On December 24, 1929, all was not calm at the White House—though it certainly was bright.
President and First Lady Herbert and Lou Hoover were hosting a Christmas party for children of White House staffers when White House Chief Usher Ike Hoover (no relation) delivered a quiet message to the president: The West Wing was ablaze.
Hoover immediately grabbed his son and members of his Cabinet and led them to the executive office, where they crawled through a window and began hauling out steel cabinets full of important files. Hoover’s secretaries grabbed his desk drawers while Secret Service agents saved the desk chair and the presidential flag.
With the critical documents and important politicians out of the way, firefighters broke the skylight and chopped holes in the roof to let smoke out and water in. As they battled the blaze, the children’s party continued and the Marine Band played on. When the kids left around 10 p.m., the First Lady and her sister joined the president on the West Terrace of the White House to keep an eye on the progress. The flames were finally doused around 10:30 p.m.
According to Lt. Col. Ulysses S. Grant III—the former president’s grandson—the inferno started when 200,000 government pamphlets that were being stored in an attic fell victim to faulty wiring or a blocked chimney. (Obviously, fire investigation forensics have since improved.)
Though 19 engine companies, four truck companies, and 130 firefighters acted quickly and heroically, the West Wing still suffered extensive water, smoke, and fire damage. It was unavailable for more than four months, not opening again for business until April 14, 1930. And though the children at the party that night were blissfully unaware that anything had happened, Hoover made it up to them the next Christmas anyway—with toy fire trucks.
By the way, if you find this pyro-presidential history particularly charming, you’re in luck: The 2016 Christmas ornament being sold by the White House Historical Association commemorates the occasion.