Senator proposes construction of a new White House
The residents of Washington, D.C., celebrated the birthday of the city’s namesake around Feb. 22, 1900.
There were parties, events and lectures to honor George Washington for his military service and his contributions as the nation’s first president,
One such event was a lecture given by Roman Catholic Archbishop, John J. Keane of Washington D.C., on Feb. 23 at the Lafayette Opera House. The title of Keane’s lecture was “Star of Our Destiny,” in which Keane extolled the greatness of George Washington.
Much of official Washington, D.C., was in attendance at the lecture, including President William McKinley. Republican Sen. Chauncey Depew of New York introduced Keane and also made the following plea to those in attendance, according to the Feb. 24 edition of the New York Times. It states:
“I did not consult the president,” said Depew, “before I came here upon what I have to say. I did not give him a chance to place a veto on his remarks, and I can speak without any restriction also because I am the only man on the floor of the Senate who does not hope to become president. So, without fear of consequences, I say that the nation should build a new White House. Everything else in America has expanded, but the White House and that has contracted.”
The Times reported Depew put the question of building a new White House before the audience. The audience responded with cheers and prolonged applause. Keane endorsed the construction of a new White House before he began his lecture. McKinley had a broad smile on his face when both Depew and Keane presented the need for a new White House.
The White House was turning 100 years old in 1900. There had not been a major renovation undertaken at it since the British nearly burned it to the ground in 1814.
The mansion sat on marshy ground in Washington, D.C. The presidents were fearful the stagnant water found in the marshes and nearby canal could lead to fevers and waterborne diseases for the White House occupants and White House staff.
The White House was too small for a rapidly growing country and an emerging world power. There was not enough space for a larger presidential staff. The public spaces were too small for the public functions that took place. The mansion’s living space was too small for the needs of the president and his family. The family living space on the second floor only was separated from the office space of the president and his staff by a partition.
Presidents since the Civil War ended pleaded with Congress to provide the funds to build a new executive mansion or renovate and expand the White House. Andrew Johnson in 1867 requested funding from Congress to construct a new executive mansion in Rock Creek Park in northwest Washington. The existing White House would have become an office building for the White House staff and be used for ceremonial functions under Johnson’s request. Congress refused.
President Chester Arthur submitted another request to Congress to construct an executive mansion in 1881. Congress refused Arthur’s request. However, Congress provided funding to refurbish the public rooms under the direction of Louis Comfort Tiffany.
First lady Caroline Harrison in 1889 was the next White House occupant to press for something to be done about the deplorable conditions. Harrison’s proposal was to increase the size of the cramped state dining room and public reception areas, the White House maintenance areas and increase the family living areas.
Harrison had a strong, polished public relations effort to show how she planned to improve the White House. There were architectural drawings of what the proposed addition would look like and for what the space inside of the transformed White House would be used. The press and the American people were enthusiastic about Harrison’s proposal. Congress, however, refused to fund the project again.
The White House the McKinleys moved into in 1897 was in deplorable condition. The floors sagged whenever the McKinleys hosted a large event. There was a constant fear of fire whenever a public event was held. The wallpaper needed to be replaced, and the paint was cracked and peeling. The furniture was old, did not match and was uncomfortable. The carpet was threadbare and the drapes worn.
McKinley was hoping that in the year that the White House was celebrating its 100th anniversary, Congress would begin to approve the funds to renovate and update the White House. He was pleased Depew was in his corner.