Downstairs at The White House: Vestibule and Corridor

Vestibule and Corridor

From the North Portico of the White House, all visitors entered a vestibule and then a hallway which served many purposes — as an occasional playroom for Lincoln’s children, as a coat room for visitors, as a music room for social events. Tad once kicked a ball into a mirror in the vestibule, breaking it. The youngest Lincoln son also found other uses for the area — consistent with Tad’s interest in helping the Union cause and people in distress.

Journalist Noah Brooks wrote that Tad “organized for himself, after the custom of the day, a Sanitary Fair. Beginning with a little table, which he set in the grand corridor of the White House and stocked with small purchases of fruit and odds and ends begged from the pantry of the house, he extended his operations in a second venture. He secured from a carpenter a pair of trestles and a wide board, on which he spread the entire stock of an old woman who sold apples, gingerbread, and candy, near the Treasury building, bought out with lad’s carefully saved pocket-money. This ‘fair’ was set up just within the portico of the White House, where the place-seekers, whose patronage the shrewd boy catered for, would be sure to pass on their way to the fountain of power. Tad’s enterprise was highly successful, but the proceeds of his sales were speedily dispersed by his open-handed generosity. Before night, capital and profits had been spent, and the little speculator went penniless to bed.”1

At the beginning of Mr. Lincoln’s first term in the White House in March 1861, “this was one of the most anxious places on the face of the earth, but it was not at all on account of the Rebellion,” wrote presidential aide William O. Stoddard. “Men gathered in groups up and down the walks, outside, and filled the portico, and there was anxiety out there, but in here there was more of it, for the crowd was denser.” Stoddard noted that at the western end of hall, at the heel of the stairway, is the place for the Marine Band to sit and make music on reception evenings, but no bad could have found any footing there during that first rush of office-seekers.”2

In early August 1861, Prince Napoleon visited Washington as part of a long tour of the United States. Assistant Secretary of State Frederick W. Seward later wrote: “At the President’s dinner, the marine band was stationed in the vestibule. The bandmaster was desirous of giving airs appropriate French, but being a German was not versed in Parisian politics. So, instead of the imperial air Partant pour la Syrie, he struck up, in one of the solemn pauses incident to every state dinner, the Marsellaise. As that revolutionary lyric was tabooed in Paris during the Empire, a smile appeared on the faces of the guests, as they looked toward the Prince. He took it very good humouredly, saying: ”Mais, oui, je suis Republicain – en Amerique.”3

The Marine Band played in the hallway during a February 5, 1862 ball which was both a social highlight of the Lincolns’ White House and a personal low point as their son lay upstairs with a terminal fever. The multiple functions of the central hall were described by William Seale in his history of the White House: “After [Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln] had walked several times around the ring, the President and First Lady stopped beneath the center chandelier and spoke to a few guests. The crush of people, though decorous in most respects, was frightening; it was then that the room became stifling — the air seemed to disappear. On signal from [Benjamin French], the Marine Band, stationed in the transverse hall outside the East Room and blocking the door to the office stair, struck up ‘Yankee Doodle.’ A path was cleared by the doormen. The President and party departed at once, walking briskly down the long transverse hall and vanishing up the grand stair at the other end. The dignified atmosphere of the reception then vanished. The visitors pushed and shoved beyond the glass screen in the hall, holding up their hat checks as the doormen searched to match their numbers to those on stacked wooden boxes.”4

When a presidential reception was planned, “the racks are set up in the vestibule. They are tall ranges of square holes, of about the right size for shanghai hens’ nests, and each box has its number and ticket. They are for the proper care of hats and wraps, but many men and women will go right along, not leaving anything in the racks. They will see all there is to be seen, and they will walk around and come out with all their wraps upon them. They are visitors who do not come to spend the evening, whether or not they become fascinated and stick to the end after they get here,” wrote William Stoddard. “There is not anything in the vestibule that they do not see, to begin with, before going further. Not many of them fail to ask each other, or one of the servants, or some benevolent-looking bystander, the name and rank of any men who are here in uniform, or wearing uncommon personal dignity.”5

On January 27, 1864, journalist Noah Brooks reported how the twice-weekly receptions were arranged: “For some reason not specially apparent, the semi-weekly levees at the White House are unusually popular this Winter, and the crowds which go there are better dressed than heretofore when people went into the Presidential mansion in a garb which no decent man would allow in his family sitting room. The levees are held on Tuesday evenings and Saturday afternoons, the former being ‘dress’ receptions, and the Saturday afternoon levees being less formal in character. The President has been present at all of these receptions, and he intends to meet the people always when his duties will permit. Of course, there is a great variety of costume at the evening affair, but most of the visitors go in party dress – the women being rigged out in full fig, with laces, feathers, silks and satins rare, leaving their bonnets in an anteroom; and the gentlemen appear in light kids and cravats, got up in great agony by their hairdressers. Mixed in with these are the less airy people, who wear sober colors and dress in more quiet style. At the morning receptions ladies wear their walking dress, and the show is not half so fine as by gaslight, when the glittering crowd pours through the drawing rooms into the great East Room, where they circulate in a revolving march to the music of the Marine Band, stationed in an adjoining room. The gentlemen deposit their hats and outside peeling in racks, provided with checks, and then join the procession which presses into the crimson drawing room, where it is met by the train of ladies which files in from a retiring room. Uncle Abraham stands by the door which opens into the Blue Room, flanked by Marshal Lamon and his private secretary, who introduce the new arrivals, each giving his name and that of the lady who accompanies him. The President shakes hands, says ‘How-do,’ and the visitor is passed on to where Mrs. Lincoln stands, flanked by another private secretary and [Benjamin French], the Commissioners of Public Buildings, who introduce the party; then all press on to the next room, where they admire each other’s good clothes, criticise Mrs. Lincoln’s new gown, gossip a little, flirt a little, yawn, go home, and say ‘What a bore!’ Such is our Republican Court, and the most bored man in it is Old Abe, who hates white kid gloves and a crowd.”6

A Union soldier, Thomas Hopkins, later recalled a typical reception with an unusual result: “Having become unfit for service at the front, I was detailed for duty in the War Department. From that time on I saw Mr. Lincoln almost daily. Many times I saw him driving to or from his summer home, and usually he was followed by a body-guard of cavalry, with long lances at the ends of which fluttered tiny red flags. Frequently, after dinner, Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln drove for pleasure through the streets and parks. Sometimes, the President walked, but not often. I heard him address regiments returning from the front, attended receptions at the White House and took the great man’s hand. Later in the evening, Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln would come into the spacious East Room for a few moments. It was a brilliant spectacle for a country boy to witness. The great men of the nation — those high in official life, diplomats from foreign countries in court dress and bedecked with brilliant decorations, generals of the army in full uniform — and ladies young and old, wearing such beautiful costumes and adorned with such glittering diamonds as I had never dreamed of, were there, and excited my wonder. The crush was so great that the system of checking wraps, etc., frequently got out of hand; and on one of these occasions, I lost my hat and was forced much to my chagrin, to escort a very sweet girl home with no covering for my head. The girl forgave me, and later, to emphasize the fact, married me; but she still teases me about it.”7

Hopkins’ problem was not unusual. Because so many people sometimes attended White House receptions, it was difficult to keep track of their checked coats and hats. After the Lincolns’ very first reception, a reporter wrote: “The last scene of the Levee was a tragic one. The mob of coats, hats and caps left in the hall had somehow got inextricably mixed up and misappropriated, and perhaps not one in ten of that large assemblage emerged with the same outer garments they wore on entering. Some thieves seem to have taken advantage of the opportunity to make a grand sweep, and a very good business they must have done. Some of the victims, utterly refusing to don the greasy, kinky apologies for hats left on hand, tied up their heads in handkerchiefs and so wended their way sulkily homeward.”8

Reporter Brooks wrote sardonically about the similar chaos inside and outside the White House on the day that the Emancipation Proclamation was issued — January 1, 1863 when the Lincolns held their annual New Years Day reception:

Secretary Welles and Postmaster General Blair did not receive their friends, on account of recent deaths in their families, Secretary Smith had handed in his resignation of the portfolio of the Department of the Interior, and had departed for the interior to assume his new duties as United States Judge for the district of Indiana; so he was also exempt. But the ‘Pres.,’ as he is familiarly termed by the unwashed, had not excuse, and at eleven he commenced his labors by receiving the Foreign Diplomats and their attaches. These dignitaries made a truly gorgeous appearance, arrayed in gold lace, feathers and other trappings, not to mention very good clothes. After they had paid their respects to the President and his wife, and had departed, the naval and military officers in town went in a shining body to wish the Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, ‘A happy New Year,’ which, we must suppose, was gratefully received by ‘Old Abe,’ with a sincere hope that it might be happier than his last two years have been. Precisely at 12 o’clock the great gates of the Executive Mansion were thrown open, and the crowd rushed in; our delegation from California, being vehicularly equipped, were obliged to fall into a line of coaches, and march up the drive at a truly funeral pace. The press was tremendous, and the jam most excessive; all persons, high or low, civil, uncivil, or otherwise, were obliged to fall into an immense line of surging, crowding sovereigns, who were all forcing their way along the stately portico of the White House to the main entrance. There was a detachment of police and a small detail of a Pennsylvania regiment on hand to preserve order; but, bless your soul! There was but precious little order in that crowd. Here was a Member of Congress [William Kellogg of Illinois] with a his coat-tail half torn off, there a young lady in tears at the wreck of a ‘love of a bonnet’ with which she must enter the presence, as there is no retreat when one has once committed oneself to the resistless torrent of that might sea which surged against the doors of the White House and around the noble columns thereof. Anon, a shoulder-strapped Brigadier, too late for the military entre, would enter the crowd with a manifest intention of going in directly; but he found his match in the sovereign crowd, which revenged its civil subordination by very uncivil hustling of the unfortunate officer. ‘If I could get my hand up, I would make you remember me,’ was the angry remark of a burly Michigander to a small Bostonian who had punched him in the victual basket. Bostonian knew that such a thing was impossible in that jam, and smiled his contempt. But the doors, closed for a few moments, open for a fresh dose of the ‘peops,’ and all, combatants and non-combatants, changed their base about five feet, with the same brilliant results which McClellan announced of his Peninsular fight. The valves of the entrance close until the monster within has digested his new mouthful, and we fetch up this time against a fresh faced soldier, created in ‘this hour of our country’s peril,’ to mount guard at the White House, with a piece of deer skin, meant to typify a buck-tail, on his cap. Says this military Cerberus: ‘My gosh!! Gentlemen, will you stan’ back? You can’t get in no faster by crowdin’. Oh, I say, will you stan’ back?’ To which adjuration the gay and festive crowd responded by flattening him against a pilaster, never letting him loose until his fresh country face was dark with an alarming symptom of suffocation, he the while holding his useless musket helplessly in air by his folded arms.
Inside, at last, we pour along the hall and enter a suite of rooms, straightening bonnets, coats and other gear, with a sigh of relief, for within the crowd are not. A single line, such as we see at the Post Office sometimes, reaches to the President, who is flanked on the left by Marshal [Ward Hill Lamon], who receives the name of each and gives it to the President as each advances to shake hands. Thus Lamon: ‘Mr Snifkins of California.’ To whom the President, his heavy eyes brightening, says ‘I am glad to see you, Mr. Snifkins – you come from a noble State – God bless her.’ Snifkins murmurs his thanks, is as warmly pressed by the hand as though the President had just begun his day’s work on the pump handle, and he is replaced by Mr. Biffkins, of New York, who is reminded by the Father of the Faithful that the Empire State has some noble men in the Army of the Union; and so we go on, leaving behind us the poor besieged and weary President, with his blessed old pump handle working steadily as we disappear into the famous East Room, a magnificent and richly furnished apartment, of which more some other time. A long window in an adjacent passage has been removed and a wooden bridge temporarily thrown across the sunken passage around the basement of the house, and by this egress the fortunate ones depart smiling in commiseration at the struggling unfortunates who are yet among the ‘outs.’ A primly dressed corps of cavalry officers, glorious in lace and jingling spurs, dash up to the portico and are disgusted to find that they must be swallowed up in the omnivorous crowd; but they must, for this is pre-eminently the People’s Levee, and there is no distinction of persons or dress shown here.9

On April 14, 1865 on the night President Lincoln was assassinated, doorman Thomas Pendel notified Robert Lincoln and John Hay of the shooting when they returned to the White House. The two young men immediately left for Ford’s Theater. Pendel later wrote in Thirty Six Years in the White House that Hay and Robert Lincoln “had been gone probably half an hour, when poor little Tad returned from the National Theatre and entered through the East door of the basement of the White House. He came up the stairway and ran to me, while I was in the main vestibule, standing at the window, and before he got to me he burst out crying, ‘Oh, Tom Pen! Tom Pen! They have killed papa dead. They’ve killed papa dead!’ and burst out crying again. I put my arm around him and drew him up to me, and tried to pacify him as best I could. I tried to divert his attention to other things, but every now and then he would burst out crying again, and repeat over and over, ‘Oh, they’ve killed papa dead! They’ve killed papa dead!’10


  1. Noah Brooks, Washington in Lincoln’s Time, p. 249.
  2. Michael Burlingame, editor, Inside the White House in War Times, p. 5.
  3. Frederick W. Seward, Reminiscences of a War-Time Diplomat, pp. 182-183
  4. William Seale, The President’s House: A History, p. xxx
  5. Burlingame, editor, Inside the White House in War Times, p. 48.
  6. Michael Burlingame, editor, Lincoln Observed: Civil War Dispatches of Noah Brooks, pp. 102-03.
  7. Victoria Radford, Meeting Mr. Lincoln, pp. 115-116 from Thomas S. Hopkins, “A Boy’s Recollections of Mr. Lincoln”, St. Nicholas, May 1922.
  8. Stanley Kimmel, Mr. Lincoln’s Washington, p. 33.
  9. Burlingame, editor, Lincoln Observed: Civil War Dispatches of Noah Brooks, pp. 15-17
  10. Thomas Pendel, Thirty Six Years in the White House, p. 44.