Partying with the Presidents: Part Two

Partying with the Presidents: Part Two
February 18, 2021 By: Sue Morris, Clayton Docent

Part Two: McKinley Comes to Pittsburgh

On November 3, 1897, exactly eight months after the Fricks' trip to D.C. for the Inaugural Ball, Mr. and Mrs. Frick partied with President and Mrs. McKinley again, this time in Pittsburgh. The nation’s chief executive and his wife journeyed to the city to celebrate the second anniversary of the founding of the Carnegie cultural complex in Oakland. By the late 1890s, Andrew Carnegie visited Pittsburgh only occasionally and was not present for the event, instead sending a formal letter of welcome to the esteemed visitors. The rest of the city was not so reticent and Pittsburghers from every walk of life turned out to greet the popular First Couple. As the Bulletin, Pittsburgh’s society magazine, noted: "Pittsburg has opportunities to entertain the President of the United States too infrequently not to make the most of them when they do come. When the president is accompanied by his wife…added importance is given the visit…the day was given over to as many social entertainments as could possibly be crowded into it."

Massive crowds began gathering at the Union train station early that morning to await the presidential arrival shortly after 11 AM. McKinley emerged from palace Pullman train car Cleopatra to deafening cheers, then was driven through the admiring throng in a parade circling the downtown business area. The procession ended in the Hill District near Central High School with a 21-gun salute.

Pittsburghers along Fifth Avenue cheer President McKinley.
Pittsburg Press, 3 November 1897. 

The President was taken to a private luncheon at the home of William F. Frew, head of the Carnegie Library Commission, where he dined with a small, select group of Pittsburgh’s leading men that included Henry Clay Frick. The Pittsburg Press reported that a special reception committee awaited the President:
In the drawing room awaiting their arrival was Mrs. Frew, who received with the two little daughters of the house, the Misses Marguerite and Virginia Frew; little Miss Helen Frick, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. H.C. Frick; and little Miss Pauline Dilworth, a niece of the hostess. The children were sweet in frocks of white mulle, looking almost like part and parcel of the flowers with which they were surrounded.

Photo c. 1897 taken near the Clayton conservatory. Helen Frick (bottom row, second from left) is surrounded by her friends, including the Frew girls. All are wearing the kind of dainty party frocks they would have donned to meet President McKinley in November 1897. 
Courtesy of The Frick Collection/Frick Art Reference Library Archives. 

While her husband was being charmed by the angelic daughters of Pittsburgh’s capitalist elite, Mrs. Ida McKinley was enthusiastically greeted at Shadyside train station by nearly 300 women. Pittsburgh’s ladies saluted the First Lady by waving their handkerchiefs as she emerged onto the train platform. She was whisked away to a grand luncheon at the Robert Pitcairn residence on Ellsworth Avenue in Shadyside. The champion horses belonging to Mrs. Elizabeth Pitcairn pulled her carriage. This matched pair of chestnut geldings had been whimsically named McKinley and Hobart for the president and vice-president.

This was the team used for McKinley’s 1897 Pittsburgh visit. Pictured here a month earlier pulling an elegant Victoria phaeton carriage, these  horses had taken first prize in a local horse show.
Pittsburg Bulletin, 16 October 1897.

A long line of carriages followed Mrs. McKinley to the near-by Pitcairn residence, called Cairncarque.

Pitcairn residence, named Cairncarque, at Ellsworth and Amberson Avenues, Shadyside. 
This gracious home hosted President and First Lady McKinley in November 1897. 

Palmers Pictorial Pittsburgh, 1905. 

The mansion was filled with arrangements of Victorian floral favorites. An orchestra played in a recess of the reception hall while Mrs. McKinley, seated in a gold-trimmed chair and holding an English violet bouquet, was introduced to each guest. One of those in attendance was author Willa Cather, who had recently begun writing for the Pittsburgh Leader. Cather also regularly sent pieces back to her home state of Nebraska for a column in the Lincoln-Courier called The Passing Show. She detailed her observations of this luncheon in that column:

Never before was I present at anything so gorgeous. It was one of those rare things that are not overdone and yet leave nothing to be wished for. The floral decorations were from New York and Sherry of New York did the catering. Everything moved on velvet wheels. Outside the house the grounds and streets were packed with people under the charge of a score of policemen but inside there were just guests enough to fill the rooms comfortably. The parlors were simply lined with chrysanthemums of that magnificent pink variety which was named after Mrs. Robert Pitcairn. The dining rooms were in green palms and ferns, no flowers visible except the gorgeous American beauties on the tables. But the staircase was the chef-d'œuvre. It is some twelve feet wide with a big curve toward the top. The white and gold chrysanthemums were so thick upon it as to only leave room for people to descend two abreast. I should hate to count the thousands of blossoms on that stairway. Presently two boys in livery descended to make sure the way was clear. Then the orchestra began playing the waltz song from Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette very softly, and Mrs. McKinley came down the staircase on Mrs. Pitcairn’s arm, between the serried ranks of chrysanthemums under the soft light that fell through the stained glass windows.

Mrs. McKinley shown seated in left foreground waiting to greet guests in the receiving line, with elaborately decorated staircase in background.
Pittsburg Post, 4 November 1897.

Adelaide Frick was one of the many attendees at the Pitcairn reception.

Adelaide Frick’s invitation to Pittsburgh reception for First Lady Ida McKinley.
Courtesy of The Frick Collection/Frick Art Reference Library Archives.

Although the Press devoted several paragraphs to the "beautiful reception outfits" worn by attendees, Mrs. Frick did not make this best-dressed list and we do not know what she wore. But the papers praised the ensemble worn by her close friend Sue Holmes, who’d attended the inauguration with the Fricks. This description of Mrs. Holmes’ toilette gives a sense of the sartorial splendor of the day: "…a French gown of plum-colored cloth and velvet of the same shade; the bodice had a violet front with blouse effect, covered with white duchess lace; her toque-shaped hat was of the plum velvet, with two shades of plumes deepening into purple." Marguerite Westinghouse caught the media eye at this event, too, wearing a dramatic gown of "…black velvet so rich as to make all trimming unnecessary; a broad black hat heavily laden with black plume set off to advantage her clear complexion and blonde hair."

After a "dainty luncheon" was served buffet style in the Cairncarque dining room, the tightly scheduled afternoon continued with a Founders Day gala at Oakland’s Carnegie Music Hall. Speeches and ovations were plentiful, and award ceremonies were held for the museum’s art competition. Social standing for the Fricks was reinforced with Mrs. Frick seated in one of the special boxes and Mr. Frick joining those seated behind the President on the Carnegie stage.

Carnegie Music Hall as it looked at the 1897 Founders Day visit of President William McKinley.
Carnegie Library image. Sketches from
Pittsburgh Commercial Gazette and Pittsburg Post, November 1897.

The presidential visit ended with a glittering dinner party at Cairncarque followed by the season’s first concert at Carnegie Music Hall. Adelaide Frick left no known record of her attire for the dinner, and her toilette was once again not included in the gushing descriptions published by the newspapers. But the Fricks did save their Tiffany and Company invitations and programs.

Invitation received by Fricks for presidential dinner on 3 November 1897.
Courtesy of The Frick Collection/Frick Art Reference Library Archives.

Program for Pittsburgh presidential dinner on 3 November 1897.
Detre Library and Archives at the Heinz History Center.

It is interesting to speculate about the conversational flow around this privileged table. In keeping with the social etiquette of the time, attendees were paired and seated strategically. Mr. Frick escorted Mary Louise Duff Dalzell, wife of Pennsylvania Representative Dalzell, while Mrs. Frick was paired with McKinley's private secretary J.A. Porter. Dinner discussions typically were restricted to topics of general interest to the entire party, and high society conversational graces would have been employed to reflect the gentility of the company. Adelaide would have been among the younger women of the group, but she and First Lady McKinley may have recognized that they shared similar retiring natures. Both Adelaide Frick and Ida McKinley had suffered the losses of their very young children. The First Lady had the added burden of physical debilitation likely due to uncontrolled petit mal epileptic seizures.

McKinley’s visit to Pittsburgh in 1897 provided an opportunity for its wealthiest residents to not only don their most extravagant party clothes but also to engage in an orgy of self-congratulation. They had been intentionally transforming the industrial city over the preceding decade by creating museums, public art and parklands, libraries, schools, observatories, and conservatories. In his afternoon speech McKinley praised the assembled philanthropists for spurring the city’s cultural growth: "They have conferred upon the municipality of Pittsburgh the proud privilege of being rated, not simply as one of the greatest industrial centers of the country, but hereafter to rank as one of the great literary, art, musical, and educational cities of the United States." But missing from this oratory was any recognition that such cultural riches were largely inaccessible to ordinary workers, who had scant time to enjoy manifestations of the era’s City Beautiful movement. Allegheny County had overwhelmingly voted for McKinley a year earlier, giving him more than 70% of its popular vote. But most of Pittsburgh was left to enjoy this presidential visit from the fringes, straining from the crowd to catch glimpses of McKinley at parades or as he entered and exited gala events.

Pittsburg Post, 4 November 1897.

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