The Ground Floor
The white marble walls of the Ground Floor corridor complement the vaulted ceiling arching gracefully overhead. Architect James Hoban installed the groin vaulting around 1793. Its sturdy construction withstood the fire of 1814. The vaulted ceiling seen today is a copy of the original vaulting and was built during the Truman Renovation between 1948 and 1952. One of the house’s finest architectural elements, this ceiling was hidden from public view for more than a century. Until the mid-19th century, the corridor - washed in lime to prevent mildew - was used for storage. It housed a small fire engine for James Monroe and a rowboat for John Quincy Adams. Laundry, cooking and other household chores were done in the basement, and the rooms off the corridor were used for domestic staff quarters. Though dank and poorly lit, the servants of Thomas Jefferson chose ground floor rooms over the sunnier attic because they feared the height and possibility of being trapped in the event of a fire.
Before the War of 1812, James and Dolley Madison had what was called a "Pettibone" furnace installed in the basement. Destroyed in the 1814 fire, it was not rebuilt. Martin Van Buren installed a new furnace there for a central heating system in 1837. Reservoir and plumbing systems were later introduced, establishing the ground floor as a utilitarian area. Pipes and ductwork riddled the passages. An aide of Abraham Lincoln said the basement smelled like something found on the edge of a swamp. In 1873, a building inspector dismissed it as necessarily very damp and unhealthy. But Jesse Grant recalled it as a place to play in bad weather. The big, airy basement, he wrote, was reserved for rain or storm.
In 1902, Theodore Roosevelt insisted that the White House have more space. Architect Charles McKim found a solution by renovating the ground floor and changing its use. He moved the domestic staff’s bedrooms and laundry and flower shop work spaces out into the west collonade. Then McKim relocated the furnace to the north in the space that had been an old kitchen. The first room on the north off the corridor was crowded with tubs, buckets and lumber before McKim made it a gentlemen’s anteroom. In 1935, Franklin D. Roosevelt turned it into his private library. A committee selected materials for the Library in 1961, establishing it as an official repository for all White House residents and staff. Portraits of Great Plains Indians by Charles Bird King hang in the Library. Sharitarish, or "Wicked Chief," of the Pawnee Tribe and Hayne Hudjihini, or "Eagle of Delight," of the Oto Tribe visited the White House in 1822. On the mantle are two silver-plated Argand lamps — gifts of the Marquis de Lafayette to General Henry Knox, George Washington’s secretary of war. Washington ordered some of his own, noting in a 1790 report that they consume their smoke…give more light, and are cheaper than candles.
Charles McKim made the first room on the south of the corridor a ladies’ cloakroom. Also once used for billiards, it became the home to the White House collection of gilded silver in 1958. Bequeathed by Mrs. Margaret Thompson Biddle, the vermeil collection includes works by Paul Storr (1771-1844) and Jean-Baptiste-Claude Odiot (1763-1850). A feature item in the Vermeil Room is a wine cooler made in 1863 by Philip Rundell. Aaron Shikler’s portraits of Nancy Reagan and Jacqueline Kennedy hang here, as well as a 1949 painting of Eleanor Roosevelt by Douglas Chandor. The paneling in the Vermeil Room, as well as in the Library and China Room, was made from old timbers removed from the White House during the Truman renovation of 1948-52.
The second room on the north side of the corridor - the China Room - was once the quarters of a fireman hired by Van Buren to stoke the massive furnace. McKim made it a cloakroom in 1902. In 1917, Edith Wilson first displayed the growing collection of White House China here. Caroline Harrison had established the collection in 1890, and Edith Roosevelt continued it into the new century. Pieces in the China Room are arranged chronologically. Almost every president is represented, either by state, family china or glassware. Notable items are a serving tray from the Hayes’ china, a rococo-revival punch bowl from the Pierce Administration, and a Sevres tureen from a service owned by John and Abigail Adams. The 1924 portrait of Grace Coolidge by Howard Chandler Christy determined the room’s red color scheme.
Domestic staff once gathered in the central room on the south - the oval Diplomatic Reception Room - to do mending and polish silver. They were crowded out in 1837 by the installation of the Van Buren furnace. When Charles McKim made this oval area the Diplomatic Reception Room, he had to remove a boiler so big that part of it went into the corridor. In 1935, Lorenzo Winslow opened up a chimney here so Franklin D. Roosevelt would have a setting for his "fireside chats." Refurbished in 1960 under Dwight Eisenhower in the style of the Federal Period, the room’s most striking feature is its wallpaper acquired by Mrs. Kennedy. "Views of North America" was printed in 1834 by Jean Zuber et Cie, and shows 32 scenes of the American landscape, including Niagara Falls and Boston Harbor. Installed in 1983, the woven rug incorporates emblems of the 50 states. The president and first lady still use this room to receive honored guests.
The next room on the south - the Map Room - served an important role during World War II. This room was the hub from which Commander-in-Chief Franklin Roosevelt followed the course of the war. The last situation map prepared for President Roosevelt, dated April 3, 1945, still hangs over the fireplace. The room also contains Charles Willson Peale's 1804 portrait of Benjamin Latrobe, architect under Thomas Jefferson, and a medicine chest - possibly the Madisons’ - believed to have been taken from the house before the 1814 fire. The portrait of General Andrew Jackson, painted by John Wesley Jarvis in 1817, may have been the victim of a spitball barrage by the lively young sons of Theodore Roosevelt.
Charles McKim turned the Ground Floor Corridor into a gallery in 1902. Edith Roosevelt suggested he hang portraits of recent White House ladies here, and the tradition continue to this day. Among the paintings displayed are Barbara Bush by Herbert E. Abrams and Rosalynn Carter by George Augusta. Busts of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, gifts of the French Republic, hold opposite sides of the corridor by the stairs to the state floor.