The Lincoln White House

This diagram of the Lincoln second floor appears in Seale’s two-volume WH book. It shows the old west stair as a dual initial rise and a central rise to the second floor. But we know from photographs of the grand stair that by the 1890s it was a single initial rise at the right, a left turn, then a single rise to the second floor.

However, I don’t recall ever reading about that stair being renovated from dual to single. The question is, are we sure the dual rise stair was ever built? And when was it renovated to the single stair we see in the photos?


9 thoughts on “The Lincoln White House

  1. The original stair, as rebuilt by Hoban after the 1814 fire, was replaced during the Grant administration, and that’s what shows up in the late 19th century photographs. Seale talks about the replacement in both “The President’s House” and “The White House: The History of an American Idea.” However, over on the White House Fanatics website we discovered that Seale had the orientation of the original stair reversed. It was a “dual initial rise and a central rise to the second floor,” as you state, but the staircase started at the west side, right next to the door to the west terrace/conservatory. The central rise to the second floor landed in front of the lunette window on the second floor. The Abbe Rowe photos taken of the White House while it was being “deconstructed” during the Truman administration clearly show the scar of the orginal stair on the north wall of the State Dining Room and confirm that this was the original configuration. (The scar of the Grant staircase is also visible.) It also matches Latrobe’s floor plan made during the Jefferson administration. This was an admittedly awkward arrangement. The staircase was probably built this way to increase the sense of privacy on the second floor, which has always been a major complaint of White House occupants.

  2. The original Hoban arrangement makes more sense than what was originally thought to be pre-Grant. Yes, it does make for more privacy to have the foot of the stairs at the west wall. But also, it is more ceremonial because the First Couple and their guests could, if they wanted to, descend to the first floor by the sides and then meet together at the foot of the stairs by the terrace door and come forward in pairs.

  3. Excellent explanation, Brother Chris. You have jogged my memory. I think I will redraw that Lincoln-era diagram and re-orient the stairs.

  4. Hmm… I’m reading the new edition of “The President’s House” right now and that diagram isn’t in my copy (unless it’s in the second volume, which I haven’t gotten to yet — although that wouldn’t make sense, since the second volume covers the 20th century). Maybe the diagram is only in the first edition?

  5. Thanks Derek. If you want to redraw the diagram you may want to check in with Patrick Phillips to see how the original stair was configured. He already had done some drawings. Also, the passageway from the landing to the dressing room doesn’t appear in any contemporaneous floor plans that I’m familiar with.

    Dennis: You make an excellent point. That hadn’t occurred to me but it makes perfect sense.

    Jeff: I’ve got the first edition of “The President’s House” and the diagram Derek posted is there. I haven’t seen the second edition, but Seale may have had it removed if he realized subsequently that it was inaccurate.

  6. Technically, the pre-Grant stair was designed by Latrobe, though Hoban retained the design when he rebuilt the house after 1814.

    Hoban’s original 1790’s staircase design was much more conventional. He had one central span of stairs starting at the east end of the stair hall and rising to a landing on the west side. Two flanking spans then rose from the west landing up to the east end of the stair hall on the second floor.

    That design was never built, since by the time the stairs were constructed Latrobe had taken over the project.

  7. Andrew,

    I’m confused. By “stair hall” do you mean the current location of the grand stairs, on the East Side of the Entrance Hall?

    If I read your description considering where the stairs actually were pre-Grant, it makes no sense to me. Or, do you mean that the “stair hall” was the actual location of the pre-Grant stairs? If that is true, then your description of the Hoban stairs would block the long view from east to west.


  8. Great detective work, folks! The photo on the Facebook page leaves little doubt as to the early 19th century arrangement. The positioning of the original staircase has caused me no end of confusion over the years – mainly because I could never understand why the beautifully executed design of the house overall would fail so miserably with something as simple as access between floors. But then, ah, one says, there’s the rub – it isn’t so simple when you consider imperial vs. republican views of the presidency and the setting in which it is presented. How the President enters a room speaks volumes about the person, the office and the nation.

  9. Hi Dennis. I can’t claim to speak for Andrew, but I can say that the current grand staircase location was the “backstair” or later “office stair.” It didn’t become the grant staircase until the McKim renovation of 1902. The previous “Grand Staircase” or “Main Staircase” was located at the the west end of the Cross Hall in space now occupied by the State Dining Room. Hoban’s design, as shown in his original floor plan, is as Andrew described it and it did indeed block the east/west vista, although the east and west terraces were not envisioned at that time. The staircase wasn’t built until the Jefferson administration, and the version built was designed by Latrobe, not Hoban. When the house was rebuilt after the 1814 fire Hoban was again in charge, but he rebuilt the staircase as it had been built by Latrobe.

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