The popular holiday song Up on the Rooftop goes:
Up on the rooftop reindeer pause
Out jumps good old Santa Clause
Down thru the chimney with lots of toys
All for the little ones Christmas joys.
Back in 1929, however, it wasn’t Santa Clause and his reindeer on the roof of the White House. It was President Herbert Hoover, and he wasn’t there to go down the White House chimney. He was escaping from a fire while a party for young people continued within the White House.
Let me set the stage for you a bit:
It was 1930 and the invitations to Lou and Herbert Hoover’s party for young people read as follows: This is not like the Christmas parties you usually go to...for Santa Claus has sent word that he is not going to be able, by himself, to take care of all the little girls and boys he wants to this year, and he has asked other people to help him as much as possible. So if you bring some presents with you, we will send them all to him to distribute.
The party was an enormous success until…as a 1970 American Heritage article states:
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 [and son of the President’s secretary], 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.
It’s not very clear from news articles at the time who sounded the first alarm, but President Hoover’s secretary, Walter H. Newton saw wisps of smoke shortly after 8 p.m. He notified the Secret Service, White House Police, and the White House major-domo, Chief Usher Irwin “Ike” Hoover”…no relation to President Hoover. (I’ve written about Ike Hoover here.)
Ike Hoover, casehardened against crisis by thirty-eight years under nine Presidents, quietly alerted Lawrence “Larry” Richey, the President’s personal secretary and President Hoover.
As the President’s secretaries hurried away from the party to assess the situation President Hoover said, I’ll go, too. 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 followed the President. Mrs. Hoover…remained behind and directed the fun.
The West Wing in those days was a virtual storehouse above the main floor of papers dating back to the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt. Papers were stored, filed, and crammed everywhere. Everyone understood a fire would simply be disasterous.
Immediately upon arriving in the Oval Office President Hoover began to direct the young men including his own son concerning clearing the President’s desk and the removal of important papers. The image seen above and at History Is Elementary is debris being cleared from the Oval Office following the fire.
The American Heritage article advises, the Secret Service insisted that Hoover allowed himself to be removed from the Oval Office and thereupon took a post on the roof of the adjacent conservatory, donned a black hat brought by his valet, and lighted a cigar. Some sources stated President Hoover also enjoyed a good stiff drink while on the roof of the conservatory.
By 9:24 p.m. with the President looking on from the conservatory roughly two thirds of the fire department was concentrated in the Lafayette Square area, some pumpers taking water from hydrants from as far as five blocks away...150 soldiers from Washington Barracks (now Fort McNair) and …100 men of the Metropolitan Police supplemented the Army’s “human wall.” Even so Henry G. Pratt, Major and Superintendent of the Metropolitan Police Department reported that men who attempted to masquerade as high government officials in order to get closer view of the fire were quite troublesome.
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.
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.
There was a slight glitch in the fire department’s operation. Early on every fire house in the vacinity had been given keys to the gates of the White House grounds, however, the Secret Service at some point had changed the locks without informing the fire department. Thus when Engines 16 and 23 reached the east and west rear gates, they, together with Truck 3, whose 85-foot aerial ladder could reach the burning roof, had to wait in the street until puffing White House policemen could get the keys and run to open them.
Mrs. Hoover continued the party as best as she could. In fact, in a later edition of the Star the headline read, PARTY CONTINUES DESPITE FLAMES. Many guests, in fact, did not learn until afterward what had happened. Some sources state that guests were invited back to the White House at a later time where they all received a fire truck ornament as a keepsake.
Finally at 7:27 a.m., Christmas morning, the White House fire was officially declared out….The cause of the fire was found to be an overheated flue in the open fireplace that …had been in Secretary Newton’s office in the northwest corner of the wing. Fifteen firemen had been injured, but the White House was saved.
Also witnessing the fire that night was Lieutenant Colonel U.S. Grant, III, grandson of former president and Civil War hero, Ulysses S. Grant. Grant was attached to the Army Engineers and was in charge of public buildings and public works. He was responsible for making sure President Hoover was moved to another office while the Oval Office was repaired. Grant got the Presidential staff into the venerable State, War, and Navy Building across West Exeutive Avenue from the burning wing. Hoover himself took over the office of the former Chief of Staff, General of the Armies, John J. Pershing.
You can see footage of some of the debris being cleared here.
You can view President Hoover's thank-you letter to the fire department here.
West Wing history can be found here, and is the source of images used here and at History Is Elementary.