The name of George Bruce Cortelyou (1862-1940) is little known today, but he was integral to the administration of Grover Cleveland, William McKinley, and Theodore Roosevelt. During his tenure as a civil servant in the White House, his organizational skills brought about the consolidation of the executive offices and its operations within the West Wing. Cortelyou was a trusted aide to President Roosevelt and served in his cabinet as Secretary of Labor and Commerce (1903-05), Postmaster General (1905-07) and Secretary of the Treasury (1907-1909).
Cortelyou, eldest child of Peter and Rose Cortelyou, was born in New York in 1862. He was educated at public schools in Brooklyn, Nazareth Military Academy in Pennsylvania, and the Hempstead Institute on Long Island. At the age of 20, he received a BA degree from Massachusetts State Normal School, a teacher’s college in Westfield, Massachusetts.
Cortelyou returned to Hempstead Institute to teach and while there married Lily Hinds, the daughter of his mentor Professor Hinds. He attempted to establish a school of his own, but an unfortunate outbreak of scarlet fever led to the school’s early closure. In search of a more lucrative career, Cortelyou enrolled at a stenographic institute in New York and mastered shorthand.
In 1891, he obtained a position as secretary to the chief postal inspector of New York.. The following year a promotion led to a job as the secretary to the Fourth Assistant Postmaster General in Washington, D.C. The Cortelyous settled in Washington, D.C. with their two small children and in 1895 President Grover Cleveland hired Cortelyou as his chief clerk on the recommendation of Postmaster General Wilson Bissell.
Cortelyou was an invaluable assistant and President Cleveland recommended him as secretary to his successor, William McKinley. Cortelyou was working on improvements in office efficiency in 1901 when President McKinley was shot in Buffalo.
George Cortelyou in the spring of 1901 at his desk in the McKinley White House offices. Library of Congress |
The last cabinet meeting of the Roosevelt adminstration, March 2, 1909. Cortelyou was seated directly to the left of President Roosevelt. |
George Cortelyou (center) walking in Chicago during the Republican National Convention in 1912.
Vice-President Theodore Roosevelt well knew Cortelyou as President McKinley’s secretary and as an active leader in the campaign that had returned the president to the White House. Roosevelt was glad to have Cortelyou’s assistance after his unexpected succession as president.
The White House offices were crowded with 23 men working in five rooms at the east end of the second floor. In addition, the offices were used by military personnel attached to the White House, as well as coachmen, stablemen, and laborers. The unsatisfactory crowding of the offices at the White House had been a problem for a long time as administrative duties increased. Plans for improving or replacing the White House were considered in the 1860s. In 1900, a vast expansion of the White House was proposed as a means of celebrating the hundredth anniversary of the city of Washington. The plan had included an entire east wing for executive offices and a press room. Cortelyou would have been party to this plan, but the extent is not known. The Roosevelt restoration of the White House, completed in 1902 by architects McKim, Mead, and White included new facilities for the executive offices in a building erected at the end of the west colonnade. The addition was known as the “temporary” Executive Office Building, later called the West Wing.
The new offices represented a significant change from the crowded rooms on the second floor of the White House. Rooms for the staff, press, telegraph operator and messengers flanked a large entry hall. As secretary to the president, Cortelyou’s office was centrally placed with direct access to the main lobby and the front door of the West Wing. The room to the east of the secretary’s office was the president’s workroom with sliding pocket doors connecting it to the adjacent Cabinet Room.
The new offices suited the complete revision of the administrative proceduresof the presidency. Roosevelt charged Cortelyou with putting the presidential organization on a businesslike basis. Cortelyou developed procedures and rules that guided White House protocol and established a formal organizational structure where there had been only personal prerogative.
Cortelyou resigned from public life when the Roosevelt administration ended. He entered private business as the president of the Consolidated Gas Company in New York where he proved to be as successful in private business as he had been in public service. At the time of his death in 1940, Cortelyou could look back over a career that exemplified the belief that hard work and dedication could lead to professional success. His tenure in the White House helped to shape the function of the executive offices and brought them together under the West Wing.