History and beauty fascinate visitors at less-known sites


June 27, 1993|By Candyce H. Stapen | Candyce H. Stapen,Contributing Writer

Even if you've already visited the U.S. Holocaust Museum, and you plan to be among the first to tour the new Postal Museum, Washington may still have some treasures you've never noticed. On your next visit to the nation's capital, take an aficionado's tour of some very interesting places.

The Treasury Building

Located near the White House, the Treasury Building, a Greek Revival structure built in stages between 1833 and 1869, offers insight into the fears and hopes of a newly minted country, one struggling through a Civil War.

Highlights include the elaborate rococo Salmon P. Chase Suite, from which Chase authorized the printing of "greenbacks" to finance the Civil War; the Andrew Johnson Suite, which served as President Johnson's temporary office after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln; and the elaborate Cash Room, opened in 1869 to serve banking needs and inspire trust in the U.S. dollar.

The Andrew Johnson Suite was designed and decorated in the mid-1860s and is restrained, in keeping with the somber atmosphere present during the Civil War. This was the office of Treasury Secretary Hugh McCullough at the time of Lincoln's assassination. McCullough offered these rooms to President Andrew Johnson when Mrs. Lincoln asked for additional time to vacate the White House. The business Johnson conducted here during the first six weeks of his tenure included planning Lincoln's funeral, granting amnesty to the Confederate militia and signing the $100,000 warrant for the arrest of Confederate president Jefferson Davis, a suspect in the Lincoln slaying.

In the outer office is Davis' tea pot in the shape of a locomotive, which was confiscated upon his capture. Also on display is a replica of the Treasury Guard flag torn by John Wilkes Booth's spurs as he leapt over the railing of the presidential box after shooting Lincoln at Ford's Theater.

The Cash Room, lined with seven varieties of marble and lighted by grand chandeliers, is hardly restrained. Primarily a banker's bank, it was also accessible to the public for cashing government checks and redeeming silver and gold certificates. When completed in 1869, it was reputed to be the most expensive room in the world, designed to inspire dignity and confidence.

Which is why the Cash Room was chosen as the site of Ulysses S. Grant's inaugural ball. But dignity was nowhere to be seen the night of the ball. When 6,000 guests arrived instead of the expected 2,000, most people couldn't reach the refreshments, women fainted, and to compound the confusion, cloaks and carriages couldn't be retrieved. Many of the guests slogged home through the mud, without coats and in bad temper. Many caught pneumonia.

Ninety-minute tours of the Treasury Building are free and available every Saturday at 10 a.m., 10:20 a.m. and 10:40 a.m. Reservations -- made at least one week in advance -- are required; (202) 622-0896.

Old Executive Office Building

This building next door to the White House has flair and a #F flamboyant past. The best surviving example of French Second Empire architecture in the country, the Old Executive Office Building (OEOB) commands attention with its 900 exterior columns, more than 550 rooms and two miles of marble corridors. Originally budgeted to cost $500,000, the construction, which began in 1871, wasn't completed until 1888 and ended up costing $10 million.

Controversial and huge, the building contained some of the most costly office space of its era. Herbert Hoover criticized it as an "architectural orgy foisted on Washington." President Harry S. Truman labeled it "the greatest monstrosity in America."

While some still hate it, most people now admire the building as one would a grande dame with an eccentric but delightful style. Placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972, the OEOB has been undergoing a careful and detailed restoration since 1981.

Originally built for the staff of the State, War and Navy Departments, the building now houses various agencies that comprise the Executive Office of the President, including the White House Office, the Office of the Vice President, the Office of Management and Budget and the National Security Council.

Visitors will be surprised at the elaborate and elegant detailing planned by the original architect and designer, Alfred Mullett, and his successors Thomas Casey and Richard von Ezdorf, who put the kind of pizazz most often associated with Austro-Venetian palaces into this democratic work station.

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