Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘White House’

Ninety years ago this spring, a major repair project began on the White House in Washington, DC, that ultimately yielded wooden treasures. Work began in March of 1927 to remove large sections of the building’s roof in order to replace wood timbers with steel trusses and undertake a full remodeling of the third floor. This project was necessary due to some structural defects, along with the overloading of the building’s upper-most story. Originally designed as attic space, by 1927 the space had been providing significant storage space as well as servants’ quarters for too long. The roof structure being removed and replaced had been erected between 1815 and 1817 following the burning of the White House by British troops during the War of 1812.

1927 White House roof renovation

White House during roof removal process, March 1927 (click for more info).

Remodeling was completed by August 1927. During the construction, the majority of the wooden roof timbers removed were found to still be in good condition. Due to significant public interest in having souvenirs made from the White House wood, a public auction was held for the roof trusses as well as other miscellaneous pieces of removed lumber. In March 1928 more than 1,500 linear feet of Virginia longleaf pine lumber from the White House was auctioned off. The highest bid (at $500—a relative steal) came from the National Lumber Manufacturers’ Association (NLMA), and they ended up with the largest lot of timber. The NLMA and other organizations that bought the lumber planned to turn it into souvenirs to give away.

By December 1928 the NLMA had decided on crafting commemorative gavels from the wood. The Southern Lumberman reported: “Six hundred gavels are being made up from the timbers taken out during remodeling of the Executive Mansion last year after 112 years of service. They are being finished with clear varnish to show the natural grain of the wood and each is marked with a plate telling the source of the wood and accompanied by a printed leaflet giving the story of the gavel.” The NLMA planned to give gavels to “men prominent in the lumber industry, to prominent writers and public men, to the Vice-President of the United States and the Speaker of the House of Representatives and to the presiding officers of state legislatures, and to patriotic societies.” How many gavels were produced is not certain, but one of them is housed here in the FHS Archives (see photo below). The plaque on the gavel reads:

“Certified By Centuries”

Longleaf pine after 112 years’ service in the White House roof – 1815 to 1927

National Lumber Manufacturers Association

NLMA gavel from White House wood

NLMA gavel made from White House wood (housed in FHS Archives).

The NLMA also created other items from the wood. Candlesticks were made, including a set presented to President Herbert Hoover in May 1929. Blocks of wood cut from the roof timbers were affixed with plaques and given away. The NLMA also created one-of-a-kind items. One of the most interesting pieces was a humidor stand built as a replica of one originally used by President James Madison. The NLMA presented the piece to the Southern Pine Association at the latter’s June 1929 meeting in New Orleans. The wooden humidor was officially presented by Wilson Compton to H. C. Berckes, following Compton’s keynote address to the meeting. The Southern Lumberman described the moment:

As a climax to his able address, Dr. Compton lifted from the floor and placed it on the speaker’s table a curious little antique settee or as it really was, a humidor of obvious pine manufacture. It proved to be a replica of a bit of furniture that was in the White House at Washington under the Madison administration during the War of 1812, and that may have been burned when that building was destroyed by the British soldiers. The settee was reconstructed by President Madison’s orders from material taken from the roof timbers after the fire, and more recently the present replica was constructed from pine again from the White House roof—lumber that had come through more than a century of service as sound as when it went in.

According to Compton the gift was “an appropriate presentation to the Southern Pine Association, the invincible advocate of longleaf southern pine.”

H.C. Berckes

H. C. Berckes, secretary-manager of the Southern Pine Association, receives the humidor from the NLMA.

The NLMA wasn’t alone in turning White House wood into wares. First Lady Lou Henry Hoover fashioned gifts from wood salvaged from the president’s home, though there is some debate over whether the wood she used came from the 1927 roof reconstruction or following repairs due to a 1929 fire in the Oval Office. Regardless, Mrs. Hoover had Christmas gifts made for family, friends, and White House staff in 1930. The First Lady sent some wood to Biltmore Industries in Asheville, North Carolina, where it was turned into ash trays, stamp boxes, paper knives, book ends, pen holders, and other small items. You can read more about the gifts made by Mrs. Hoover on Hoover Heads, the blog of the Herbert Hoover Library and Museum.

The enduring quality of the original wood, the uniqueness of their source, and their direct connection to American history, make these items increasingly valuable. You’ll see the various pieces pop up at auction periodically—and typically be sold for far more than the $500 the NLMA originally paid for its entire lot of wood.

For more information on the history of the NLMA, see the National Forest Products Association Records in the FHS Archives (in 1965 the NLMA changed its name to the National Forest Products Association).

Read Full Post »

(First published in 2008, this blog posted was updated in 2012 and, after finding the letters to his sisters on the Theodore Roosevelt Center’s website, again in 2016.)

There’s a good deal of misinformation about how Theodore Roosevelt refused to allow a Christmas tree in the White House because of “environmental concerns.” A bit of research kept turning up variations on the story about the ban and how his son Archie smuggled one in against his father’s wishes, which provoked an angry reaction. Some versions of the story include dialogue between father and son, and some have the children involving Gifford Pinchot, the federal chief of forestry, to defend their actions. The incident is even the subject of a children’s book by Gary Hines which, though historical fiction, is no farther from (or closer to) the truth than the historical record as it now exists.

While the Roosevelts’ lack of a tree was not a complete break in tradition—a holiday tree in the White House did not become established annual practice until the 1920s—it was still a notable exclusion. Prior to Roosevelt, Christmas trees were a fairly rare occurrence in the White House. Legend has it that the fifteenth president, James Buchanan, had the first tree, but even that is disputed, with some sources saying Franklin Pierce had the first one in 1853. (Keep in mind that as late as the 1840s, most Americans viewed Christmas trees as pagan symbols; the day itself was treated with great solemnity.)

Nevertheless, nineteenth-century American households typically didn’t put one up unless there were young children in the house; they placed the presents under or even on the tree for the tykes. Presidents Grant and Cleveland both had Christmas trees in the White House only because they had young children, while presidents without young children had no tree. Interestingly, on their website, the White House Historical Association claims Benjamin Harrison had the first recorded Christmas tree in 1889 but makes no mention of any before then, and that electric lights were first used on a Christmas tree in 1894.

Regardless of its origins, by Roosevelt’s presidency, a growing opposition to Christmas trees was reaching its peak. Many among the general public opposed cutting trees for the holiday because of the injurious impact on forests, the destructive methods used to harvest them, or the overall perceived wastefulness of the practice. The U.S. Forest Service Newsclipping Files in the FHS Archives contain numerous newspaper editorials from around the turn of the century strongly challenging the practice. The Hartford Courant in 1902 commented that “the green has become a nuisance, there is so much of it.  Everything from a church to a saloon has to be decorated. The result is that the woods are being stripped and an altogether endless sacrifice is going on, not in obedience to any real need but just to meet the calls of an absurd fad.” In what sounds like the debates over natural vs. artificial trees today, others called for artificial substitutes such as wire Christmas trees:

1899 newspaper editorial

(from Minneapolis Times, January 6, 1899)

President Roosevelt himself was on record as opposing destructive lumbering practices, though he doesn’t appear to have singled out the practice of harvesting Christmas trees. (It is worth noting that Chief Forester Pinchot actually saw nothing wrong with the practice, and by 1907 was even urging the creation of businesses specifically for growing them.) A few contemporary newspaper articles note how family tradition held that the Roosevelts never had one. Unphased, each year the press enjoyed speculating about whether the family would have a tree. It was expected that Roosevelt—the father of six children—would have a tree in the White House despite this. What happened in 1902 made the news, however, and soon passed into legend.

Archie Roosevelt -- The Child, The Myth, The Legend!

Archie Roosevelt – The Child, The Myth, The Legend!

This much we know for certain: in 1901, having moved into the White House only a few months before, the Roosevelt children enjoyed a tree at their cousin’s house but not in their own home. In 1902, Roosevelt’s eight-year-old son Archie “had a little birthday tree of his own which he had rigged up” in a big closet with help from “one of the carpenters.” There’s no mention of lights—that’s only implied when saying the tree was “rigged up.” Archie decorated it with gifts for each family member and even the family pets. Afterward, they adjourned to another room where everyone opened their presents. Roosevelt, in a letter written the next day to a friend of the children’s, discussed the tree but did not offer a reaction to it.

Yet, with that tree, it seems that Archie may have begun a family tradition. In a letter to his sister Corrine Robinson penned on December 26, 1906, the president writes:

Archie and Quentin have gradually worked up a variant on what is otherwise a strictly inherited form of our celebration, for they fix up (or at least Archie fixes up) a special Christmas tree in Archie’s room, which is the play-room; and the first thing we had to do was to go in and to admire that. Meanwhile, two of the children had slipt [sic] out, and when we got back to our room there was a small lighted Christmas tree with two huge stockings for Edith and myself, the children’s stockings (which included one for [son-in-law] Nick) reposing, swollen and bulging, on the sofa.

On page two of a letter written to his sister Anna Cowles, whom he called “Bye,” on Christmas Day 1907, he mentions in passing that on that afternoon, following a full day of horseback riding and visiting friends, “there was a Christmas tree of Archie’s.” The comment was offered so casually that it appears that Archie having a tree was not only not a surprise, but that it was expected. This might explain why the children had provided a tree especially for their parents the year before—to surprise them once again as they had in 1902.

Incidentally, newspaper articles from 1903 to 1908 mention that there will be no tree that year but speculate about what will happen and if Archie will pull a fast one. Some articles from 1903, 1904, and 1905 claim Archie had a secret tree each of those years, with the writers essentially repeating the events of 1902 as if it just happened for the first time. Oddly, the articles are dated December 24th or even the 25th. But, as previously stated, we know for certain that Archie did have a tree in 1906 and 1907, and that from President Roosevelt’s letter in 1906 we can infer that Archie had one in the years between 1903 and 1905.

The first lengthy account of Archie’s first tree may have been in a Ladies Home Journal article from December 1903 written by Robert Lincoln O’Brien, former executive clerk at the White House. In his account of the events of Christmas 1902, O’Brien claims that Quentin’s nurse suggested enlisting the household electrician to rig up lights. He also recounts the unveiling of the tree, which was the top of an evergreen no more than two feet high and purchased for twenty cents. He quotes Archie as saying at the time of the unveiling, “Just look here for a minute. I want you to glance into this old closet,” before pressing a button to turn on the lights and opening the closet door. O’Brien wrote, “All the family were there, as was Quentin’s nurse, but none appeared more astonished than Mr. Roosevelt himself at the sight of this diminutive Christmas tree.”

Illustration from the 1903 article in Ladies Home Journal.

From Robert Lincoln O’Brien’s article in Ladies Home Journal.

O’Brien also addresses the rumors as to why the Roosevelt family didn’t have a tree in previous years. He says some speculated that “the President’s love for the living things of the forest in their own natural setting” was so great “that he prefers not to encourage the wanton slaughter of small trees.” O’Brien summarizes the debate over “the Christmas-tree practice” as being between those who believe “that trees are made for the use and enjoyment of man” and “man might as well pick out what he wants,” versus those who believe that “best-shaped trees” are the ones selected for holiday harvest and “are the very ones that the world can least afford to lose.” Instead, he writes, it’s a matter of personal preference. The family was so large, and with nearly every room in the White House “overloaded with things” during the holiday season, displaying trees “would only add so much more.” Rather, Mr. and Mrs. Roosevelt desired to enjoy Christmas as simply as possible.

The environmental arguments circulating in 1902 soon became the reason for the ban, despite such explanations to the contrary. In a December 1909 article in the Oregonian about the history of Christmas in the White House, the motive for banning the Christmas tree, in language that closely echoes O’Brien, is linked to “the wanton destruction of small evergreen trees at Christmas time.” But then, the reader is told, “Mr. [Gifford] Pinchot, the Government’s chief forester, sided with Santa Claus and showed how Christmas tree cutting did the forests good in many places. So the second [w]inter the Roosevelts spent in the White House Old Kris conspired with roguish Archie to give the family a real Christmas tree, whether the nature-loving President liked it or not.” Here, for the first time, Forest Service Chief Gifford Pinchot is drawn into the drama—and sides with the children by discussing the benefits of selection cutting. This author is vague about who Pinchot lectures on the topic, but the message gets through to the President and he relents in the face of science.

Fast-forward 80 years, and the story is twisted even further and becomes almost fantasy. In a December 1988 article in The Northern Logger and Timber Processor, Dick O’Donnell introduces several errors (for starters, the story occurs in 1905, and he claims that this incident started the White House Christmas tree tradition) and veers so close to historical fiction that I won’t even bother further deconstructing and critiquing his account. But O’Donnell does spin a great yarn. He tells us with a straight face that, in 1905, Archie has the idea for the tree but Quentin is worried by their father’s ban. Archie’s solution is to pay Forester Pinchot a visit and enlist their father’s friend and adviser for help. He not only sides with them, but then Pinchot proceeds to teach President Roosevelt about selection cutting. The president then calls a press conference to announce a change in forest management policy on federal lands. But perhaps the conversations O’Donnell conjures up between Archie and Quentin, and between Roosevelt and Pinchot, gave Gary Hines the basis for his wonderful children’s book. So it can’t be all bad.

We are trying to answer the following questions: What were the real reasons behind why Roosevelt did not allow a tree in the White House?  And how and when did the crux of the current legend—that Roosevelt banned trees from the White house due to environmental concerns—come about? Did Roosevelt ever oppose the Christmas tree due to concern for America’s forests, or is this all just a case of when the legend becomes fact, print the legend?

Read Full Post »