19 Jan 2021


Lost Capitol Hill: West Front Inaugurations

Dwight Eisenhower

Well, I might as well finish this: How inaugurations have been held at the Capitol since 1801.

Not much changed for 36 years after Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s final swearing in in 1945. Truman took the oath of office in 1945 in the White House, but then after winning reelection, returned to the East Portico of the Capitol.

So did the following presidents, the only difference to 100 years earlier were that ever more elaborate structures were built over the steps to frame the events. Pictures of Eisenhower’s second inauguration show an elaborate roof, supported by eight columns and surmounted by a flag. Between the two sets of columns in the front is a bowed balustrade, at the center of which Eisenhower gave his inaugural speech.

This inauguration was special in another way: It was the last one held in front of the old East Front. Four years later, John F. Kennedy would stand in front of the new marble façade to take the oath of office.

On January 20, 1977, Jimmy Carter would become the last President – for now – to be inaugurated on the East Portico of the Capitol. On a sunny but cold day, he swore the oath on a family bible and, for good measure, a bible owned by George Washington, then walked the route to the White House.

In June, 1980, the Joint Committee on the Inauguration began planning for the ceremony the following January. The most important decision they made was to move the location of the inauguration. Two things motivated them: The increasing expense of building the inaugural platform, and the need for more space. It was they who made the decision – well before Reagan was even nominated as a candidate – to move from the East Portico to the West Front. Doing so allowed the West Front terraces to be used instead of a purpose-built stage, and spectators would be able to be part of the ceremony all the way back along the Mall.

Construction for the platform began in September, well before voting had started, so no matter who had won the Presidency, the ceremony would have happened in this new place. Nonetheless, Ronald Reagan, by referring to the vista that he could see from his vantage point, convinced people that it was his decision, and since then, the choice to switch sides at the Capitol has often been said – including by your humble correspondent – to have been made by him.

View of the 2013 Obama Inauguration (RSP)

Ironically, the only inauguration not to happen on the West Front since then was Reagan’s second. January 21, 1985 was a bitterly cold, with temperatures of 7 degrees Fahrenheit begin driven down to -25 degrees by gusty winds. The ceremony (more accurately, the second ceremony – the first had been held the day before in the White House) was moved into the Capitol Rotunda, which finally was used for one of the purposes that it had originally been designed for.

Since then, all inaugurations have been held on the West Front, the only controversy being how many people crowded into the Mall to celebrate and be part of that historical moment.

Oh, and to answer the question I posed last week about the only other President to take the oath four times? Barack Obama, who repeated the oath the day after his historic inauguration because Chief Justice Roberts had botched it the first time, then took the oath in the White House on Sunday, January 20, 2013 and again on the West Front on the 21st.

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