1800 | Washington, DC

Public Housing

Abigail Adams considers her new home.

My Dear Child,

I arrived here on Sunday last, and without meeting with any accident worth noticing, except losing ourselves when we left Baltimore. Woods are all you see from Baltimore until you reach the city, which is only so in name. There are buildings enough, if they were compact and finished, to accommodate Congress and those attached to it; but as they are, and scattered as they are, I see no great comfort for them. 

The house is upon a grand and superb scale, requiring about thirty servants to attend and keep the apartments in proper order and perform the ordinary business of the house and stables; an establishment very well proportioned to the president’s salary. The lighting of the apartments, from the kitchen to parlors and chambers, is a tax indeed; and the fires we are obliged to keep to secure us from daily agues is another very cheering comfort. To assist us in this great castle, and render less attendance necessary, bells are wholly wanting, not one single one being hung through the whole house, and promises are all you can obtain. This is so great an inconvenience that I know not what to do, or how to do. The ladies from Georgetown and in the city have many of them visited me. Yesterday I returned fifteen visits—but such a place as Georgetown appears—why, our Milton is beautiful. But no comparisons—if they will put me up some bells and let me have wood enough to keep fires, I design to be pleased. I could content myself almost anywhere three months; but surrounded with forests, can you believe that wood is not to be had because people cannot be found to cut and cart it! Our servant Briesler entered into a contract with a man to supply him with wood. A small part, a few cords only, has he been able to get. Most of that was expended to dry the walls of the house before he came in, and yesterday the man told him it was impossible for him to procure it to be cut and carted. He has had recourse to coals, but we cannot get grates made and set. We have indeed come into a new country.

It’s your business when your neighbor’s wall is in flames.

—Horace, 19 BC

You must keep all this to yourself and, when asked how I like it, say that I write you the situation is beautiful, which is true. The house is made habitable, but there is not a single apartment finished, and all withinside, except the plastering, has been done since Briesler came. We have not the least fence, yard, or other convenience without, and the great unfinished audience room I make a drying room of, to hang up the clothes in. The principal stairs are not up, and will not be this winter. Six chambers are made comfortable; two are occupied by the president and Mr. Shaw; two lower rooms, one for a common parlor and one for a levee room. Upstairs there is the oval room, which is designed for the drawing room and has the crimson furniture in it. It is a very handsome room now, but when completed, it will be beautiful. If the twelve years, in which this place has been considered as the future seat of government, had been improved, as they would have been if in New England, very many of the present inconveniences would have been removed. It is a beautiful spot, capable of every improvement, and the more I view it, the more I am delighted with it.

Since I sat down to write, I have been called down to a servant from Mount Vernon with a billet from Major Custis and a haunch of venison and a kind, congratulatory letter from Mrs. Lewis, upon my arrival in the city, with Mrs. Washington’s love, inviting me to Mount Vernon, where, health permitting, I will go before I leave this place. 

Affectionately your mother,

Contributor

Abigail Smith Adams

From a letter to Abigail Amelia Adams Smith. On November 2, 1800, John Adams arrived at the new President’s House, which had been under construction since 1792. “The building is in a state to be habitable,” he wrote to his wife, “and now we wish for your company.” She reported her first impressions not only in this letter to her daughter but also to her sister, to whom she was less upbeat. “I had much rather live in the house at Philadelphia,” Adams complained.