The White House and the Smithsonian Institution have teamed up for an exhibit celebrating Pride in the Ground Floor Corridor of the nation’s presidential residence. The exhibit features items and histories of LGBTQ+ firebrands Harvey Milk, Marsha P. Johnson, and others, and is curated from collections at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. The exhibit also centers the story of Rose Cleveland, the lesbian sister of Grover Cleveland who served as First Lady for a portion of her (unmarried) brother’s first term as President.
Some of the items on display came from the exhibit entitled Illegal to Be You: Gay History Beyond Stonewall currently open at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. The exhibit features items from all eras of the American LGBTQ+ experience. Not just the stories of Stonewall and Milk and Johnson, but also the largely unknown tales of early pioneers in queer history like Rose Cleveland.
Cleveland was the sister of Grover Cleveland, the only President to have won two nonconsecutive terms in office. The 22nd and 24th President (1885-89 and 1893-97 respectively) was unmarried through the first 16 months of his first administration, and asked Rose to act as First Lady. She was an intelligent and well-read individual known for her independence and strong-willed personality, but loyally served the country until her brother remarried in 1886. Rose was also a lesbian who later shared a home with her lover Evangeline Marrs Simpson Whipple long after her years in the White House.
“For almost 30 years, Rose Cleveland maintained a romantic relationship with Evangeline Marrs Simpson Whipple,” according to the exhibit. “The women lived together in Italy from 1910, until Rose’s death from the Spanish flu in 1918. Rose and Evangeline are buried side by side in Italy and their love letters, housed in the Whipple Collection in the Minnesota Historical Society, were published in 2019.”
The Ground Floor Corridor is a familiar image to many nowadays, but this wasn’t always the case. Dating back to the late 18th century, the Corridor was once part of the building’s basement. It is one of the few areas to have survived the famed fire of 1814 that destroyed the White House and much of the nation’s capital before a thunderstorm helped extinguish the flames (and an accompanying fluke tornado chased away the terrorized British invaders). The space has a checkered history, though, once serving as a workspace for President Thomas Jefferson’s slaves. In later years it served as a laundry room, storage space for John Quincy Adams’s rowboat, and the center of the White House’s antiquated heating and plumbing system. President Ulysses S. Grant’s son Jesse later wrote the corridor served as a playroom when the weather turned bad.
The corridor was viewed more as an afterthought until President Theodore Roosevelt repurposed the entire floor, opening the corridor to the ground level while retaining some of the features of the original construction. The White House received another renovation during the administration of President Harry S. Truman. The aging construction work had so deteriorated by the time he took up residence in the White House in 1945, he later wrote to his daughter wondering what might have happened had he and his bathtub crashed through the floor and “dropped informally” and naked on the First Lady and her guests.
“Would have gotten a headline to say the least don’t you think?” Truman speculated.