In Christmas Eve 1929 the White House experienced its most powerful fire since the British torched the Executive Mansion 115 years earlier.
At about 8:00 p.m., White House messenger Charlie Williamson smelled smoke coming from the West Wing executive offices and called White House police officer Richard Trice and Secret Service agent Russell Wood. Trice and Wood ran up a winding stairway above the executive offices where the smell of smoke and heat was intense – and found that an estimated 200,000 government pamphlets on almost every imaginable topic, stored in an attic at the top of the stairway since the days of President Theodore Roosevelt, was going up like brushwood.
“The whole loft is burning up!” Wood cried. He and Trice grabbed fire extinguishers and went to work, but to no avail. They decided to change tactics. One turned on the alarm to the office of Chief Usher Ike Hoover (no relation to the president) while the other called the Washington, D.C., fire department.
A Christmas party for children of the president’s aides and friends was going full swing, a detail from the U.S. Marine Band playing Christmas carols in the corridor, when Ike Hoover appeared and whispered urgently in President Hoover’s ear: “The executive office is on fire. I want you to get your secretaries away from the table.”
“I’ll go too,” said Hoover as he rose from the table and asked the men to follow him into the hallway; the president’s son Allan Hoover joined them. First Lady Lou Hoover was told about the fire and calmly remained to supervise the party. The children were never aware of any trouble. The next year some of them received a toy fire engine from the president.
When President Hoover’s group reached the executive office they crawled through a window to the left of the president’s desk and began removing steel cabinets packed with files. Allan Hoover and the president’s personal secretaries Lawrence Richey and George Akerson took the president’s desk drawers and hurried them away. Secret Service agents carried out Hoover’s chair and the presidential flag.
The fire was a four-alarmer that brought 19 engine companies and four truck companies—130 firefighters—to the White House. They began attacking the blaze by breaking a domed skylight and hacking holes in the roof to let smoke out and water from their fire hoses in.
Akerson was worried about water damage to the president’s desk. Ike Hoover thought quickly of the heavy tarpaulin that covered the sidewalk and east entrance of the White House when people lined up for the New Year’s Day reception—he used it to safely cover the desk.
In his small switchboard room in the basement, M.M. Rice of the White House telephone and telegraph unit refused to leave his post and stayed on throughout the fire, working the switchboard, oblivious to the clamor of yelling and shouted orders, even though his eyes were stung by smoke and a foot of water filled the room. When his boss Edward W. Smithers arrived, he ordered Rice to leave immediately.
Responding firefighters braved danger battling the flames. Private Walter G. Clark of No. 1 rescue squad was on the hose line when his face and part of his clothing were scorched by a back draft of flames and smoke. Several firefighters, along with police and fire surgeon Dr. John A. Reed, carried Clark outside where he was taken to a hospital. Likewise, Private William T. Capps of No. 9 Engine Company was on the roof when the smoke became extremely intense. Climbing down, he collapsed on the ground and was taken to the hospital where he recovered overnight.
Pumpers worked furiously from hydrants up to five blocks away from the White House to supply the water necessary to combat the flames. Work became compounded by freezing temperatures as sheets of ice formed around the fire-fighting efforts. President Hoover, clad in a heavy blue overcoat and a black hat, stood watching on top of the West Terrace, puffing a cigar, rubbing his hands for warmth and occasionally dodging water spouts from the swinging hoses of the firefighters. After the child guests had left about 10:00, Mrs. Hoover and her sister Jean joined him.
By about 10:30 the fire had been put out. The executive offices were heavily damaged and the White House press room was ruined. Reporters lost personal effects and files—along with a new poinsettia plant, a holiday gift from the Hoovers. The next morning President Hoover, his physician and several cabinet members sloshed through still-standing water and looked at the damage. Lt. Col. Ulysses S. Grant III of the Public Buildings and Parks Department and Chief George Watson of the Fire Department told Hoover that either a blocked or faulty chimney vent or defective electric wiring had overheated and caused the pamphlets in the attic to ignite. Although the smoke-smudged walls were in good shape, the roof, attic and floors were severely damaged.
The White House was not insured; its officials had to ask Congress for a special appropriation to repair the damage. The Charles H. Tompkins Co. of Washington was awarded the contract on January 4, 1930. After repair work was completed, Hoover and his aides moved back into the West Wing on April 14. The next day he held a press conference and told the reporters: “This is a small assembly this morning, and I have small news—in fact, none at all. I will just welcome you back to the new White House. . . . You will be more comfortable and so will I.”