Featured The Life and Presidency of Harry S. Truman
The White House Historical Association’s 2018 White House Christmas Ornament honors Harry S. Truman, the thirty-third president of the United St...
When David Baillie Warden remarked in 1816 that “it was originally proposed to form a communication between the [executive departmental] offices and the house of the president,” he was referring to the initial idea for a close configuration of all the executive buildings within the President’s Square.1 Four L-shaped wings were shown as attached directly to the President’s House on Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s manuscript map of 1791. By the time the first engraved map was published in March 1792, a grouping with four aligned buildings overlooking terraces flanked the house’s south entrance and courtyard. There were originally four departments—Post Office, State, Treasury, and War—and two officers, the vice president and the attorney general, in the executive branch.
Washington probably determined that their offices be near the President’s House because he considered their functions executive ones. By 1796, however, the commissioners realized that clustering them in the President’s Grounds was politically unwise and located the Post Office between the Capitol and President’s House. Two years later President John Adams suggested the “public officers” be near the Capitol because Congress needed easy access to their expertise and records.2 The commissioners disagreed, arguing that “the Business of the heads of Department was principally with the President,” and after much persuading, Adams conceded. At one time or another, all but the Post Office were housed within the executive offices, as they were called. In 1800 Post Office headquarters was in a rented house on F Street, NW, midway between the Capitol and President’s House, because “much public discontent” demanded a wider dispersal within the city of government buildings. In 1810, Blodgett’s Hotel, located eight blocks east of the executive enclave, was purchased for the Patent Office (part of the State Department, then located in the War Office) and the General Post Office. The attorney general did not reside in Washington until 1814, when he was accommodated in the War Office. After Blodgett’s Hotel was destroyed by fire in 1836, the south wing of Robert Mills’s Treasury Building was briefly considered for the Post Office’s headquarters until Congress appropriated the funds for the General Post Office (1839–42) built on the hotel’s site.3
The Treasury Office was the first of the executive buildings planned by the Commissioners of the District of Columbia because the Treasury Department was the largest in the executive branch; 69 employees out of the permanent federal work force of 127 relocated from Philadelphia to Washington in 1800. Following the failure of the first three public auctions of the government’s lots to generate sufficient funds for the construction of the public buildings, the majority of the public lots were sold in 1793 to a real estate syndicate. When the syndicate was unable to meet its spring 1795 payment, the Federal City’s future was precarious. In November President George Washington sent Alexander White commissioner and former member of Congress, to Philadelphia to lobby Congress to guarantee a loan from private banks to complete the public buildings already under way—the President’s House and the Capitol.
In January 1796, White compiled for Congress an accounting of what had been spent, accomplished, and was still needed to be done before 1800, when the government was slated to move to Washington. “Two buildings may be erected on the President’s square, at the expense of 100,000 dollars, sufficient to accommodate, in a handsome manner, the departments of State, Treasury and War, and the General Post-Office,” White reported. After discussions with congressmen, he wrote two letters on January 23, one estimating $200,000 to build two “elegant” executive office buildings, the second reducing the amount to $100,000. At the end of the month White wrote his follow commissioners: “There is no doubt but the President must approve both of the Scites [sic] and Plans of these Offices. I never had an Idea of their being appendages to the President’s House, but that they should be placed on the Square in lower corresponding positions and that they should be built of Brick much in the Style of the Hotel.”4
The brass plate on the cornerstone for Blodgett’s Hotel, uncovered in 1839, read: “This first corner stone of the Union Public Hotel was laid by the freemasons of the City of Washington and of Georgetown on the memorable 4th day of July, 1793. James Hoban, Architect.” Architecture was a favorite avocation of New England merchant Samuel Blodgett Jr., who entered the 1792 Capitol competition. He sponsored the 1793 competition for the Union Hotel, his most important contribution to Washington’s development. Hoban’s design won in a field of ten competitors; “the stile of the whole will far exceed any building at present known in America,” the newspaper announcement claimed.5 Hoban’s plan called for a south-facing facade 120 feet in length, the hotel’s lobby spanning its portico’s 60 foot width and the building’s entire depth of 40 feet. This lobby, divided by colonnades and flanked by cross halls, is not dissimilar to the capaciousness of the vestibule Hoban designed at the President’s House.
White’s decided preference for the rather plain, four-story red brick hotel actually built influenced the design evolution of the executive offices. In late January 1796, White solicited from department heads the number of rooms they would need in Washington. Secretary of the Treasury Oliver Wolcott wanted forty rooms, the same number as in Blodgett’s Hotel. Secretary of State Timothy Pickering only needed five large rooms, and Postmaster General Joseph Habersham required seven. White used this information as he attended congressional sessions and committee meetings and visited members in their homes, always discussing how to pay for the public buildings. “The plans of the buildings for the Executive Departments and their scites [sic] will be determined in time,” he wrote his colleagues in Washington, but “it would in my opinion be improper to commence these, or even contract for materials until we have a more certain command of money.” When White met with Washington in May 1796, he learned that the president thought the Capitol and President’s House should be either completed or “so far advanced that their reasonable completion may be relied on” before beginning the executive offices.6
In October the commissioners asked Washington to locate the offices within the President’s Square because they wanted their sites settled before he left office. “We will then cause plans to be drawn—agreeable to the opinions of the executive Officers, expressed to Mr. White in Philadelphia, and submit them to your consideration, and, if approved the buildings will commence as soon as our funds admit of it. Our opinion is that they ought to consist of two handsome brick buildings on the president’s square, so situated, as to give the most agreeable appearance to the whole.”7
A month later Washington stopped en route between Mount Vernon and Philadelphia and aligned the first two offices with the south facade of the President’s House. The commissioners invited Hoban and George Hadfield to submit designs, selecting Hadfield’s plan on January 25, 1797. Hadfield was born in Italy and trained at the Royal Academy in London, where he won its highest honor—a gold medal for design—in 1784. Eleven years later he accepted the commissioners’ invitation to superintend completion of the U.S. Capitol. This gifted and well-trained professional was soon at odds over suggested improvements to the Capitol’s design with its designer, the talented amateur architect, Dr. William Thornton, a city commissioner since 1794 and hence in a position of authority over Hadfield.
In mid-November 1797, the commissioners hired Hoban and the London-born and-trained builder William Lovering to draw up estimated costs for each of the first two executive offices, Treasury and War, based on Hadfield’s drawings. They sent the two estimates of $98,545 (Hoban) and $96,792 (Lovering) to Philadelphia as the basis for congressional appropriations. Cost overruns, difficulties in obtaining materials, and labor problems plagued the construction histories of both the Capitol and President’s House. The commissioners decided to experiment with a different method of building oversight for the executive offices, advertising in May 1798 for bids to contract for the entire costs of both buildings.8
Hadfield was angry because he was consulted neither about the estimates nor the solicitation of bids. Moreover, Lovering had deviated from his intentions because he did not yet have section drawings to consult. In January 1798 Hadfield withdrew his drawings to consult in making sections, refusing in May to return them to the commissioners until his role in the executive offices was clarified. “We know not why a further explanation is necessary respecting the plan of the Executive Office. You were asked to draw the plan, and did so, and have all the honor flowing from a full approbation of it, by the Executive of the United States. Our advertisement has told you, that we have published to the world, that this Building is to be erected under Contract, and that the plan is wanted for inspection at the office daily. It is the property of the United States, and we expect and desire that it may be immediately returned to the Office, without further trouble.”9
Hadfield invoked a rule common to European professional practices, claiming that since the invitation to design the offices was not part of his regular duties, the drawings remained his property. The commissioners disagreed and gave him three months notice; Hadfield took his case to President John Adams, who referred the matter to Secretary Pickering, who urged the commissioners to either reinstate Hadfield or find him another position. Adams was, Pickering noted, “disposed to distrust the propriety of your proceedings” and furthermore, wished to avoid an investigation.10
Hadfield continued to refuse to surrender his drawings to the commissioners, and two days before bids on the Treasury Office contract were due, the commissioners dismissed him outright. As a sign of good faith, the architect gave Adams the drawings. On June 25, 1798, two days after the contract for the Treasury Office as signed, the commissioners wrote Pickering, asking him to intervene with President John Adams. They needed the drawings because “the plan of the Executive Buildings on which the late President’s [Washington’s] approbation is endorsed, [is] our warrant for erecting the Buildings.” In 1819, when Hadfield petitioned Congress for payment of his design then being used to erect the State and Navy offices, his drawings were returned to him. These drawings, signed by the cabinet officers and by Washington on his last day in office, March 3, 1797, have never been found.11
The surviving watercolor for the executive offices, an elevation preserved among Thomas Jefferson’s papers, was one of four drawings the commissioners hired Lovering to make. Signed by the commissioners and the contractor, Leonard Harbaugh, on the same day as the written contract, June 23, 1798, it served as one of three contract drawings for the Treasury Office. On July 10, Lovering submitted an invoice, a list of his drawings, three estimates, and one bill of particulars, listed in the order in which he carried out the work between November 1797 and June 1798. This detailed document reveals changes in the Treasury Office’s form, size, and architectural embellishment, as Lovering’s 1797 estimate to build Hadfield’s design for $96,792 was reduced in stages to $43,382.29. Deleting Hadfield’s expensive portico with four Greek Ionic columns came first; replacing Hadfield’s third story with a garret story covered by a hipped roof, its rooms lit by dormers, followed; replacing the first floor with a raised basement story was the last major suggested alteration to reduce costs.12
Both Hoban and Lovering submitted bids for the contract, and both applied for the job of superintending Harbaugh, whose bid of $39,511 was the lowest because he paid workmen less than the men employed at the Capitol and President’s House. Harbaugh contracted to begin the walls within a month “agreeably to the annexed plan, Elevation and Section,” of which only Lovering’s elevation survives. Hoban was hired as the superintendent because work on the President’s House was suspended temporarily while the executive offices were being built. In addition to inspecting workmanship and materials, “Mr. Hoban also agrees, on the application of Mr. Harbaugh, to give his advice in any manner relative to the said Executive Office or the quality of materials offered or purchased” for an additional 100 guineas until the building was finished.13
During the summer of 1798, Hoban and Harbaugh agreed to make several changes, most relating to the building’s stability and safety. Their alterations to the design included reducing dormer windows to one per garret room and lengthening second story windows to improve air circulation. They replaced the planned stone entablature with a wood one and reduced six planned vaulted rooms in the building’s center to four because the ceiling in the garret was too low for two of them to be built there. The Treasury Office—Lovering’s reduction of Hadfield’s winning design judging from the contract amount and descriptions during construction—appears in the background of a watercolor painted by Nicholas King about 1800. Although indistinct, one can see that the Treasury Office was two stories in height with a hipped and dormered roof and the center section of its south front was recessed so Hadfield’s portico might be built at a later time. The focus of King’s watercolor is Blodgett’s Hotel, the prototype for the Treasury Office and its three companions as they were actually built. On August 6, 1799, the commissioners contracted with Harbaugh to build the War Office for the same price as the Treasury Office, and after they were both burned by the British in 1814, Hoban was in charge of their reconstruction and the building of two slightly larger buildings, the State Office north of the Treasury Office and the Navy Office north of the War Office.14 Upon completion, the War Department moved into the Navy’s office, and vice versa.
The most probable explanation for using Lovering’s revisions of Hadfield’s design as the contract drawings was that Washington had approved and signed the originals, the commissioners’ “warrant,” or authority, for the work. When the English architect’s drawings were temporarily lost to them, the commissioners were free to alter the prototype design for the executive offices to accord with their own tastes and the monies available to them. Lovering’s and Hoban’s alterations changed Hadfield’s sophisticated, up-to-date neoclassical building into a traditional, rather old-fashioned Georgian one more in keeping with the architectural traditions that inspired Hoban’s President’s House. Many legislators were unhappy with the amounts of money spent on elegant features at both the President’s House and Capitol. The reality in the late 1790s of keeping Washington as the federal capital meant inexpensive executive offices in an accepted American style of architecture built for predictable sums rather than the latest English taste. Hoban’s submission in the invited competition for the executive offices is unknown, but the evidence of his known designs for public buildings suggests that the executive offices as built were probably closer to his losing entry than Hadfield’s winning one. Had Hadfield superintended and built his design for the executive offices they would have vied with, even surpassed, the elegance of the President’s House.
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