One of the many improvements to the White House was undertaken by President Calvin Coolidge. In 1927, Coolidge replaced 100-year-old pine beams with an expanded third floor using a steel frame. Of the most under-appreciated endeavors of First Lady Lou Henry Hoover are her efforts to preserve and document the rich history of the White House. Recovering the discarded pine beams from the trash, Lou Hoover wrote to F. L. Seely with the Biltmore Industries of Asheville, North Carolina on November 17, 1930 inquiring if he could transform the pieces of Virginia yellow pine into Christmas gifts for friends and family. Lou explained,” I would like them made up very simply,–that is with little, if any, carving or decoration, except in the form of some medallion that contains two initials. Things that I had thought possible to be made were book ends, such as those you have at your gift counter; or some boxes to hold stamps or other small articles, perhaps 2” or 3” wide by 4” or 6” long; also some small trays; or paper cutters.” Lou knew about Biltmore Industries because her son, Herbert Jr., had rented a house in Asheville some months earlier as a place to recover from tuberculosis.
Seely responded two days later indicating that he could perform the work once Mrs.Hoover provided further guidance on some of the design questions. The items could be turned around in ten to twelve days, just in time for Christmas. In total, Seely created 42 ash trays, 114 pen trays, 68 pin trays, 27 card trays, 16 stamp boxes, 24 paper knives, 86 broad paper knives , 11 card holders, 39 pairs of book ends, 38 ink wells, 3 book troughs, 1 nut bowl, and 50 pen holders. Mrs. Hoover paid $1,400 for the gifts but Seely indicated that she overpaid and returned $77.76.
With each gift came a printed card on White House stationary entitled: “Recollections Of A Piece of Wood 1930.” The text is as follows:
A pine tree on the hills of Maryland,–through many summers’
heats and winters’ snows,
Felled, carted, quartered, sawn, a metamorphosis within a week.
And then a century buried deep within the White House walls,–
unseen, unsung, but one of myriads holding firm together
the storied structure.
Until, a new age came and replaced steel for wood.
Then months upon the dump-heap, the dump cart actually
arrived for one last ride,–
And then a rescue. Now here I rest upon your desk for a short
space; until,–the wastebasket and the fire.
Then once again I’ll go,–free smoke before free wind,–to touch
again the hills of Maryland.
Later recollections assert that the 1930 Christmas gifts were made from the burnt beams from the Oval Office fire in December 1929. But as Lou’s poem asserts, they were from the Coolidge renovation of the roof in 1927. The gifts related to the 1929 fire are another story.