The Oval Office Roasting on a 1929 Christmas Fire

By Thomas F. Schwartz

White House fire, Christmas Eve, 1929.
White House fire, Christmas 1929.

A previous blog described Christmas gifts Lou Henry Hoover gave to people in 1930.  Made from century-old pine beams original to the White House and removed in the 1927 renovation by Calvin Coolidge, some of the oral histories conducted with associates of Herbert Hoover conflate these gifts with the 1929 fire in the Oval Office that occurred on Christmas Eve.  All the information on the 1929 fire are based upon contemporary newspaper accounts which reported information in real time.  It should also be noted that the Oval Office of today is in a different location from that of Hoover.  Hoover used the Oval Office created by William Howard Taft.  After fire destroyed it in 1929, it wasn’t until 1933 that Franklin D. Roosevelt rebuilt an expanded version of the West Wing relocating the office to its current location.

The source of the fire initially was reported as an overheated chimney flue but later was determined likely to have originated from defective wiring in the attic.  Smoke was noticed by a White House telephone operator who sounded the alarm.  The fire was thought to be contained when the first engines arrived.  But flames suddenly appeared in areas outside of the fire zone.  In the end, it became a four alarm fire with dozens of engines and ladder companies working to extinguish the inferno.  Although most of President Hoover’s important papers were saved, the Executive offices were destroyed.  A number of miscellaneous documents littered the White House lawn in the aftermath.  Hoover’s friend and Secretary of Interior, Ray Lyman Wilbur, picked up some of the letters from the lawn as souvenirs.  In 1946, Wilbur sent them to the Hoover Library along with a cover letter indicating their origin.

Fire truck from 1929 on display at the Hoover Presidential Library-Museum
Fire truck from 1929 on display at the Hoover Presidential Library-Museum.

Despite the commotion, Mrs. Hoover continued a party for the children of their good friends in the main portion of the White House which was unaffected by the fire.  Among those in attendance were the three sons of George Akerson, Hoover’s press secretary.  The following year, the Akerson boys were invited to the White House again for a Christmas party.  The following is a memorandum written by Mrs. George Akerson about the gifts the Hoover’s gave their three sons:

To Keep!

Enclosed three fire-engines which the boys received from around the tree in the East Room on Christmas Eve, December 1930, when the President & Mrs. Hoover had their grandchildren, Peggy-Ann, & Peter (Herbert III) as co-hosts with them.

Mrs. Hoover, herself, told the children the fire engines were there in memory of the fire the year before!

Enclosed, also, three brass bells carried by boys on march thru White House after Christmas Eve dinner (& ladies carried candles) & all were in search for “Santa Claus.”

As a mother of two sons, Lou Henry Hoover knew to get three different fire-engines so each of the Akerson boys would be able to distinguish their own.  The fire engines were produced by the Kenton Toy Manufacturing Company of Kenton, Ohio, a popular creator of cast iron toys.

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