Robert Klara writes about the history of advertising in our pages—in fact, he authors the Perspective department each week. But Klara also writes about American history in his new book The Hidden White House (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press). This time around, his subject is the postwar restoration of the White House, which was falling into such disrepair that bathtubs and pianos threatened to fall through the floors. It’s a story of government fights over spending, Cold War paranoia and sad screwups wrought by incompetence and rushed work—all part of this country’s distant past, of course. Klara, always eloquent, sat down with me (full disclosure: he usually sits a few feet away) to talk about an almost-forgotten chapter in history.
What surprised you most as you were learning all of this?
The fact that the house came as close as it did to being destroyed. That there was a shocking lack of appreciation for the importance of this house. It’s unthinkable now. The White House was saved—but later, Penn Station was the sacrificial lamb that started the modern preservation movement. So the idea that you couldn’t pry out $5.4 million to preserve the White House is unthinkable today.
There’s a lot in this book about congressional intransigence. That seems timely.
We’ve barely missed sending the global economy into the ditch over congressional unwillingness to spend money on what many people believe is a worthy project; worthy projects are not cheap. To take an ideological stand is one thing, and many members of Congress did just that against the renovation of the White House. But when they were overruled, they went with the program, which is not happening now.
Part of your research was looking for pieces of the old place—did you find them?
I did. And because I work for Adweek, I was determined to get somebody on the record admitting where these things were. Many are still missing, but a lot of them were buried at an Army base in Virginia—Fort Myer—and a lot of them were given to other Army bases. Some of them—and I’m talking carved mahogany panel doors and other beautiful objects—were given to Lorton Prison (near Washington, D.C.), which is closed now. I didn’t call the prison folks, but I did call an Army contact. I said, “You know why I’m calling, don’t you?”— I’d sent him an email. And he said, “Yeah.” And I said, “Well, is it true? Did they throw the White House in a big hole?” And he said, “Yeah.” And I said, “On your base?” And he said, “On our base.” And I said, “What’s on it now?” And he said, “The baseball diamond.” These would have been pieces by the Piccirilli brothers in New York, who were some of the finest carvers in America.
You’re going to create a cottage industry in secondary White House artifact dealing.
The funny thing is, there already is one, on eBay.
Seriously? How do they assure provenance?
They did it themselves! The U.S. government was getting hundreds of letters from people who wanted a piece, and they created what has to be the most unusual government project in history—you would write to them, and they’d send you a catalog of debris. For a few dollars you could get a brick. You could get a piece of lath. You could get a Lucite paperweight with a rusty nail in it.
How much does that sort of thing go for these days?
I don’t even want to tell you how much I’ve dropped on this stuff.