As President Harry Truman’s daughter, Margaret, played the piano one day, she was startled as one leg of the piano suddenly dropped through the floor of the White House residential level. Engineers were called in to see what was going on, and the report was nothing short of alarming.
President Calvin Coolidge was forced to move out of the White House in 1927 for six months so extensive remodeling and repairs could take place. In the course of the repairs, the architect showed the president the extreme damage that had occurred to the rafters when the White House was burned by British troops during the War of 1812.
The architect insisted that the rafters be replaced and asked whether the new rafters should be wood or steel beams. Coolidge was notoriously thrifty but ultimately decided in favor of the more durable option. He justified the extra expense, declaring, “All right. Put in the steel beams and send the bill to the King of England.”
Boller, P. F. (2007). Presidential Anecdotes (p. 244). Philadelphia: Running Press.
If there was ever a man who was unchanged by the power of the Presidency, it was Gerald Ford. Thrust unexpectedly into the Oval Office upon the resignation of Richard Nixon, Ford always seemed to be just a regular guy. Nothing illustrated this better than his relationship with his dog. Continue reading →
The job of President of the United States can often be described as one of constantly putting out fires. Of course, we expect that to be a figurative description. For one President, however, that was literally the truth.
On February 10, 1864 Sergeant Smith Stimmel was standing guard for President Abraham Lincoln at the White House. Around 8:30 pm, Sgt. Smith described the following spectacle:
Just then the front door of the White House flew open with a jerk, and out came the President. buttoning his coat around him, and said to me, “Where’s the fire, what’s burning?” I said, “It seems to be around in the vicinity of the stable.” With that he started off on a dog-trot down the steps and along the way leading to the stable. When he started to go to the fire, I thought to myself, “Old fellow, you are the man we are guarding, guess I’ll go along.” So I struck out on the double-quick and went with him, keeping close to his side; but he took such long strikes that his dog-trot was almost a dead run for me.
As soon as we got around where we could see what was burning, we saw that, sure enough, the White House stable was on fire. Quite a crowd had gathered by the time we got there, and the fire department was at work. Mr. Lincoln asked hastily if the horses had been taken out, and when told they had not, he rushed through the crowd and began to break open one of the large doors with his own hands; but the building was full of fire, and none of the horses could be saved. The ponies belonging to the little boys and the goats were all lost in the fire. It was a brick stable, and evidently had been burning for some time before it was discovered.
Another guard, Robert W. McBride, observed the President after the incident:
After posting the sentinels, I went inside. Mr. Lincoln, with others, was standing in the East room, looking at the still burning stable. He was weeping. Little ‘Tad,’ his youngest son, explained his father’s emotion. His son Willie had died a short time before. He was his father’s favorite, and the stable contained a pony that had belonged to the dead boy. The thought of his dead child had come to his mind as soon as he learned the stables were on fire, and he had rushed out to try to save the pony from the flames.
The next day President Lincoln consoled Tad by saying that the horses had “gone where the good horses go.”
1877 brought a new President to the White House and a new presidential perk: the Executive Mansion’s first telephone. President Rutherford B. Hayes had the phone installed in the White House telegraph room. The first White House phone number was “1.”
Alexander Graham Bell had just invented the telephone a year earlier, so it should not be surprising that there were not a lot of telephones out there for the President to call or from which to receive calls. Practically speaking, the only one of significance connected to that first White House phone was in the nearby Treasury Department.
It would take years for this to become anything close to the vital means of communication it is today. It wasn’t until the administration of President Herbert Hoover, fifty years later, that a phone was installed in the Oval Office, itself.
Since then, telephone access to and from the White House has grown exponentially. Today, between 2,500 and 3,500 phone calls are received at the White House each day.
Three Presidents who died in the years between 1840 and 1850 have inspired the well-known tales regarding the cause of their deaths. We all know that William Henry Harrison’s one-hour-and-forty-five-minute inaugural address, delivered without a hat or coat during a snowstorm, resulted in the President catching pneumonia and dying just thirty days into his administration. Historians have long declared that Zachary Taylor’s consumption of cherries and iced milk in the hot days of Washington, DC summer led to his death from cholera shortly thereafter. It has long been accepted that James K. Polk worked himself so hard during his administration that he died just three months after leaving office.
As it turns out, none of these long-held facts may be true. There could have been a common killer for all three chief executives: the White House itself. Continue reading →
Prime Minister Winston Churchill was staying at the White House as a guest of President Franklin Roosevelt. They had been discussing their vision for a new-and-improved League of Nations that would help secure the post-war peace. The President had a sudden inspiration for a name for this organization — the United Nations. He was excited to share this thought with Churchill and wheeled himself down the hall to The Prime Minister’s room. Upon knocking at the door, he heard Churchill’s invitation to enter, so he did.
What FDR was not prepared for was the sight of Winston Churchill in the buff. The portly statesman had recently bathed, and was accustomed to doing some of his best thinking as he paced back and forth in the nude.
Embarrassed, the President turned to leave, but was stopped by Churchill, who threw his arms wide and said, “The Prime Minister of His Majesty’s government has nothing to hide from the President of the United States!”
Upon his return to London, Churchill briefed King George VI about his trip to Washington, DC, and noted, “I may possibly be the only man in the world to have received the head of a nation naked.”