White House security

I don’t usually address WH security at all, but I was e-mailed a question about the history of the perimeter fence and ended up finding a very interesting Secret Service report on WH security (hosted by the Federation of American Scientists). It was written at the time of some security incidents in the mid-1990s that resulted in the closing of Penn Ave in front of the mansion. It includes interesting tidbits like the history of presidential security and the number of trespassers in the then-recent past.

UPDATE: The question in question was graciously answered by William Bushong of the White House Historical Association. I reprint his excellent reply here with respect.

While not always restricted to the public, walls and fences have surrounded the White House grounds almost as long as the mansion has been occupied.  When John Adams moved into the new house in 1800, construction sheds and debris littered the yard.  Trespassers chopped down many of the older trees for firewood.  Thomas Jefferson prepared plans in 1803 to cultivate the grounds into lawns, groves and gardens.  He cordoned off eight of the 82 available acres within President’s Park erecting a split-rail fence to the north and an eight-foot-high stonewall to the south, thus introducing fences to the White House landscape by 1808.

Though the immediate South grounds became a vegetable and flower garden for the first family, the enclosed North grounds remained open, as did the White House itself —a symbol of Jefferson’s commitment to an open and free democracy. By 1820, President James Monroe had replaced the rail fence with one of black-painted iron, the same style still seen there today. Iron gates on stone posts remained open during daylight hours.  However, the stone barrier on the south remained unchanged. Mischievous youths often painted their names on the wall until its removal in 1873.

President Grant built a new iron south fence at the end of his first administration. With time, the South grounds became accessible for public strolls and band concerts, as its gates were open daily.  The introduction of May garden parties in the late nineteenth century brought ever more guests to the grounds, offering sweets, music, and a cherished visit by the president to those invited. One event, however, left the South gates closed for some time. During his second term, Grover Cleveland’s beloved daughter Ruth was plucked out of her baby carriage on the south lawn by a group of visiting women and passed around to receive their coddling and kisses. So alarmed was Mrs. Cleveland that the South gates were ordered locked, not to be reopened for some years. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941 and the start of World War II, the grounds were closed to all but those with appointments and guarded at their perimeters from newly installed gatehouses. The driveway was emptied and the custom of leaving calling cards at the North door was discontinued.

Today, copies of Monroe’s fence surround the White House and its 18 acres of lawn and gardens.  While ever-present security concerns usually keep the grounds closed to all but invited guests, the public is still welcomed in three times a year for fall and spring garden tours and for one of the White House’s most historic traditions – the White House Easter Egg Roll.

1911 summer White House design

Tonight, Secret America aired on the Discovery Channel, and one portion of it concerned the White House. At one point, a Library of Congress curator shows a detailed drawing of a castle-like design for a summer White House in the Rocky Mountains. This is something I don’t think I’ve ever seen before; and it doesn’t appear to be available on the LOC website.

Does anyone know more about it?

Background checks work; pat downs next?

Two students were taken into custody at the White House today when they arrived for a tour. Routine background checks on tourists uncovered immigration orders against them.

Meanwhile, the daily press briefing was interrupted numerous times by journalists’ cell phones going off. I don’t know about you, but I turn off my phone for regular staff meetings; I can’t imagine taking a call in the middle of a televised WH briefing as Bill Plante did.

Staff meals

I got a question from a chef writing a paper on “meals served to kitchen works in previous administrations from approximately 1800-present.” From the materials I’ve read, there is very little indication of what the staff ate. My guess is that it’s rarely recorded, altho some hint may be obtained from some of the WH cookbooks that have been published. The only anecdote I can think of is that the staff used to pour the remainders of the alcoholic drinks after a party into a basin and add fruit juice to make a nice punch they would share.

16 Things About the White House

There is a questionnaire going around the Facebook White House Fanatics group. I you’re reading this, you should consider going the group; it’s the place for all manner of non-political discussions about the White House.

Anyway, here are my answers:

1. You first became aware of the White House when:
Probably the Bicentennial celebrations in 1976, when I was 9. I was very interested in the presidential election. And I’ve stayed interested ever since.

2. You became extremely fascinated with the White House when:

I always loved the White House as both history and architecture, but I only studied it as much as I studied other pieces of great architecture (the skyscrapers of New York, castles of Europe, etc.). About 2004, I started thinking how great it would be to recreate great and/or ruined architecture at full scale, like a complete and painted Parthenon. But I was more attracted to the White House (and also 10 Downing Street) than I was the Parthenon and found a huge amount of detail available about it (less so about 10 Downing Street). And the more I found, the more I wanted to know.

3. Your favorite room at the White House is:
The hiddenest nooks and crannies.

4. If I could have an extremely accurate copy of any object in the White House it would be:
The Reagan Oval Office rug, altho Lord knows what I’d do with it.

5. If you were to save 3 objects from a fire, they would be:
1) The Gilbert Stuart portrait of Washington.
2) The Monroe Bellangé sofa.
3) Lincoln’s hand-written Gettysburg Address.

6. If you could visit the White House in any 2 periods in history, you would choose:
I’d love to see the fresh young Jefferson White House and the stuffy late-Victorian White House, say 1893, so I could follow Frances Benjamin Johnston around as her photo assistant.

7. The room you would most like to change is:
I would turn the Queens’ Bedroom suite in a Washington Bedroom suite.

8. How many times have you visited the White House?
Just once from the outside. I should have gone when getting a tour was easy!

9. Your favorite story about the White House:
LBJ demanding an absurd, high-pressure, multi-nozzle shower. That guy was America’s crazy uncle.

10. Your least favorite object in the White House:
Probably the new Green Room rug or else the gold dining chairs.

11. Do you favor the North Portico or the South Portico:
South Portico; it gets all the sun. I have a 16×20 photo I shot of it hanging in my study.

12. You’re an invited overnight guest, where do you hope to dine and sleep?
I’d like a dinner in the Blue Room and a sleeping bag in the Solarium. Who am I kidding? I wouldn’t sleep. I would creep around the basement all night with a sketchbook, tape measure, and camera.

13. If you could give a gift to the White House it would be:
A lost set of early Daguerreotypes, documenting all the interiors, hand-tinted by artists working inside the mansion for accuracy.

14. Your favorite state china service is:
Wilson, with Roosevelt a close second.

15. The best you remember the White House looking in photographs or in video:
I like it in night shots, especially with the West Wing burning the midnight oil.

16. First reactions to visiting the White House:
There’s a lot of junk hidden in the trees on the east side. I think I saw Susan Ford’s Mustang up on blocks.