tv The Presidency White House Stonemasons CSPAN November 4, 2017 2:00pm-2:37pm EDT
hamilton. a very subtle character. he reminded me much more of george washington, george washington had a similar reserved quality to grant. >> sunday night at 8:00 eastern "q&a."an's announcer: next on the presidency, an interview with historian 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 what is left of the white house?
it is sacred, historically, but what is left and why did it get there? that is why this book was written. susan: before we get into the story of the stone, we have to talk about the location. how did the white house end up on the spot in washington, d.c.? 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 cellars were dug. they were making bricks out of the clay. washington relocated the house to put it on the axis. there were two axis -- one from the capital down the mall and one running here. and it runs right through the house. washington put it right on their, so 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 basises of him getting along with the engineer. it was the engineer who 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 planting 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 put the first spade in the ground.
why was it so personally important for washington that this be the 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 -- this was a smaller building than the other one and he knew he could finish it. that was his urgency. he?n: how involved was 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. in the idea of an architect in those days -- 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 the 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 throne 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. washington liked and approved the plan, modified 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. the house in ireland has rooms and big and secret stairs -- none of that in this house. the block of the house is mid georgian, 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 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, so 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 made 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 then one part, they have 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 worked dawn to dusk 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 haul 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 pulled the boats up 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 canal 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 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 used them, so they got thrown away. we have never found any. we can tell from the bills. 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. that was left as a blank. there are a few still on the white house. the blanks then later would be carved and placed in the wall. 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 -- they knew nothing about building. the second commission was more in form. these papers would all be kept by them and i guess they managed
them, threw the drawings away, if any existed. those papers were still in the commissioner of public building's office in the 1930's. books written way back there. now they are available in the national archives, beautifully cared for. susan: as the stone was all being 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, 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 named colin williamson 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 servants' rooms. 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. rowdy. one got kind of 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. while 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 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 carpenters worked, 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 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 houses. some people had connected the houses. james hoban did. they let him have 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 orderly. the irish were wild.
they were young men. there was a brothel here and lots of booze. hoban controlled them by making them join the militia. they had to come to militia meetings or they got fined out of their salaries. so he controlled his men. williamson cannot stand it. he was old. he quit and spent his life here in washington. at that point, the commission -- all of them were scots. there were 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. low and behold, they were lucky,
in edinburgh, they were on hard times. newtown was being built, and the adam brothers designed it. 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 lodge was lodge eight, working stonemasons. seven slipped out from scotland, sailed to norfolk, and then
walked to the site in washington. susan: they walked from norfolk, virginia? >> 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, , georgetownces 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. it is ackley -- it is exactly the size 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 stonemen and the brickmen. many of whom were irish. that worked well. vaulting in the basement 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. they parked in front of the north here, his carriage. he and mrs. washington were in it, his granddaughter, step granddaughter, and george washington lafayette, the son of lafayette 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 an advantage to them and perhaps buying freedom. they were no longer laborers, then learn 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 work. 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. he had a way of saying, i require it. so, he got it. the stonemasons gave him what he wanted. there were two who remained. 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 14
foot 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 you find roses that are flat. 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. empress josephine had them. everybody had them. we should have figured that out 20 years ago. but we didn't. that was their trademark, the scottish rose. susan: the house was completed in 1800 and then the british had something to say not long after. 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. they set 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 thejust 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 was finished for new year's 1818 and 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 saw horses in plenty of beer, wine and crackers. they seemed to like crackers an awful lot. meats and so forth. susan: the basic design of a georgian house is essentially a rectangle. the house is famous for its porticos. when were they added and by what president? mr. seale: the porticos were probably thought about during jefferson's time. hoban claimed he designed them. they went and took drawings 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. latrobe 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 pediment. hoban did it all. he was the director of the building and the architect. and he died soon after the north portico was finished. >> i would to get one more story ofit he said the premise this is really all that remains
of the white house that george washington will read harry truman noticed it was in such disrepair and major reconstruction had to happen. what was his role in preserving the stonewall? >> president truman loved history. he loves symbols in history very much. that may be coming from his masonic background, i don't know. when the architects told him they were going to demolish this and rebuild it he said no. he worried about that. -- yalehe went to jail and they were rebuilding there. rebuilding that new building and site and he decided that is what would happen to he brought the architect here pretty they gutted the house. it was out in the trash
at the landfill. the house was reconstructed with a steel frame within those original walls. were not concerned until earlier bid the house was moved about like it did. there were no would endorse and it did not have that saggy ceiling that franklin roosevelt love. truman rebuilt it. the main thing that happened was the president could stay in the house. he was very emphatic about that. dugact as they were being and theya dump truck came by to widen the doors. he said you cannot do that. they had to take the bulldozer all down to the equipment and
build them back. that is how they built the basement, there was enough space to take them out. he was emphatic about saving the walls. he saved the mystique of the white house, president truman did. >> you mentioned he did not serve. one of the properties you write about is that sandstone is very porous. was sandstone preserved? >> you made the modern time or the older times? stone outside of is a little stronger. you can still put a hose on it. they always whitewashed it. withhad their own recipe
somewhere things and they put this on a broom and it went in the crevices of the stone. it stayed while the rain may be washing off 10 or 20 years. when it froze that way it would not crack. here nobody wants to live in a dirty house. they did the whitewash and it was done several times before fire in 1918. after the fire they reused almost everything, president madison considered it an disrepair agreed there were these big black spots on the stone so they put lead-based paint, the first time it was ever painted was in 1719. it had been whitewashed. there is a area in the entryway on the north side where you can see a magnificent doorway.
original door, that is on the stain of the fire that is still on it. times how are they able to preserve it? begin to be i sure concerned because it was being painted every year. the expenses terrible. he came up with a project and presented it to president jimmy carter who enthusiastically supported it. the project of cleaning the stone down to the original stone to lace and it took 20 years. andas repaired with blogs every kind of thing to make it perfect. then it was repainted in the bill clinton administration. that is how it was preserved in the most professional standards. >> is the stone here to stay?
>> i don't think it would ever leave. >> of the sense of the conversation -- conservation? >> yes it is lovingly cared for. you have the national park service that had been the stewards of it sends franklin roosevelt. it is watched very carefully. wrong isthat goes fixed. it is very carefully maintained. more so than the days of general grant when the fire department would clean it. >> the great thing is that there is always more stories. unfortunately we have two and three -- and they are. expression is always if the stone could talk, you have
managed to make them talk in your book. >> you are watching american history tv, 48 hours of programming on american history. follow us on twitter at c-span history, for more information on our schedule and to keep up with the latest history news. >> next a panel of historians explore the idea of civil war defenses on a variety of angles. they talk about military defenses but also generals who defended the reputation. the inability of soldiers to defend themselves against germs and infection. this hour and 15 minute talk was art of a symposium hosted by the emergence double war blog. pleased to introduce our esteemed panel tonight.