Inside The 1929 Christmas Eve Fire At The White House

It was Christmas Eve 1929, and the holiday party was in full swing in the White House's East Wing. Members of the U.S. Marine Band played carols as President Herbert Hoover (above), his wife, Lou, and their youngest son, 22-year-old Allan, mingled with the families of four of the president's secretaries and his administrative assistant, according to the News-Chronicle. A little after 8 p.m., White House Chief Usher Ike Hoover (no relation to the president) quickly and quietly slipped into the room and whispered in President Hoover's ear: "The executive office is on fire. I want you to get your secretaries away from the table," according to The White House Historical Association.

The president remained calm. "I'll go too," he told the head usher. He got up from the dining table and asked the other men present to go into the hall, per The White House Historical Association. Allan went as well. President Hoover explained the situation, and they all hurried to the other side of the White House.

President Hoover rushed headlong into the fire

President Herbert Hoover arrived at the West Wing, containing the Oval Office and the offices of his secretaries. They entered through a window near the president's desk as smoke billowed out. Hoover began hauling out documents and furniture, according to The Kansas City Star. Hoover's son Allan and secretaries Lawrence Richey and George Akerson pulled out the drawers from Hoover's desk and Secret Service agents also helped remove important items, per The White House Historical Association. The others finally convinced Hoover to leave the building as flames began to lick out from the thick smoke. He stood watching the fire from a nearby terrace, smoking a cigar and nervously wringing his hands, per the News-Chronicle.

Back on the other side of the White House, the first lady, Lou Hoover, who had been told about the fire, continued to calmly oversee the festivities, according to The Evening Star. This was the Hoovers' first Christmas in the White House. The young children attending the party opened their presents and made merry, unaware that the presidential mansion was then suffering through its worst fire in 114 years.

There had been other fires before

More than 20 fire companies were called out in freezing temperatures for the four-alarm fire that burned much of the West Wing. The damage was estimated to be as much as $100,000 ($1.7 million today, according to U.S. Inflation Calculator), requiring a special appropriation from Congress, since the White House had not been insured, per the News-Chronicle and The White House Historical Association. The cause of the fire was due to either faulty wiring or a blocked heating vent. The last time the White House had been so extensively damaged was in August 1814 when British troops set the White House and Capitol building, among other structures, on fire during the War of 1812, per the U.S. Senate.

There had been other fires, six total between when it was built in 1792 and 1929, but the two blazes in 1814 and 1929 were by far the worst, according to The Evening Star. On Christmas Day, 1929, Hoover sloshed through the remains of the West Wing, assessing the damage. The fire seemed to cap off his first terrible year in office. He was already being blamed for the hard economic times that would soon be known as the Great Depression, which was kicked off by the stock market crash two months earlier. Hoover returned to a newly refurbished and fire-proofed office that April. The next Christmas, the children who attended the annual holiday party received toy fire engines, per The White House Historical Association.