tv The Presidency White House Stonemasons CSPAN October 30, 2017 12:00am-12:31am EDT
story of a drug cartel, the fbi, and the battle for a horse racing dynasty. -- and the author of violated, the texas book festival five saturday and sunday c-span2's book tv. announcer: next on the presidency, an interview with william seale on the white house. susan: white house historian bill seale, your latest is called "a white house of stone -- building america's first ideal in architecture." you have written so many books about the white house. why this project about the stone of the white house? mr. seale: well, susan, one
thing that had not been addressed in a book is what is west of the west best left of the white house -- what is left of the white house? susan: we have to back up and talk about the location. how did the white house and up on the spot in washington dc? mr. seale: it was part of the city plan that george washington approved. a very avant-garde plan and a called for a palace five times the size of this and the sellers were -- cellars were dug. washington located the house to put it on the access. there qwere two axis -- one from the capital down the mall and one running here. and it runs right down the house. when he reduced the size of the
house by a fifth, by four fifths, he wanted to still be in the plan as it was supposed to be one of the two great important buildings in washington. susan: we have to remind our viewers that washington in his early career was a surveyor himself. he really understood the location -- the importance of location. mr. seale: he did. that was one of the bases of him getting along with the engineer. he did not get along with anyone else. susan: i want to make a note that if you and i are talking, the white house grounds are under construction and we're going to hear construction noises. but that is actually one of the stories of this building, that it is perpetually -- mr. seale: perpetually under
construction. various things change for various reasons. sometimes it is the planning of a tree, sometimes it is the removal of various security wires or the digging of a basement. it is always under construction. susan: you say in the book that george washington himself but the first in the ground. why was it so personally important for washington that this beauty site for the white house? mr. seale: because the white
house was the smaller of the two buildings specified in the constitution. a house for the congress and a house for the president. he wanted the city to happen and this was a smaller building that minute -- as in the other one. that was his urgency. susan: how far along was he? mr. seale: very much. he had final approval of everything. it is stone because he wanted it to be stone. susan: let's learn about another character besides washington. mr. seale: james hoban was from ireland and he was well-trained as an architect. he could build as well as plan. he was raised in ireland and immigrated to the united states to philadelphia, then came here and washington met him in charleston on his southern tour of 1792. and he remembered him. so when a competition for design of this house took place he invited him to enter it and he was the winner from the start because he came up with a design that washington could understand. there was nothing weird about it. some other entries had thrown rooms and things like that in the president would not do that. this was an english squire's house. it was not palatial, except it was in america. the washington light and approve the plan, modify the plan, and saw to it it happened. susan: what was the basic design
architecturally in a period style? mr. seale: late-georgian, but pattered on an irish house, which is now the capital of ireland. hoban had been in school all around the building, he knew it well. he submitted that design. it was modified, i don't know by whom, but the plan as built was much more open and simpler. we would call it transparent today. with the rooms and big and secret stairs -- none of that in this house. very out of style in england. in scotland, of course. but it has become a little confused in style. basically it was a georgian country house. susan: i find it ironic that the europeans thought the house was i -- out of style and yet it has become one of the most iconic buildings in the world. mr. seale: but they did.
even the scottish workman, they were not doing that kind of work anymore. but they did it here for george washington. he wanted all the carving. the adams brothers had done away with anything but the flattest kind of stuff. they gave him what he wanted. washington wanted carving. even though he said it was not his style. susan: your book is about the stones of the white house come let's move to that important part of the story. once stone was decided upon you actually found the quarry where the stone came from. tell me about that. mr. seale: it was a sandstone and downriver on the potomac. actually i did not find it. it has been preserved and owned by the government since 1791. susan: but it is not in use anymore. mr. seale: no, but the county has taken it and making it a delightful park without hurting it.
just little paths through it. it is not trashed up or anything. it is available for all to see. it was the closest stone they could get. there was no way to test just how much rock you had in these quarries, except by sounding. they knew what they were doing and it would sound for the stuff. they felt it was enough. he actually signed the deal and bought this area, which was a small quarry, over 100 years old. the government expanded over time with leases. but that one part the f kept and it is still there, and that is where the first rocks became
stones, were pulled up the river on boats to the site. susan: you really tell in both words and illustrations the backbreaking labor involved in quarrying the stone. would you tell me that story? mr. seale: first, they had to clear the site. and they hired slaves from plantations to come in and do it. they built a huge kitchen and quarters for them to live in and everything. they were clearing up the trees and bushes. then they went in and began
splitting the stones. many of the slaves were involved under the direction of the stonemason named williamson. it is funny how simple it all was. they would drill a hole in the rock and put a green stick in it and pour water on the stick and it would expand and split the stone. that is how they did this. then they would get these pieces and make them smaller and smaller. they knew the sizes of rough stone they needed. they would take them and call them to a ramp that went down in the water of the creek, and the boat was waiting for them. it took them down the creek against the current to the potomac river and stayed in the areas against the bank where the stone was -- where the water was not so swift. and they poled the boats of river 40 miles to the site of the white house -- not exactly, there was a stone yard on the riverbank and they had to judge the stones and trim some. then the ones they selected were put up a can now with locks to
the top and put on skids for the oxen to pull to the site. it was all very methodical. the stones were numbered. when they got to the stone yard there were people's -- papers with the sizes they needed. they needed surprisingly few tools. there was the stone yard where the stone had to relieve itself of quarry sap. it would drip and drain. as it dried they would bring it to the table, still under subject to approval. bring it to the tables and it would be shaped exactly as it was needed. and there were drawings. goodness, we would love to have them. but they got beat up. they use them, so they got thrown away. we have never found any. my work is based on bills and invoices as to what they were
doing. stone that was approved got put on the cutting table and was cut into size. if it was going to have carving on it, enough was left on the front of the stone, what would be the face of the house -- enough was left on the stone to carve into. the carving is not stuck on. the carving is carved into the stone. there are a few still on the white house. the blanks then later would be carved and placed in the law. susan: you said you based your research on the bills and invoices. where were all those kept over the years? mr. seale: the national archives. susan: and who was responsible for keeping them? mr. seale: in those days there were no archives until franklin roosevelt. so they were kept in the commissioner's office. there was a commission appointed by washington to manage all of this. the first commission was not very good. they were not paid, they did nothing about building. the second commission was more in form. these papers would all be kept by them and i guess they manage them, threw the drawings away,
if any existed. those papers were still in the commissioner of public building's office in the 1930's. now they are available in the national archives, beautifully cared for. susan: as the stone was all the brought from the quarry of river and what is happening to the site to ready the building for that part of the process? mr. seale: they had to have the foundation dated, and it was so -- foundation they did, and it was so huge that they filled them and then began building foundation walls, which began with rubble and broken bricks and things, and then stone came up. and a stonemason from scotland came in. he wanted to do everything. and he began the construction of the stone.
and the base of the white house was solid stone. what we would call the basement. it is built on a ridge, the house is. it is a two-story house from the north where we are, and then it drops down one-story. the basement is exposed to the drive. that is where the kitchens, the main room, ultimately the thermos room. they were supposed to be in the attic but they were scared because it was so high. such a huge building for the time. and it was reduced to storage to save money. when they present this to george washington he said that is fine, then he enlarged the rest of it 20%. he got half of what he wanted, but he did get what he wanted. at the site they were making bricks like mad, using what was dug out, there were two bricks yards, and they brought an expert from philadelphia.
and the foundation stones were built up, and then the cornerstone was laid, which was a piece of brass like that with everybody's name on it. it was mashed into the mortar and stone was put on top of it. never been found. i suspect it was stolen. enemies of washington, they did not want the house built. people wanted to move the capital to philadelphia -- or keep it in philadelphia. washington was not there, so this cornerstone laying was not -- the one at the capital was very formal. this one got kind of ratty. they drank all night. after that, a guard was put at the place 24 hours a day. so i suspect something went on that we do not know about and did not want anyone to know about here.
i suspect it's at the bottom of the potomac somewhere. so then construction began. williamson was an expert. he was from the highlands in scotland, he had worked for the powerful grant family. there is still a house there that he built and his name is there when he was born in the most church when he was christened and all. he was a man in his 60's when he came here. he got irritated at people, particularly irish. james hoban we talked about earlier was really the superintendent. so they clashed big-time. the basement level was built by colin williamson and it is a beautiful piece of work. wow that was going on they were building the vaulting inside because they wanted to have
stone floors, which they didn't have until years later. susan: the white house lawn today is beautifully landscaped. what was it like when the house is being constructed? mr. seale: it was pretty torn up, but orderly. they built houses for the workman and it would 12 by 12 -- and there were 12 by 12 little cottages in rows. they did not have to pay to have those. whereas andrew jackson across the street, the carpenters lodge where the carpet is worked, and -- where the carpenters work, and half the churches in town were founded there and the masonic order, all the stone people were masons. many others as well. capital lodge number one still exists there. it was like a village. there were gardens, different families, a few wise were accumulated. -- wives were accumulated.
sometimes they came with the workmen. they had markets, where the park is now on pennsylvania avenue. that became a real event on saturdays. they had horse races, lots of gambling. it was a whole village that disappeared when the house was finished. susan: how many years was it altogether? mr. seale: let's say, 1792 to about 1800. they began selling the house is. -- houses. they let james has several houses to put together. williamson made himself expendable with his arguments and babble over the irish. he just could not stand them. scots were more iron -- orderly. the irish were wild. there was a brothel here and lots of booze. hoban controlled them by making them drawing the militia. they had to come to militia meetings or they got fined out of their salaries. so he controlled his men. williamson and not stand in your he was old.
so he clicked and spent his life here in washington. -- he quit and spent his life here in washington. all the commission were scots. scots were all over the area. they sent to scotland to find stonemasons because by reputation, the scots were the greatest stonemasons on earth. they were not as ornamental as the italians, who worked on the capital later, but they were great stonemasons. they were on jobs in russia and france and everywhere.
lo and behold, they were lucky, and edinburgh, they were on hard times. newtown was being built, in the adam brothers decided. and a stone mason could buy the lot and he had to build the facade like adams' plan but could fit anything behind it. they were kind of real estate people, too. england established a moratorium on buildings and skilled workmen were not allowed to leave the country because of the impending trouble with the french during the french revolution. so our scots were prominent businesspeople, they were found through their masonic lodge in edinburgh, the oldest in the world. within the lives -- lodge were working still nations -- still nations -- stonemasons.
seven slipped out from scotland, silaed and then -- sailed and then walked here. people did not think of that then. i guess that's why they lived so long. the scots were very organized men. they were heads of crews of workman back then. they were highly organized and they brought the house to completion. they knew how to interact. a lot of the other workmen were not experienced at all. apprenticeship, for example, was very difficult here because the boys would not stay. they would just leave. the papers are full of ads, georgetown papers, alexandria papers. susan: what was the specific role of the scottish masons? mr. seale: they built the stone walls. they are that thick and backed with about three feet of brick. non-brick meant to be exposed to the weather but brick to be
protected. it is not the strong brick you would have on the outside of a building. if you want to see that brick, a sample, the greenhouse at mount vernon was reconstructed using that brick. specified great big ones. that is what lined the stone walls. when the stone walls were built, as you face the white house on the left were the stone walls, and on the right, brick. there was immediate cooperation between the stoneman and the brickman. many of whom were irish. that worked well. the growing vaulting was beautiful. it lasted until the truman renovations than it was replaced with steel. it is imitated down there now. arching to support the heavy
house. the brick masons built that with the stonemason's cooperation. it was identifiable when washington made his last trip here from philadelphia after he left office. he parked in front of the north portico here, his carriage. he and mrs. washington were in it, his granddaughter, step granddaughter, and george washington lafayette, the son who was sent to save him from the french revolution. they stopped and hoban had the militia that he forced everyone to join, give a 21 gun salute from the walls of the house. it was finished enough not to have windows yet or anything, but washington could see what it looked like. susan: so george washington was never able to enter the completed white house? mr. seale: not to our knowledge. susan: people should know there were three basic classes of workers.
the elite scottish masons who did the stonework and carving, the irish workers, and slaves. what was the role of slaves in the actual building? mr. seale: labor, but more. the scottish stonemasons preferred the hired slaves to apprentices. they picked up fast. it was a desirable job for a slave. the contracts were extensive about how they had to be fed or clothed and cared for. but they learned a skill, so it was no advantage to them in perhaps -- it was an advantage to them and perhaps buying freedom. after it was over, they were no longer really laborers. they had learned the skills. the scots did teach them on the job. i would say about 30% of the working force was black, were slaves. they did not have any trouble with them. but they were in every aspect of the word.
susan: would you talk about the decorative carvings on the buildings and what is special about it? mr. seale: the building is decoratively carved because george washington wanted carving. he even said in a letter to the commissioners, he said i do not think it is so much in fashion anymore. however, he wanted it. so, he got it. the stonemasons gave him what he wanted. two remain. most of the stonemasons went back home. two did remain here. one remained permanently, he probably married, i don't know. but they carried out this incredible carving, so beautiful. the greatest part of it is a 14th of swagger over the front door which is carved with lilies
and flowers and ribbons and acorns and everything you can think of. very lush over the front door. probably the finest example of carving in america for 100 years. it's beautiful. the columns they did, cresting the columns. it is not gaudily done. when you walk down the street you do not really see the carving. it's too far. you see the bulk of the house but the carving is really special. and one thing that worked out this time in research is i always wondered what those cabbage roses were in the top of the columns, because that is not classical work. usually old time he roses they are flat, that is what usually tied on a classical column. these are lush and lots of petals and all that. it seems that in the 1780's, the
scots propagated a rose, double rose. it is called a scottish double rose. it swept europe like crazy. everybody had them. we should have figured that out 20 years ago. but we didn't. that is their trademark, the scottish rose. susan: what happened in the war of 1812? mr. seale: our part of the napoleonic war. in 1814, the british attacked here and burned the public buildings. the capital was not finished but this one was, and it was burned. it was a military thing, it was not vandalism. they considered it a military
act. beset the house on fire in the middle floor and it burned the attic out and then all collapsed into the main floor and it was literally a vessel. just a stone walls remained. some of those were so burned that a fire broke out at 1:00 in the morning, by 1:00 in the morning the rain came in a cracked stones like crazy. the house was rebuilt but largely what is there is what the scots built. and the carving is a same. and it was copied, the rose was kept. the themes the scottish stonemasons started was continued. the house is finished for new year's 1818 in james monroe had a big reception on the state floor, as you call the main floor.
all the workmen had the same reception down below with the tables and sawhorses in plenty of beer, wine and crackers. they seemed to like crackers and awful lot. meats and so forth. susan: the basic design of a georgian house is essentially a rectangle. when were they added in by what president? mr. seale: the porticos were probably thought about during jefferson's time. hoban claimed he designed them. they went and took your offerings of them down all frames in the walls. and they copied them, traced them. hoban really designed them the idea may go back to jefferson. he did some drawings.
it is not very clear, but they were put on. i do not think -- they did not prepare for them, originally. there was a porch put on the north front of the house. but it was just a path. it had to be enlarged for the portico. but the vault is still under there. the south portico was completed first in 1824 and that podium was there, the floor, and the columns were added and the roof. it is not a portico but it is called a portico. it does not have the triangular adamant. hoban did it all. he was the director of the building and the architect. and he died soon after the north
portico was finished. susan: i want to get one more story, and that is of the president who helped preserve these walls. he said the premise of the book is the original stone walls are really all that remains of the white house that george washington built. harry truman came in realized it was in such disrepair that major reconstruction had to happen. what was his role in restoring the stonewall? mr. seale: everything. president truman loved history and he loved symbols in history very much. maybe coming from his masonic background, i don't know. when the architects told them they were going to demolish and rebuild it, he said no. he worried about it. finally he went to yale and they were rebuilding a building there, and the new building inside, and he decided that would happen. he brought an architect here and they gutted the house, and -- not everything, but most of it