The White House Was One Petty Congressman Away From Becoming Versailles
For decades, most White House occupants thought it was a glorified dump. One First Lady nearly succeeded in turning it into a palace.
It’s America’s Mona Lisa—iconic but, sigh, smaller in person than you expected. The White House is no palace. But were it not for one crusty New England sinecure and a slighted congressman, it would have become an American Versailles and Caroline Harrison would be a household name.
A national treasure it may be, and a mansion, to be sure, with servants, chefs, and security, but the White House has more often than not been a disappointment to its occupants. Donald Trump was not the first president, nor likely the last, to complain about its state. Floors collapsed under Truman, who also thought the building was haunted. Teddy Roosevelt found it decrepit. Coolidge’s new bathrooms used second-hand pipes. The Johnsons much preferred their own home.
In 1891 its entire existence was considered so abysmal that a report was compiled by the Committee on Public Works in Congress. The state of disrepair and the total lack of personal space for the First Family, noted the committee, “has been a source of more or less perplexity upon the incoming of every presiding lady since the first occupancy of the Executive Mansion, in November, 1800.”
The catalogue of complaints is astonishing. Only five rooms were habitable during John Adams’ tenure. The East Room wasn’t even completed until 1827 (it was famously used for hanging laundry at one point). And Andrew Jackson stopped throwing official parties in the residence because they were “‘nuisances’ to himself and friends for want of proper accommodations.” The height of embarrassment came in 1860 when the Prince of Wales made the first English royal state visit to the U.S. When he came to the White House, his entire retinue couldn’t be accommodated and the British minister had to be asked to house some. Even worse, the prince was given a small room that later served as a children’s bedroom and the Duke of Newcastle was housed in the president’s bedroom.
The Lincolns found that they had no privacy or space given the house’s use as both residence and office. The Grants found they had no guest rooms and it was impossible for the Hayeses or Clevelands to entertain more than one or two guests privately. (Which, given Frances Cleveland’s status as a 19th-century Jackie Kennedy, was a problem.)
But when Caroline and Benjamin Harrison entered the White House in 1889, one century after Washington’s inauguration, the White House was filled with guests. They, um, just happened to be rats. Lots and lots of rats. So many rats, in fact, that ferrets were brought in to hunt them, along with a gunman who went about shooting them with a pistol.
If there was a sweepstakes for the tragic icon of White House First Ladies, Caroline Harrison would be a serious contender. It was Caroline who recognized and spearheaded the White House’s sacred role in safeguarding, preserving, and showcasing early American design. It was also Caroline who virtually created the White House china collection, and even painted her own service that was reordered by subsequent occupants. She is also one of just three First Ladies to die while occupying the role. (Letitia Tyler died of a stroke in 1842 and Ellen Wilson of nephritis in 1914.) She was overshadowed by her glamorous, beautiful predecessor and successor, Frances Cleveland. But, if we’re frank, for the general population she’s lucky if, upon hearing her name, they guessed she was a First Lady, let alone which President Harrison she was married to.
Yet, the Harrisons were true American aristocrats. The Adamses, who were broke and often hated more than loved, are weirdly given that title now. In reality, it was John Adams who wrote that the Harrisons were “one of the most ancient, wealthy and respectable Families in the ancient dominion.” President Benjamin Harrison’s father was a U.S. congressman. His father was President William Henry Harrison, who at 31 days holds the record for shortest presidency (rainy inauguration, pneumonia). His father was Benjamin Harrison V, the Virginia governor and Declaration of Independence signer who made an actual gallows joke when signing it. His father and grandfather were prominent Virginia politicians. The former died when lightning struck him while shutting a window. The child in his arms died too.
So when Benjamin and Caroline, a cultivated, college-educated, party and dance loving woman, entered the White House, there was a level of comfort in their roles that few before them likely had. But there was nothing comfortable about the house itself. It had been redecorated a decade before by Louis Comfort Tiffany for that diva accidental president with expensive taste, Chester Arthur. By Caroline’s time, that overhaul had lost its lustre and much of Tiffany’s work was one of a kind and difficult to repair or replace. Plus, her family was four generations all living together, and given there were only five bedrooms in the house, there just wasn’t enough room. The hulking State, War, and Navy Building next door, dubbed the ugliest building in America by Mark Twain, wasn’t for White House staff. There was no East Wing and where the West Wing stands today was a jigsaw puzzle of glass conservatories. Moreover, their new home was also where the executive branch’s functions were carried out.
So Caroline Harrison was faced with two issues—the decor was out of date and the house wasn’t big enough to accommodate its dual purpose as residence and office building.
The first dilemma she partially resolved by exploring the attic, which could only be reached by climbing a ladder above the elevator.
“And she went, the little tiny woman, she went up there with this guard with a gun,” recounts historian William Seale, who wrote the two-volume history of the White House in 2006, “and they began pulling things out of boxes, and a rat would appear, and he'd shoot it. And they were big ones, too. He'd shoot, she'd scream.”
But in that rat-infested attic, Caroline discovered numerous pieces of furniture that we would consider antiques today. Recognizing their symbolism as early pieces of the house’s storied history, she restored some to the rooms. She also put a stop to what had long been the practice by new administrations of selling off prior administrations’ furnishings. And she planted the seeds of an idea that would come to fruition in the early 20th century: that the most timeless American style was colonial and early American.
This 58-year-old lady poking around the ramshackle mansion also explored the basement, where her treasure hunt turned up random pieces of china in various cabinets, and so started to catalog what is now the permanent china collection, as well as creating her own (she was an avid painter of china).
But what is truly gobsmacking about Caroline Harrison is what was unveiled in the spring of 1891—her plan to more than triple the size of the White House, replete with grand galleries, domes, and enough colonnades to satisfy Bernini.
When Caroline first decided she was going to expand the White House, two interrelated goals were paramount—that it be aesthetically unified with the existing mansion and that it get through Congress. (Previous and subsequent attempts by presidents and architects to build a completely new residence met with fierce resistance once the introduction of photography made the White House iconic.)
She looked to none other than George Washington for inspiration and justification. According to Seale’s The President’s House, Washington had always intended that the White House could be expanded and added to, much like his estate Mount Vernon. So, like Mount Vernon, the roided-up White House would have a central mansion and semicircular ionic colonnades connecting it to its wings. (The Harrisons could go a little far in their attempts to inhabit the ghost of George Washington. They reenacted his inauguration at theirs and also during the campaign would compare Benjamin to the Founding Father.)
There’s something extraordinary about opening up the kitchen-table-sized bound volume the architect and engineer Frederick Owen put together with his renderings based on Caroline’s designs. The Library of Congress has a copy, as does the Harrison Historical Site in Indianapolis. (In the Library’s copy, there is a loose magnolia leaf with “President Harrison” scrawled across in gold.) The volume includes renderings from the north, south, east and west, as well as an aerial and cross-sections to show how little the original mansion would be affected by construction. From the north (the porte-cochère side of the White House), the relatively simple facade of the original mansion—which was being turned into a totally private residence—is stretched out horizontally and backwards with two curving colonnades.
From the east and west one sees the two facsimile White Houses, albeit in a more stately French neoclassical style redolent of Ange-Jacques Gabriel, architect of the Hotel de la Marine and Petit Trianon. They each also had a glass square dome in the center. Adding to the ornateness of the new additions is that they were intended to be clad in white marble, whereas the original White House is wood, brick, and sandstone painted in Duron “Whisper White.”
The western “White House” was to be the official one, and a floor plan in the book shows a domed atrium with a statue in the middle. To the south is the Grand Diplomatic Reception Salon, an anteroom and a card room. To the north were the Representative’s Parlor and the Senatorial Parlor, as well as two smaller reception rooms. The second story would house the President’s Office, the library, the Cabinet Room, and the telegraph, stenographer, and clerk’s offices.
The eastern “White House” was to be a national art gallery. The White House back then was much more open to the public and received a lot of visitors, and Caroline wanted a space that showcased American art. She had tried, and failed, to convince Congress to purchase a series of paintings by Albert Bierstadt, one of that period’s two greatest landscape painters working in America (the other being Frederic Edwin Church). She did succeed in acquiring the government’s first ever landscape painting, A Summer Day at Saulsbury Beach by James Henry Moser. While one of the first fine art galleries in the country existed across the street from the White House, the now-defunct Corcoran Gallery housed in what is now the Renwick, there was no national gallery.
The aerial rendering shows Caroline’s plan was for a quadrangle complex, with the U-shape palatial complex closed by a glass conservatory. The enclosed area would form a private park and garden, which was important to the First Lady who felt she had no privacy for her gardening after being photographed when she was bent over weeding! The glass conservatory would be dropped below grade, ensuring that the view from the mansions out over the Potomac was kept intact. The view from the south with the conservatory in the foreground is perhaps the most jarring of Owen’s renderings, as if somebody put the White House in a kaleidoscope or it was an amoeba self reproducing.
To get her plans passed, Caroline rolled out an impressive political strategy. She made the wily Secretary of State James G. Blaine the face of the campaign, in order to give the appearance that the idea had not originated from an ungrateful, out-of-touch First Family. She corralled popular former First Lady Harriet Lane Johnston, who served in the role for lifelong bachelor James Buchanan, to share firsthand the tale of the Prince of Wales’ visit to congressmen and journalists. She also courted the press, holding briefings and tours for journalists. And in Congress she found a champion in Leland Stanford, the California robber baron whose homes were more glamorous than the White House and who had presidential ambitions of his own.
Stanford introduced the bill to fund her plan and it passed the Senate, according to Seale. Passage in the House was assured, Stanford told her, and would spend the night sleeping in the cloakroom keeping a watchful eye. But the final evening of the session came and went and the bill never appeared on the House floor.
It had run into a 6-foot, 300 plus pound wall—Speaker Thomas Reed from Maine, who NPR recently called The Most Important Politician You've Never Heard Of. He was a man so imposing in person that none other than John Singer Sargent found himself unequal to the task of painting his portrait. “I could have made a better picture with a much less remarkable man,” the painter lamented. A stereoview photograph of the man shows him closely resembling the Monsters Inc. villain Mr. Waternoose. This “slow-moving giant hulk of a barge,” as one colleague described him, was President Harrison’s great rival, and there was no way he was going to let him have his palatial project.
Reed killed the bill at the last minute, never even letting it get to the floor. Stanford confronted him. The president had passed over Reed’s choice for collector of Portland (a plum job), which the Speaker saw as a personal slight. “A personal affront,” writes Seale, “deserved personal revenge.”
Caroline’s dreams of an expanded White House were dead, and sadly soon she would be too. But the First Lady won a partial victory in that Congress allocated sums of money for redecorating. She hired Edgar Yergason and the two of them worked to create an early iteration of Colonial Revival. And she was able to do some modernizing, as the Harrisons were the first to electrify the White House. The family was terrified of their own modernity though, and refused the entirety of the presidency to turn the lights on or off and instead would call up a servant or staffer to do so.
Although the Owen expansion designs would resurface under McKinley, the White House would remain largely untouched for another decade until Teddy Roosevelt had McKim, Mead and White gut the mansion and add the West Wing. FDR would add the East Wing, Truman had it completely rebuilt inside, and Jacqueline Kennedy oversaw one of its biggest redecorations. But none were on the scale that Caroline Harrison proposed.
Early on the morning of Oct. 25, 1892, Caroline Harrison died after a battle with tuberculosis. While we like to think of the role of First Lady as a long chain of dreary housewives revolutionized by the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt or Hillary Clinton, it was more of a steady progression of often very impressive women. Yes, some were mere reflections of society. But many, from early ones like Abigail Adams and Dolley Madison to later ones like Caroline Harrison and Florence Harding, were far more ambitious and progressive.
Caroline was a firm believer in women’s education and nascent equality. The Harrisons hired the White House’s first non-domestic female employee, Alice Sanger, and hired Frances Benjamin Johnson as the first official White House photographer. Their administration also actively pursued voting rights enforcement for African Americans and tried to pass a Civil Rights bill.
Unfortunately, the space on the shelf for memorable historic figures is cutthroat, and Caroline is far from a household name. Adding insult to that injury, a couple years after her husband lost the presidential election of 1892, he remarried at the age of 62… to his dead wife’s 37-year-old niece, Mary Dimmick, who had worked in the White House. His children, aghast, refused to attend. And there were whispers that Benjamin and Mary had carried on an affair inside the White House. (Historian Edith Mayo references a memo from George Cortelyou, which claimed that “Caroline was so distressed, because she thought she was losing him to the younger niece, that she was going to move out of the White House.”)
In case this all wasn’t strange enough, Benjamin and Mary had a daughter who married a descendant of Caroline’s ally, Secretary of State James G. Blaine, who had a daughter who married a descendant of President James Garfield.
It’s the kind of intrigue fit for, well, a palace.