McKinleys adjust to life in the White House

Editor’s note: This is part of a weekly series marking the 120th anniversary of Niles native William McKinley’s U.S. presidency.

William and Ida McKinley arrived at the White House after the inauguration on March 4, 1897. Although they had been to the White House many times before as guests, they would now call it “home.” As the year drew to a close, they came to realize some of the advantages and disadvantages to living in the executive mansion.

The White House was a magnificent two-story building built in a neo-classical federal architectural style. It was a home, but also a place where they entertained guests at state dinners and receptions in the public rooms on the first floor, and a working office as well. Working just across the hall from his residence on the second floor, the president could check on Mrs. McKinley quite frequently throughout the day.

They were delighted with many of the modern conveniences the White House contained. It boasted electricity and telephones throughout. Their private residence had just been renovated. There were five bedrooms for the McKinleys and their guests. There were modern bathrooms with bathtubs. There was an elevator to whisk the McKinleys’ guests to the residence. The house was heated with steam heat instead of coal.

Ida McKinley was delighted with the greenhouse that was just a short walk outside of the west entrance. Ida visited the greenhouse on a daily basis to smell the flowers and plants. She especially enjoyed the tropical flora and greenery. She made sure that greenhouse flowers were used more prominently in the White House. President McKinley’s carnation, which he wore daily on his lapel, was grown there.

The McKinleys discovered they had a small loyal house staff to tend to their needs and the house. The staff worked many hours of overtime to ensure that public events went off without a problem. At the time, there was not a full-time White House chef, and McKinley hired a chef for special events, such as state dinners.

Unfortunately, they soon found out the limitations to living there. The house was nearly 100 years old and it showed. Over the years, Congress had limited the funds to repair the structure, renovate the interior or furnish the rooms. The state dining room was not big enough and many guests had to eat on tables in an adjacent hallway. The McKinleys found that large public receptions caused the floors to sag and staff was sent to the basement to hold up the floor. There was always a worry of a fire breaking during a public reception. The banisters always seemed to lean when a guest was using them. The McKinleys were always relieved at the end of a public gathering the floor did not give way, there was not a fire and a banister did not collapse.

Other parts of the building were in deplorable condition. The paint was cracked and peeling. The closets and the basement were discolored with age and neglect. The wallpaper in the state dining room and the public rooms was peeling and patched. The carpets were threadbare and the draperies faded. The furnishings in the public rooms were a mishaps of different styles, reflecting the times they were purchased. Couches and chairs were sagging and uncomfortable to sit in.

Another drawback to life in the White House was the lack of privacy. Visitors could stand outside of the first floor and peer through the windows at the McKinleys eating in their private dining room. Visitors roamed through the public rooms on the first floor until 2 p.m. Anyone, with or without an appointment, could walk into the White House to see President McKinley. Only a partition separated the visitors from the McKinley’s private residence.

The president knew plans for a renovation were desperately needed. In the meantime, he and his wife put up with its shortcomings, and the McKinleys settled in to enjoy life on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Patrick Finan of Cortland is the retired former library director of the McKinley Memorial Library in Niles.