’Twas Was The Night Before Christmas…

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On Christmas morning of 1929 Fire Marshal C. G. Achstetter of Washington, D.C., commenced the tedious paperwork that follows a $135,000 fire. Reaching for his office form, “Fire Marshal’s Record of Fire,” he noted that it had been a hard month: 779 fires to date in 1929, and this most recent one was number 162 in December alone.

Address—“1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.,” he recorded. Structure—“detached brick, covered with stucco.” Occupant—“Herbert C. Hoover.” Then, “First alarm Box 157, 8:09 P.M. , 24 December; outstroke, 7:27 A.M. , 25 December.”

Only a few hours before Achstetter started work on his report, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W. —the White House—had been bright with Christmas gaiety.

On their first Christmas Eve in the Executive Mansion, President and Mrs. Hoover were holding a young people’s party. The children of the President’s staff were rollicking through the hallways. Parents—watchful, prideful, a little indulgent but not too much—hovered on the fringes and kept one eye on the kids and one on the President. A few older boys in their first dinner jackets gathered in an aloof knot about young Allen Hoover, down from Harvard, and Walter Newton, just eighteen, resplendent in an Annapolis plebe’s full dress. Even more glorious, a scarlet-coated section of the Marine Band played Christmas songs in the East Room and then in the State Dining Room. In the latter, refreshments were served, games played, and presents distributed.

Outside there was real Christmas weather. Snow was on the ground, and ice frosted the windowpanes. In the West Wing of the White House the Executive Offices were quiet. The simple security force of 1929, a Secret Service man and a policeman, patrolled the offices, and one operator, M. M. Rice, tended the White House switchboard. Rice, the newest and youngest man on the roster, had caught the Christmas Eve shift.

Built in 1903 by Theodore Roosevelt at a cost of $65,000, the Executive Offices formed the extreme west portion of the White House. In 1929 this wing housed (as it does today) the President’s office, an oval greenwalled room on the central south face. Elsewhere on the main floor were the offices of Mr. Hoover’s three secretaries, predecessors of today’s multitudinous White House staff; the half-club, half-office press room; and clerical spaces overflowing into the semibasement, where Rice manned the switchboard. Above the high-ceilinged main floor was an attic crammed with dead files and, it seemed, at least one copy of every government pamphlet issued since the days of T. R.

Who first spotted the fire will never be known. Rice, whose post was directly under the office of Hoover’s secretary Walter H. Newton, Midshipman Newton’s father, saw wisps of smoke shortly after 8 P.M. and immediately phoned the Secret Service and White House Police offices. Then he notified the White House major-domo, Chief Usher Irwin “Ike” Hoover, no relation to the President.

While Rice was juggling plugs and cords on the manual switchboard, an office messenger, Charlie Williamson, smelled the smoke fumes on the main floor. Running for help, he encountered Secret Service agent Russell Wood and policeman Richard Trice. Tracing the thickening smoke, Wood and Trice mounted a stairway to the attic. Wood opened the door and was hit by a wall of heat.

 

“The whole loft is burning up!” Wood shouted. He raced downstairs for a fire extinguisher while Patrolman Trice ran to turn in the alarm. As Trice descended, he pulled the main lighting switch. Nothing happened. Fire was inside the partitions, and the wires were burned away.

In the main wing of the White House, Ike Hoover was overseeing the Christmas party. When Rice’s call came through from the switchboard, the chief usher—casehardened against crisis by thirty-eight years under nine Presidents—tiptoed into the State Dining Room and whispered to Lawrence “Larry” Richey, the President’s personal secretary, and to the President.

 

“The Executive Offices are on fire,” he told Mr. Hoover. “I want to take the secretaries away from the table.”

“I’ll go, too,” replied the President. In stiff-upper-lip manner, he directed the Marine Band to strike up a lively tune and then made for the West Wing. His aides quickly excused themselves, and, joined by Allen Hoover and Midshipman Newton, they followed the President. “Mrs. Hoover,” reported the Washington Star , “remained behind and directed the fun.”