Edison’s bright idea lights up the White House

John Kelly
Columnist January 5, 2013

At the north front porch of the White House (where newscasters broadcast) is a very large chandelier-type light that is strangely hung by chains. Please give us a history of this light. Under which president was it installed? Was it originally lit by candles? What is the significance of the chains it hangs by? Which president first installed an electric light in the White House?

— Chris Smock, Manassas

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

Let us ponder Benjamin Henry Harrison, 23rd president of the United States. In some ways, he was a technological trendsetter. A wax cylinder in the Vincent Voice Library at Michigan State University is believed to be the oldest known recording of any U.S. president. It was made around 1889 on an Edison wax cylinder. And it was Harrison who brought electricity to the White House.

Well, he allowed it, anyway. As we’ll see, he and his wife, Caroline, were a little wary of the newfangled system. In any event, in 1891, the Edison Co. oversaw the installation of “incandescents” in the Executive Mansion. Electric lights were also installed in the State, War and Navy Building next door (today’s Old Executive Office Building), powered by a generator in the basement.


The lantern that hangs over the North Portico of the White House was installed in 1902. (Courtesy of Office of the Curator, White House)

As this was a new way to light buildings, the electric lights were at first meant to be only a supplement to the gas lighting. Current was turned on and off via round switches on the walls.

Among those hired to work on the electrification was Irwin “Ike” Hoover. His was meant to be a temporary assignment, but he made a good impression on the Harrisons and was asked to stay on. He ended up staying at the White House for 42 years, 25 as chief usher.

The first family apparently was a little afraid of electricity and would ask servants to turn the lights on and off. Sometimes the Harrisons would sleep with the lights on rather than touch the switches themselves.

In 1902, the White House underwent a much-needed renovation. Teddy Roosevelt’s wife, Edith, oversaw the work, turning to architect Charles McKim for advice. Many old gas fixtures were replaced. On the North Portico, four gas bracket lanterns that had been installed in 1852 were removed. In their place went the distinctive fixture that’s there today: a striking lantern almost seven feet tall and three feet in diameter, with six curved, frosted-glass panels. At the top are neoclassical laurel swags. The lantern is brass, painted black. The four chains that loop down help keep the light from swaying or twisting on windy days, said William Allman, curator at the White House, who has, as with most items in the president’s house, extensive records on the lamp.

The porch lantern was made by Edward F. Caldwell & Co., a New York-based firm, at a cost of $500. Edward Caldwell was a former portrait painter who teamed with Victor F. von Lossberg, a designer born in Latvia. They recognized that the switch from gas to electricity would change the way lighting fixtures could be designed, allowing more intricate creations that needed to conceal only wires, not gas pipes.

Their company provided numerous other White House fixtures, including electric chandeliers, sconces and torchieres. If you have ever been in the East Room or the State Dining Room, you have seen Caldwell’s work.

The portico lantern was fully conserved in 2002 in time for the 100th anniversary of its installation. Then, in 2008, the original light structure, an armature that held 18 light bulbs, was replaced with an arrangement of more energy-efficient LEDs.

So, it’s been a long time since gas jets illuminated the White House, or any other house around here for that matter.

A visitor from 100 years ago might find our electric lights harsh. Gaslight was thought to provide a softer, warmer illumination, imparting a rosy hue that contrasted with the unforgiving ice blue tones of electric lights.

As late as 1919, a gas-industry journal was urging gas salesmen to focus on selling gas lighting to butcher shops. Gas lights, it was argued, made the meat look redder and fresher, while some types of electric light “tend to make the meat look deader and staler than it really is.”

There are certainly days when Answer Man feels he could use the rejuvenating power of a flickering jet of gas.

Without questions, there can be no answers. Send yours to answerman@washpost.com.

For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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