- Historic Sites
’Twas Was The Night Before Christmas…
When up on the roof there arose such a clatter That Herbert rushed out to see what was the matter
December 1970 | Volume 22, Issue 1
Reaching the site of the fire at 8:18, Chief Watson gave orders for deployment of the incoming second- and third-alarm companies; then, seeing flames already breaking through the roof and skylights, he ordered a fourth alarm. This would bring four more engine companies, call in off-shift men to activate reserve pieces, and fully mobilize Washington’s then and to this day highly efficient Fire Department. With the fifth and final alarm, sounded at the fire’s height at 9:24 P.M. , roughly two thirds of the department was concentrated in the Lafayette Square area, some pumpers taking water from hydrants from as far as five blocks away.
What faced Chief Watson was a government office fire of a stubborn type only too familiar to D.C. firemen: a cramped space overflowing with paper, with virtually no accesses or vents, heavily charged with fire and heat. It has happened many times before and since 1929 in offices of the Commerce, Agriculture, and Treasury departments, as well as in that great pyramid of paperwork, the Pentagon. It was also the sixth fire in the history of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The first, in 1814 (arson committed by British soldiers), was followed in 1866 by a serious fire in the conservatory (President Hoover’s vantage point in 1929), then by two small blazes in Woodrow Wilson’s time, and by one kitchen fire during the days of Calvin Coolidge.
The firemen’s first tactics were to get onto the roof of the West Wing and play streams of water into the White House skylights. They soon discovered, however, that most of the skylights gave onto partitioned air shafts going directly down to the main floor. Not much water could reach the seat of the fire this way, but it did get elsewhere. White House reporters, braving the smoke to salvage files in the press room (not to mention the new Webster’s dictionary and stand they had recently chipped in for), enountered water over their high-topped shoes throughout the main floor. In the basement, working by kerosene lantern, Rice stayed by his switchboard until, with icy water knee deep, his boss ordered him to shut down. Six men from Engine 16 and Truck 3, working to save the President’s office proper, were flattened when the ceiling, weakened by water and fire, crashed down. Miraculously, four were unhurt, but the crystal chandelier took its toll on two. Outside, the streets and walls and firemen were sheeted with ice.
“Great calcium lights set up in Executive Avenue,” reported the Chicago Tribune , “added their glare to the blazing structure to make the White House grounds as light as day.”
The scene revealed by the great calcium lights was, by 9 P.M. , one of considerable interest and variety. Word that the White House was afire had drawn a widely mixed audience.
From his perch on the conservatory roof, Mr. Hoover continued to watch the fire, “puffing nervously,” as the Star noted, “on a cigar.” On his own initiative, Secretary of War Pat Hurley had ordered out 150 soldiers from Washington Barracks (now Fort McNair), who, in one newspaper-account, “formed a human wall” to hold back the crowds. Across the Potomac at Fort Myer a troop of the 3rd Cavalry were standing to horse in case their services might be needed. (Until the 1930’s both the Treasury Building and the adjacent White House had a direct bell system for calling Fort Myer’s cavalry to the rescue in times of emergency.)
One hundred men of the Metropolitan Police supplemented the Army’s “human wall.” Screeching to the scene in their open-topped, brass-railed special paddy wagons, the police reserves had mainly come in on the second and third alarms, but the five-man crew from No. 3—known on the force as “the White House precinct”—responded on the first alarm and did yeoman’s service in salvage. Even with all reserves deployed and the presence of the soldiers, a swarm of Secret Service men, and White House police, the Metropolitan Police’s Major and Superintendent Henry G. Pratt reported that “men who attempted to masquerade as high government officials in order to get a closer view of the fire were quite troublesome.”
Directly interested in a closer view of the fire (since he was ultimately in charge of the White House and its premises) was the grandson of a former occupant, Lieutenant Colonel U. S. Grant III, of the Army Engineers. As officer in charge of B.C. public buildings and public works, Grant left his Christmas Eve table and spent most of the night at the fire, mainly making arrangements to find President Hoover a new office. Finally, by dislodging such high-ranking tenants as the Army’s Judge Advocate General, Inspector General, and Chief of Chaplains, Grant got the Presidential staff into the venerable State, War, and Navy Building across West Executive Avenue from the burning wing. Hoover himself took over the office of the former Chief of Staff, General of the Armies John J. Pershing.