Historical Vignette 006 - Army Engineers Ran the White House

In early 1877, President Ulysses S. Grant appointed Colonel Thomas L. Casey as his Commissioner of Public Buildings for the District of Columbia, which also made him Administrator of the White House. Thus began the 57-year tradition of an Army Engineer occupying that position. That officer also served as the Army’s military aide to the president. This custom lasted until 1934 when, as part of a larger reorganization, President Franklin D. Roosevelt transferred that position to the National Park Service. Prior to Casey’s appointment, the Army officer selected could come from any branch of the Army. Appropriately, the last Engineer officer to hold that responsibility was Colonel Ulysses S. Grant III, grandson of the president who first appointed an Army engineer.

Colonel Spencer Cosby served as White House administrator and commissioner from March 1909 to October 1913. Like Casey, Cosby was "first" in his West Point class and well versed in the social graces.

Shortly after his appointment, Cosby oversaw design and construction of new executive offices at the White House. One new office for President William H. Taft’s use became known as the Oval Office. Cosby remained commissioner into the early months of President Woodrow Wilson’s administration. He not only helped guide the new president through his first inauguration, but also worked with his family on remodeling their quarters. Cosby went on to become military attachĂ© to the American Embassy in Paris, France, as World War I began in Europe. After additional diplomatic and military service, Cosby retired in 1928 as Division Engineer of the Lakes Division in Cleveland, Ohio.

(For more on Engineer Colonel Thomas Lincoln Casey see Vignette #5.)

Engineer Colonel Spencer Cosby, (center), Commissioner of Public Buildings and Grounds
for the District of Columbia, and President Woodrow Wilson (right) prepare to leave
the White House for the inaugural parade in 1913.

Colonel Cosby (front, left) leads Wilson's inaugural party to the reviewing stands.

Colonel Cosby (left in reviewing stand) joins President Wilson, Vice President Marshall, and
their inaugural party as they review Wilson's inaugural parade.

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