Through the years I have read quite bit about the White House and its occupants. There have been many stories about happenings in the Rose Garden, the East and West wings and the Lincoln Bedroom. Thoughts of the Oval Office conjure up visions of world power at work. On television we see international leaders meeting the president, going to dinners, enjoying concerts or attending high-level confabs.
John Adams was inaugurated March 4, 1797, and he and his wife, Abigail, spent the last year of his presidency in the White House. While the occupants there today enjoy all the comforts of a palatial home, that was not the case for Abigail Adams.
The Knoxville Journal and Tribune of Dec. 14, 1919, reminded its readers of the history of the White House and some of its shortcomings 217 years ago. Mrs. Adams complained, “The lighting of the apartments from the kitchen to parlors and chambers is a tax indeed; and the fires we are obliged to keep to secure us from daily agues is another cheering comfort. To assist us in this great castle and render less attention, bells are wholy wanting, not one single one being hung through the whole house, and promises are all you can obtain.”
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In 1919 at the end of World War I with President Woodrow Wilson in the White House, there was a renewed interest in the edifice as European royalty came to call. To accommodate their curiosity and make the American public aware of its history, the National Geographic Society published a bulletin on the president’s home.
The idea for the structure began in 1792 when a prize of $500 was offered for a proper design for it. James Hoban (1762-1831), who was then living in Charleston, South Carolina, won. He was born in County Kilkenny, Ireland, but had distinguished himself as an architect in Philadelphia and later designed the Capitol of South Carolina. He also supervised the construction of the U.S. Capitol, which began in 1794.
In 1812 the U.S. declared war on Britain for interfering in maritime shipping and westward expansion. Our USS Constitution sank a British frigate. The British captured Washington, D.C., March 4, 1813, and set fire to the White House. The National Geographic Bulletin said they “Destroyed only public buildings. They partook of the dinner already prepared at the White House, but before they did, Admiral Cockburn drank a toast to the health of President Madison.
“When the White House was rebuilt, the wall were intact, but they had to be painted to hide the charred surfaces. So originated, first as a nickname, the designation ‘White House,’ by which the mansion later became known.” When President James Monroe took office March 4, 1817, the work was nearly complete.
Robert J. Booker is a freelance writer and former executive director of the Beck Cultural Exchange Center. He may be reached at 546-1576.
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