When James Madison and his wife Dolley moved into the President's House, the room that Thomas Jefferson had used as an office became the State Dining Room. The adjacent parlor (today’s Red Room) was "redecorated in sunflower yellow, with sofas and chairs to match" and "outfitted with a piano, a guitar, and a portrait of Dolley.” One room over, the smaller but more formal elliptical salon was "decorated in the Grecian style" with cream-colored walls.
Together, these three rooms with their interconnecting doors became the venue for Dolley Madison’s legendary “Drawing Rooms,” or "Wednesday Squeezes," which often attracted as many as three hundreds guests and were the most popular social event in town!
Dressed in brightly colored satins or silks and often donning a feathered headpiece or bejeweled turban, Dolley cheerfully greeted and mingled with guests as they enjoyed a festive evening of refreshments, music, and lively conversation. Mrs. Madison also presided over elaborate dinner parties where she delighted guests with such unusual dessert items as pink pepperment ice cream baked in warm pastries.
The Madisons continued to entertain this way until "their brilliant social whirlwind" went up in flames during the War of 1812. On August 24, 1814, while James was away getting a report on the war, Dolley was supposedly awaiting forty dinner guests. Around three o’clock, word was received that British troops had defeated American forces at nearby Blandensburg and were marching toward the capital.
Before fleeing to safety, Dolley quickly gathered what she could, including important documents of her husband’s and Gilbert Stuart’s famous portrait of George Washington. When British soldiers entered the Executive Mansion later that day, they supposedly devoured the lavish dinner that had been left behind. They then piled up furniture, scattered oil-soaked rags in all of the rooms, and lit the President’s House afire!
Although the British quickly evacuated the capital, the months that followed were not happy ones for the Madisons. Many Americans criticized them for abandoning the President’s House and for “allowing the destruction of the most visible symbol of the young republic.”
At their temporary residence, Dolley started up her Wednesday Squeezes again, but “the spirit was gone.” Then came word of General Andrew Jackson’s victory over the British in the Battle of New Orleans and the mood of the country was again jubilant. Although a peace treaty had been signed weeks earlier, the Battle of New Orleans transformed “Mr. Madison’s War” (which had been condemned until then as an unnecessary folly) into “a glorious reaffirmation of American independence.”
Source: Barry Landau, The President's Table: Two Hundred Years of Dining and Diplomacy (NY, Harper Collins: 2007)
Credit: Dolley Madison, oil on canvas, by Gilbert Stuart