticoes were built, although proposed as early as 1803, by B. H. Latrobe [better known as Benjamin Latrobe]. Terraces, also, were added on the east and west. The east terrace disappeared early in the sixties [1860's]; the west terrace, long since degraded into a foundation for greenouses, has been now [prior to 1904] happily removed. Large sums of money have, from time to time, been spent on furniture, decorations, and supplies for the President's House, as it was styled for fifty years in the appropriation bills; but little of artistic value -- of permanent artistic value -- went in to the building, and not until the very complete and beautiful restoration of 1902 did the White House interior become worthily representative of the best in American household art. [Sarah E. Mitchell: The previous statement is not necessarily true!] The later restoration was so skillfully done and was so very thorough, including as it did both structural and decorative changes, the rebuilding of the terraces, which were originally intended to form a component part of the building, and the erection of an office building, that permitted the house to be used, as it surely should only have been used, as a residence, that the names of the architects, McKim, Mead & White, are clearly entitled to be joined with that of the original creator, James Hoban.

Judged by the standards of European palaces -- and the White House, from its official use, if the only building we have that may be properly compared with them -- it is not large; but it is a building of extraordinary beatuy and dignity, a restful and altogether satisfying exterior, of which it is hardly too much to say it has no rival in stateliness of effect and simple loveliness among the great mansions of America. The straight lines of its fronts are broken only by the semicircular swelling of the south front, enclosed with a gracious collonade of similar form, and the great portico of the north front, which serves as a porte-cochere as well as for vistors arriving on foot. Since the recent restoration a new entrance has been added to the end of the east terrace, where guests alight under a spacious porte-cochere, and enter a corridor formed by the terrace, with boxes for wraps and dressing-rooms in the main building, and where a stairway conducts them to the main floor. This arrangement has simplifed the handling of the great crowds that throng the white House at receptions and on other festival occasions: For more than any other house in America this building is the scene of great functions, bringing together immince numbers of people, that call for broad passages for their coming and going, and enormous rooms for their entertainment.

The text and photograph were first published in Barr Ferree, American Estates and Gardens Munn and Company, New York, 1904, pp. 36, 37, 41. Digital Editing by Sarah E. Mitchell.

Web Edition copyright © 2003 Sarah E. Mitchell