A Lost Fragment of White House Precedence Comes to Light in Philadelphia
When in June 1792 architect James Hoban met with President George Washington at the red brick President's House at Sixth and Market Streets in Philadelphia, fresh in his mind was a design for the White House. A national competition for the new Executive Mansion was in progress. Hoban was the only competitor privileged to meet with the president on the subject, by virtue of influencial friends in Charleston, South Carolina, where he lived. The architect was to win the competition in the next month, and what he saw in the Philadelphia house, and perhaps the conversation it inspired, may have had a major influence on his submission. Two years earlier Washington had added a large, semicircular bow (or bay) with three windows to the south end of the rented mansion's dining room. This bow played a key role in Washington's effort to define the presidency, as Hoban may have witnessed firsthand.
The office of president, in which the head of state and head of government were united, was brand new for its time. Washington sought to project its legitimacy, stability, and permanence in the eyes of foreign powers and American citizens as well. A useful tool for accomplishing this goal, he found, was ceremony.
But how much formality was appropriate for the elected leader of a republic? How accessible should the president be to the people? When a steady stream of well-wishers (and job seekers) knocked on the front door and interfered with his work, who then was served? Washington's response was the weekly levee or public reception. On Tuesday afternoons at three o'clock, male visitors who had applied in advance were welcomed to the house and presented to the president. In New York, the nation's first capital, Washington had stood before a fireplace. But with the transfer of the capital to Philadelphia in 1790, the opportunity arose to create a more dramatic setting. Washington loved both architecture and theater and understood the use of both in the wielding of power. By building the bow he gave himself a stage, backlit by the three windows, for receiving his callers — a formal ceremonial space in which the public would meet the president. By all accounts, it was a most impressive experience for those who attended.
Standing in his bow Washington received the Senate and the House of Representatives in the reciprocal visits that began each session of Congress. It was here that he faced down Citizen Genet, the French minister who tried to rally the American people to oppose the president's neutrality policy. Almost without a doubt the silver medallion Washington place around the neck of the Seneca leader Red Jacket was presented in the bow. On the Fourth of July a thousand people came to call and shake the hand of the president, who stood in the bow.
In 1800 the federal government moved to the new capital, the Federal City of Washington. The Philadelphia President's House became a hotel, was gutted in 1832, and in the early 1950s its few remaining walls were demolished to make way for Independence Mall, the new setting for Independence Hall. Recent controversies surrounding the redesign of Independence Mall inspired the first archaeological investigation of the site of President Washington's residence, to determine whether anything might have escaped the bulldozers half a century ago. On May 7, 2007, archaeologists working one block north of Independence Hall unearthed the partial foundations of Washington's bow window.
Did Hoban, in seeking to please the president and win the competition, take Washington's Philadelphia bow window as the inspiration for the Blue Room? Standing before the three windows of the oval room's south end, Presidents John Adams and Thomas Jefferson received visitors in the identical manner in which Washington had received them in the Philadelphia bow. Ovals became a motif at the White House, climaxing more than a century after Washington and Hoban in the addition of the first Oval Office in 1909.
Today when we see a photograph of the president's desk positioned before the three windows of the Oval Office, we can be reminded of Washington and his callers, his rivals, his silver medals and Indian chiefs, and the whole span of the American presidency symbolized in that crumbling stone remnant of the bow window, now uncovered in Philadelphia.