When patrolman Richard Trice broke the glass and pulled the alarm on the red Gamewell Peerless Herculite Fire Box, he sent a code etched on narrow paper streaming from a ticker-tape machine at the District’s fire headquarters building.
A single tap, called a “solo.” Then five taps. A pause. Then seven more.
Box 157 — the private fire box alarm for 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. — had sounded. It was Christmas Eve 1929, and the West Wing of the Herbert Hoover White House was on fire.
On Friday, the nonprofit White House Historical Association unveiled a Christmas tree ornament designed to resemble one of the vintage pumpers that was first to the four-alarm blaze, the most destructive since the British sacked and burned the mansion during the War of 1812.
The 2016 ornament depicts the red pumper flying the American flag with a Christmas tree in the back. It is crafted from shiny brass plates adorned with nickel and 24-karat gold.
Gregory M. Dean, chief of the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department, called the fire and the response “a significant moment in White House history.” Stewart McLaurin, president of the historical association, called the fire an “almost forgotten moment in the Hoover presidency.”
The announcement was made in the bay of Engine 1 on L Street NW. The framed eight-foot-long ticker from the fire box call was displayed, along with a log book showing which engine companies are to be dispatched to the White House box alarm. In the end, 18 engines and six trucks responded.
The ornament was designed by Kayla Whelan, a student at Montserrat College of Art in Massachusetts, who won a contest sponsored by the historical association, which raises money to preserve the mansion, fund acquisitions and educate the public about the building. The parameters of the contest were broad: Design an ornament themed after the Herbert Hoover administration.
“I wanted to pick something that not everyone knows about Herbert Hoover,” said Whelan, 22, who is finishing up her senior year. “I had to do quite a bit of research to find some interesting stories.”
Whelan said she drew inspiration from past winners — many had trees, and so she put a White House Christmas tree into the back of her fire engine. Whelan said hers is similar to the type of pumper used in the 1920s, and not an exact replica of the old Engine 1, a 1924 Seagrave 1,000-gallon pumper that was first on the fire scene.
The historical society has commissioned a single ornament each year since 1981, based on a president, anniversary or historic event. Last year’s honored President Calvin Coolidge and the first Christmas tree lighting. McLaurin said this year’s contest was the first open to students. A top qualifier was an ornament showing Hoover fishing. Whelan’s won out because it showcased not only an important event that affected the White House but also the response from the fire department that McLaurin said “saved the building.”
The fire was first reported at 8:09 p.m. while Hoover and the first lady were overseeing a Christmas party in the building’s main wing. A detailed historical account of the blaze is in Firehouse magazine and on its website, firehouse.com.
An office manager smelled smoke. So he, a Secret Service agent and the patrolman traced thick smoke billowing through the West Wing to the attic. “The whole loft is burning up!” the agent, Russell Wood, shouted, according to firehouse.com. He raced for a fire extinguisher as the patrolman ran to the alarm box. By then, the fire had spread to the interior walls. It was caused either by heat from a blocked chimney flue or defective wiring that ignited pamphlets stored in the attic.
The alarm shook the District on a quiet Christmas Eve. The Washington Post reported a frenzy as every active-duty and reserve firefighter and police officer was pressed into duty. More than 300 off-duty firefighters staffed fire houses that emptied to respond to Pennsylvania Avenue.
The Post reported that the fire failed to halt Hoover’s party for the children of White House secretaries and aides. The “First Lady kept her small guests in ignorance of the blaze, and saw her Christmas party through to a joyous and successful conclusion,” The Post wrote. “Then she took them out on the west terrace and stood watching with them while firemen fought the blaze.”
Firehouse.com reported that when an aide told Hoover, “the executive office is on fire,” the president, “in stiff-upper-lip manner . . . directed the Marine Band to strike up a lively tune and then made for the West Wing.”
It took 130 firefighters about two hours to extinguish the fire. Two firefighters were injured — one collapsed on the roof because of smoke inhalation, and another’s face was burned in a backdraft. Hose lines stretched to hydrants five blocks away.
On Christmas Day, Fire Marshal C. G. Achstetter penned the official report — the “Fire Marshal’s Record of Fire.” It read, according to firehouse.com: “Address — 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W. Structure — detached brick, covered with stucco. Occupant — Herbert C. Hoover.”
The next Christmas, Hoover gave children who had been at the party toy firetrucks as presents. Nearly 90 years later, people can put replica trucks, which run $20.95, on their own trees.
Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.