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A Glimpse of Calvin Coolidge's White House

The Photographs of Ralph Waldo Magee

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In addition to important holdings in historical memora­bilia, art, and furnishings, the White House collection also has an archives of documentary material. Notable are the his­toric photographic images. Original photographs, stereo­graphs, glass and film negatives, and color transparencies, as well as copies of photographs from other reposito­ries, illustrate the history of the White House from the 1840s to the present. Images document­ing exterior and interior views, renovations and additions, exca­vations, architectural elements, grounds and greenhouses, objects from the permanent col­lection, social events, presiden­tial families, and employees have proved invaluable resources for scholars of White House history. In an effort to add to the knowledge of the White House, the Office of the Curator continues to seek his­toric photographs for the collection.

In 1992, Harriet Magee Fello donated to the White House a remarkable collection of papers and photographs that belonged to her father, Ralph Waldo Magee (1880-1950). Magee, a federal employee for 49 years, worked at the White House in the office of the social secretary from January 1920 until his retirement in June 1948. Although an amateur photographer, he had an eye for the art and a unique opportunity during his employment to pho­tograph the White House—the public areas as well as the family quarters.

Harriet Fello’s gift of 237 silver gelatin photographs, 45 glass negative plates, and 33 film negatives date as early as the 1900 inauguration of Presi­dent William McKinley and as late as Magee’s 1948 retire­ment.1 Thirty-one photographic prints appear on scrapbook pages and feature views of Washington, D.C., during Presi­dent William H. Taft’s inaugu­ration, the Wright brothers’ plane, and other personal pho­tographs from the early 1900s. Many of the White House pho­tographs in this collection, how­ever, were taken by Magee to accompany a manuscript he wrote in 1928 but never published.

A portrait of President Calvin Coolidge.

White House Historical Association (White House Collection)

Several handwritten and typewritten drafts of Magee’s 1928 proposed book are includ­ed with his papers.2 Compiled during the last year of the Coolidge presidency, the text begins with a poem about the White House and a brief histor­ical overview. A section entitled “A Trip Through the House” describes rooms found in the public areas (the ground floor and the state floor), the family quarters (the second floor and the third floor), and in the Executive Office Building (today’s West Wing). Magee’s text also provides information about White House staff posi­tions, the 1927-28 social season of receptions and state dinners, musicals, garden parties, recep­tions for schoolgirls, the Easter Egg Roll, Marine Band con­certs, and the procedures fol­lowed for those events. The research notes, bibliographies, and newspaper clippings he used are intact.

Ralph Waldo Magee was born in Howard, Pennsylvania, in 1880. His father, a Civil War veteran and teacher, eventually moved the family to Washington, D.C. In May 1899, at the age of 19, Magee began his government career as a mes­senger for the Department of the Navy at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C. He trans­ferred to the Department of Agriculture in 1903, where he worked as a copyist and later as a clerk. In February 1914 he was detailed to the Executive Office of the President and reported directly to the secretary to President Woodrow Wilson, Joseph P. Tumulty. Transferred to the White House again in 1915, by 1920 he was permanently assigned to the office of the social secretary, where he would become admin­istrative officer of social correspondence.

Steinway & Sons presented their 100,000th Piano to the White House in 1903. The special Concert Grand Piano is seen here placed on a stage at the north end of the East Room for a musicale.

White House

The social secretary’s office was responsible for answering routine letters and requests addressed jointly to the presi­dent and first lady or to the first lady herself. As Magee described it, “Answers to most of these letters must of necessi­ty be disappointing, and the Social Secretary’s desk is some­ times referred to as ‘The Desk of Many Regrets.’” Among Magee’s papers are examples of form letters from seven differ­ent administrations beginning with Grover Cleveland.

In addition to their docu­mentary value, Magee’s pho­tographs also display technical skill and his love for the White House. He was a self-taught photographer who developed his own film and printed his own work. According to his daughter, one of his favorite cameras was a small “Brownie.” He belonged to a Washington camera club and was presented with at least one award for his work by the Wyoming Valley Camera Club in Pennsylvania, May 23, 1908. Copies of letters from First Ladies Grace Coolidge and Eleanor Roosevelt and from Florence Harding’s private secretary, Laura Harlan, are included with the papers and describe their support and admiration for his photography.

A few of Magee’s photo­graphs were published during his lifetime. An image of the Lincoln bed, for example, was selected to accompany an arti­cle written by Mrs. Coolidge describing a coverlet that she had crocheted for the bed.3 At Mrs. Coolidge’s suggestion, Magee’s photograph of the North Portico door decorated with a Christmas wreath was the basis for an illustration that appeared with an article she wrote about the meaning of the holiday.4 President and Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt also selected his photograph of the East Garden for their 1933 Christmas card.

A portrait of First Lady Grace Coolidge.

White House Historical Association (White House Collection)

The Coolidge-era pho­tographs reveal a White House in many ways still reflective of the Theodore Roosevelt renova­tion of 1902, but one that would again undergo changes. In 1927, a major renovation of the roof and attic area resulted in a third floor for additional guest bedrooms, service rooms, and a new solarium. President Coolidge’s administration also marked the beginning of a his­torical consciousness about fur­nishings and an effort to have the public rooms suggest the early-19th-century appearance of the White House, when it was new. A joint resolution passed by Congress at Mrs. Coolidge’s request authorized the acceptance of gifts that she hoped people would be induced to make. Beginning in 1927, Mrs. Coolidge worked with an advisory committee of experts to refurbish the Green Room in a historical way. Although the gifts were not as numerous as Mrs. Coolidge had hoped for, it was a beginning, and her vision of fine period antiques for the White House would become a reality in later administrations. To this day, the federal style tends to dominate.5

It is rare to find photographs of the family quarters and staff areas from this early period. Prior to the 1930s, permission to photograph these rooms had been granted on only a few occasions. Images by Frances Benjamin Johnston from the 1890s and those taken at the time of the 1902 renovation are notable exceptions. Only with Mrs. Coolidge’s written consent was Magee able to take these photographs.