Rooms 231 and 232 were specially designed by Stephen Decatur Hatch (1839-1894), one of New York's most prominent late nineteenth-century
architects.1 As the office suite for the Secretary of War, the rooms are within the center pavilion of the building's west wing, which was completed and ready for
occupancy in March of 1888. Drawings illustrating Hatch's design do not survive, and the only photographs found so far are of the Secretary's
reception room. Based on those photographs, the reception room appears to be one of the finest in the entire building. It is presumed that the
Secretary's office was at least as nice, if not finer.
South end of the Secretary of War's Reception Room (Room 231), ca. 1925. Photo courtesy of the National Archives.
When opened for use, the office suite was described by the press as far more opulent than the former Secretary of War's office in the north wing (room
252). Stephen Hatch finished rooms 231 and 232 with elaborate, multicolored friezes and frescoes, gold- and silver-leaf accents, massive chandeliers,
cherry wainscoting and oak-paneled floors.2 The rooms displayed a heavy ornament favored in the late 1880s. The design called
for the use of more wood than any other room in the building, including a parquet floor of finely cut sections of mahogany, maple, and black walnut, and wainscoting, door
and window frames all made of mahogany, and not cherry and oak as mistakenly identified in the newspaper accounts of the day.3 Hatch also designed two
rest rooms that were adjacent to the Secretary of War's office and the adjoining reception room. Historic ceramic tile was recently discovered that survives on the floor and walls in these rest rooms.
Evidence of the painted Palmette pattern on the plaster cove in room 231. EOP Preservation Office photo.
Also prominent in the design were two mahogany fireplace mantels. The reception room had a large mantel supported by enormous
winged griffins, and the office had a simpler design. Both had overmantle mirrors consisting of small beveled panes of glass.
The walls were covered with "Lincrusta Walton," a linseed oil-based wall covering made and finished to imitate tooled Moroccan leather, and the
ceiling was painted in trompe l'oeil frescoes by New York artist C. Otto Ficht using more than fifteen different colors4 that fool the eye into thinking that the shadows on the heavily carved detail is cast from the light of the room's window.
Analysis of the frescoes in 1984 and 1985 found the work to be of "extraordinary quality."5 The painting was executed in
oil-based materials, and incorporated gilded details. The decoration was painted free-hand after the outline of the decoration was transferred to the surface. Some pencil
lines were still visible in areas that were exposed.6 Overall, the ceiling is panted with allegorical figures including the
Roman god Mars in his chariot drawn by two rampant steeds. The ceiling borders and cove details are "martial" in nature with helmeted heads, flags,
and trophies used in elaborate bunting, and cartouches.7
South view in the Secretary of War's Reception Room in 1932. Note the ceiling fresco with the image of Mars in his chariot pulled by two horses.
Photo courtesy of the National Archives.
Unfortunately, the frescoes were painted over sometime around 1932, and have been covered ever since. While much of the painted decoration
remains beneath the paint, the 1980s paint analysis identified methods to uncover the design, recreate the patterns, and restore it to view.
The first Secretary of War to occupy these rooms was William C. Endicott, who was appointed Secretary of War on March 6,
1885 by President Grover
Cleveland. A total of 18 Secretaries of War occupied the office suite, some of which included: Elihu Root, William Howard Taft, and Henry L. Stimson.
The War Department moved out of the building in 1938, and the office has since been occupied by various agencies of the Executive branch of the
1888 view north in the Secretary of War's Reception Room showing the original light fixture, the Lincrusta Walton wall covering, and the image on the
ceiling of Mars in his chariot pulled by two horses. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Some of the many important activities to occur in these rooms include selection of the artist in 1887 to design the statue of General Lafayette
that is located across the street in Lafayette Park, and selection and approval in 1891 of the design by sculptor St. Gaudens for a monument to
General John Logan in Chicago, Illinois. On February 2, 1904, Governor William H. Taft took the oath of office in the reception room from outgoing
Secretary of War, Elihu Root, to become the new Secretary of War. In 1908 while in his office in room 232, Secretary of War Taft received word by
telephone that the Republican convention in Chicago had nominated him for the presidency.