Mr. and Mrs. Hoover: The First Twenty Years
Herbert Hoover (1874-1964) and Lou Henry Hoover (1874-1944) were an unusual couple, and well suited to each other. Both were born in Iowa, and moved west in their early youth. Her family was middle class and educated. His was poor, and even the doctor-uncle who raised him when his parents died, was far from wealthy.
The two of them met at Stanford University, had a mostly courtship by correspondence, and married in 1899. Stanford would forever have a special place in their hearts.
But from the onset of their marriage, they were generally rootless, living wherever Bert’s mining engineering duties took him. They were mostly exotic places… China, Burma, Ceylon, Egypt, and various locations throughout Europe. Having become a self-made millionaire prior to the start of World War I, they had settled with their two young sons in a very tony section of London. There they were acquainted with well-to-do Americans, and a high level of British society, and entertained frequently and in elegant style.
With the onset of WWI, Hoover relinquished engineering responsibilities to become a philanthropist on a grand scale. He never looked back.
But they still had no US residence – other than to claim Palo Alto, California as sort-of home.
When President Woodrow Wilson summoned the Hoovers back to the US, to undertake the Food Administration, Bert and Lou decided to finally build a house of their own.
Lou Henry Hoover: Architect and Designer
Choosing the Stanford University area as the place of choice was the easy part. Building a home was much harder. Herbert Hoover was tasked with enormous responsibilities and had little time (or inclination) for personal comforts, thus it fell to his capable wife to plan and build their dream house – the only one they would ever own.
From the end of WWI to the middle 1920s, Lou train-tracked her way back and forth to California numerous times. The architect she originally engaged was dismissed early on, for blabbing about the project despite the Hoovers’ expressed wish that the project be kept private.
She wound up engaging Arthur B. Clark, a Stanford art professor and avocational architect, who agreed to supervise the construction – provided that Mrs. Hoover design it. Interestingly enough, Herbert Hoover only insisted on two essentials: that it be fireproof, and that the walls be constructed of hollow tiles. Lou was the one who need to include all the Hooveresque necessities.
According to their intimates who saw the completed house, the final structure was classic “Hoover.” This, to them, was a conglomerate of eclectic tastes. Modern architects tend to call it “international.” Actually it was part North African, Pueblo, and Mission-style.
The site Lou chose for the house was built into a slope of San Juan Hill, allowing the front to be two stories, and the rear three stories. This makes the house appear quite a bit smaller from the outside. It is very roomy.
Home Sweet B&B
In the 1920s, both Herbert and Lou Hoover were extremely busy people, with their own activities and responsibilities centering in Washington DC. They had rented a beautiful mansion on Dupont Circle for their personal/social use. Having been accustomed to frequent luncheons and dinner parties in London, they continued those traditions in Washington.
The house in Palo Alto was used infrequently – although when HH was elected President in 1928, his acceptance speech was delivered from that home.
Prohibition and The Hoover “Row”
The 1920s was the era of Prohibition. No booze. That supposedly included wine, beer and brandy along with the hard stuff.
While the Hoovers were essentially moderate “drinkers,” themselves, they were long-standing hosts, and their dinner parties were elegant and generous, including libation. The house in Palo Alto had been built with a large wine cellar. The couple had a large collection of fine wines.
Naturally, since they were both engaged at high level positions of public trust (he as Secretary of Commerce, she as the President of the Girl Scouts), their entertainment was “dry.” They would not flout the law of the land, even though the Harding White House required a good deal of “medicinal” spirits. (As an aside, Coolidge, who occasionally enjoyed a beer or a small glass of whiskey, obeyed the Amendment, although he believed it to be a bad law, since so many “good people” were finding ways around it.)
The Hoovers’ well-stocked wine cellar in Palo Alto lay. Wine ages well.
But Mrs. Hoover was not happy. Prohibition was the law of the land, and her husband was poised to become President. She insisted on obeying the law, and further insisted that they dispose of their wealth of wine, since the public would be outraged. HH was not happy about it, and claimed it was the only time in their 25-plus-years of marriage that they really quarreled.
She won. The wine went. HH subsequently said that “he didn’t have to live with the public, but he had to live with Lou.”
The Hoover House Becomes Stanford Property
After the Hoover Presidency, the Hoovers became bi-coastal. She remained in California most of the time, enjoying her house. He visited periodically, but maintained a suite at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in NYC. She visited periodically.
When she died in 1944, Hoover donated the property to Stanford University, according to both their wishes. It remains there today and is used as the private residence of the President of Stanford, whoever he/she may be.
You can go – but you can’t go in.
Boller, Paul F., Jr. – Presidential Anecdotes, Oxford University Press, 1988
Dole, Bob – Great Presidential Wit – Scribner, 2001
Pryor, Dr. Helen B. – Lou Henry Hoover: Gallant First Lady – Dodd Mead, 1969