- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 15, 2002

Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton wired military commanders from Washington at 3 p.m. on April 15, 1865, that "official notice of the death of the late President, Abraham Lincoln, was given by the heads of departments this morning to Andrew Johnson, Vice-President, upon whom the constitution devolved the office of President. Mr. Johnson took the oath of office, as President of the United States, [and] assumed its duties and functions. At 12 o'clock the President met the heads of departments in cabinet meeting, at the Treasury Building."
Why at Treasury rather than the White House? The answer is that Mary Todd Lincoln was hysterical in her grief and in no state to move. In fact, she wasn't ready to move for some time. The new president waited six weeks in spring 1865, using a temporary White House set up in the suite of Treasury Secretary Hugh McCulloch, who offered his recently decorated reception room for the president's official use.
Remarkably, the temporary White House was still in use as a Treasury office, called the Andrew Johnson Suite, until September 11. It was on public view each Saturday. It is an odd case of history becoming a casualty of the present.
With its companion Salmon P. Chase Suite, named in honor of Lincoln's first secretary of the Treasury, the Johnson Suite is among the few rooms in Washington almost in the exact condition they were in during the Civil War.
Here is where the new president worked to heal the nation after the shock of Lincoln's murder. Far in the future was his impeachment controversy, which evolved from postwar disputes. At Treasury, Johnson had the simpler task of calming the country and soothing its post-assassination nerves.
A Democrat from Tennessee but a loyal Unionist, Johnson had been the only Southern senator to remain in Congress after secession. On Lincoln's re-election ticket in 1864, he and the president were paired to represent a bipartisan image of national unity bridging parties and regions. At Treasury, the hope lasted.
His "suite" was (and still is) a pleasant place for a presidential "honeymoon." Eighteen months before, in 1863, the Treasury had asked an upscale New York City decorating firm, Pottier & Stymus, to design and furnish the office space used by the secretary. (The firm was on the cutting edge: Pottier & Stymus also was called on to decorate the White House Cabinet Room under President Grant.) At Treasury, the firm's work resulted in a set of two rooms the secretary's and the reception room in use from 1864 to 1875, including the Johnson honeymoon period.
Richard Cote, curator of the Treasury, says he is lucky that in re-creating the Johnson Suite, his office had access to all Pottier & Stymus' original invoices, floor plans and other records. Visitors' descriptions and historic engravings from period newspapers also helped establish how the room looked.
For example, an 1865 engraving shows a sofa and armchairs with shields on the back crest, which were restored from the historic Treasury furniture collection. Research on the carpets and original paint scheme (Johnson's room is gold; McCulloch's a rich dark blue) also was undertaken to give the suite an authentic look.
In addition, the room contains a portrait of Johnson, on loan from the Corcoran Gallery of Art, and a small but dynamic equestrian statue of Andrew Jackson. Lithographs on the wall show Johnson meeting his Cabinet and copies of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Treasury secretaries used the blue room from late 1864 to 1875. Now it is used by John Taylor, undersecretary for international affairs. The combination of old and new usages makes the building itself, in the words of Civil War buff and Treasury Assistant Secretary for Management Edward R. Kingman Jr., a "working museum."
The other Treasury suite in its 1860s state today used by the department's general counsel also had significance in Civil War history. The suite belonged to Salmon P. Chase, Lincoln's first Treasury secretary, a former senator (1849-1855) and governor of Ohio (1856-1860). According to Chase's diaries, Lincoln occasionally visited him there, a short walk from the White House.
Chase and Lincoln had their differences. Chase was far more abolitionist in his views and regarded the president as tardy on the issue. Other disputes, over patronage, led to Chase's resignation in June 1864. Lincoln, nevertheless, named him chief justice of the United States that fall. Chase swore in Lincoln for his second term in March 1865 and a few weeks later swore in Johnson. He led the court during Reconstruction and died in 1873.
Chase's role is often overlooked in histories of the war, but he was a financing powerhouse when the nation's fiscal state was a shambles and money ($2 million a day) was needed to underwrite the war. To help, Chase administered the Legal Tender Act of 1862, which created the first greenbacks. When some Boston bankers set hard terms for a loan, Chase reputedly said he would "put out paper until it takes $1,000 to buy a breakfast." (The Treasury's elegant marbled Cash Room quickly became the place where anyone until 1976 could cash in greenbacks for gold or silver; Grant also used it for his inaugural reception).
Chase oversaw creation of a national banking system in February 1863 and of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing and Commissioner of Internal Revenue, which collected the first federal income tax, to cover military expenses. One of his associates at the time was Jay Cooke, the financial wizard whose portrait hangs in the reception room and who aided Chase in creating the first U.S. savings bonds.
A tall man, Chase is one of those literally towering political figures (such as William Jennings Bryan and John Connally) who never got to be president. At Treasury, though, he had the consolation of exquisite digs an opulent but tasteful fantasia in a rich light green, close enough to the color of money to seem symbolic.
One is stunned on entering this room. On sunny days, it is brightly lit, with added luminosity from the reflection of a large overmantel mirror across the room from its main windows. Many other mirrors adorn the walls of offices and some halls in Treasury, but none seems more impressive than this one, topped by a large gold eagle and surrounded by gilt fruits and vegetables, typical 19th-century symbols for bounty in a federal office building.
Looking down from the ceiling from which about 90 years of paint (and as many as 15 layers) had to be carefully removed by conservators are murals representing female allegorical figures of Treasury and Justice surrounded by ornate department seals in each of the four corners. Conservators relied on paint probes into woodwork and architectural elements and meticulous paint analysis to replicate the original color scheme.
All furnishings and draperies, some based on 19th-century engravings, are period-appropriate or original; there also are some side chairs originally owned by Jay Cooke. In the Chase office is an elaborate Gothic-revival bookcase designed by Julia Thompson, one of the few female cabinetmakers of the time. In those offices, one can almost feel the 19th century still breathe.
An unusual novelty is also featured in the Chase Suite: In the corner of the main office is a door to one of the first working second-floor toilets in an office building in Washington.
Both suites have been preserved or restored through the work of the Treasury Historical Association, the Committee for the Preservation of the Treasury Building and department staff, especially the offices of the curator and the supervisory architect.
In McCulloch's office, there is a sad reminder of the days of 1865: a reproduction Treasury Guard Flag, the original of which decorated the presidential box in Ford's Theatre and on which John Wilkes Booth caught his boot spur, leading to his broken leg.
Fragments of the original, Mr. Cote says, are at the Connecticut Historical Society. To give the reproduction authenticity, a tear has been ripped in its side to mark the path of Booth's boot. It looks real enough, and past the flag, outside the window, stands the White House.
Tom O'Brien is a Washington writer.


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