Prolific American Historian Known for Studies on the History of the White House
Dr. William Seale, whose contributions to the programs and publications of the White House Historical Association for more than forty years were instrumental in shaping the Association’s study and dissemination of White House history, passed away on November 21, 2019, following a long illness. His unique approach to the study of history through biography, architecture, landscape, and cultural context expanded the public’s understanding of the American past and ensured that dozens of historic sites were preserved and interpreted for the future. By emphasizing the human stories of public places, Seale made history accessible and enjoyable not only to scholars but to general audiences, and he inspired support for historic preservation across the nation. He is survived by his wife of more than fifty years, Lucinda Smith Seale, two sons and their wives—William III and Julie Seale and John Henry and Katherine Seale all of Dallas, Texas—four grandchildren, Parker, Charlotte, Henry, and Ellender, and a sister, Eugenia Seale Myers, of Rush Springs, Oklahoma. He is predeceased by his parents, William and Eugenia (Broocks) Seale and a brother, Jackson Broocks Osborne all of Beaumont, Texas.
Trained as a historian, William Seale received his PhD from Duke University and began his career teaching at Lamar University, the University of Houston, the University of South Carolina, and Columbia University. After briefly serving as curator of cultural history at the Smithsonian Institution in the early 1970s, Seale worked independently, focusing his research and writing on the White House and the restoration of historic American buildings and state capitols.
Through his work with the White House Historical Association, William Seale served as adviser, author, interpreter, lecturer, leader, and mentor, generously sharing his knowledge, wisdom, insight, and infectious sense of humor. Association President Stewart D. McLaurin explains, “When First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy first undertook to restore the historic integrity of its public rooms, she wanted also to promote public understanding of this historic home. More than any one historian, Dr. Seale helped to realize her vision through his writing. Mrs. Kennedy wrote, ‘Many First Families loved this house and each and every one left something of themselves behind in it.’ What they left behind—the imprint of their lives—is precisely what Seale revealed in his books through his long service to WHHA.”
His President’s House, first published in 1986, was the first comprehensive narrative to examine the construction, architecture, and the manner of living in the Executive Residence. The groundbreaking first edition was expanded in 2008, and the authoritative work has been consulted and referenced by generations of scholars and enjoyed by many thousands of readers. Presidential historian Richard Norton Smith described this book as “intensely human, prodigiously researched and gracefully told, it is in many ways, Our Story—the narrative of a nation as embellished in a house and its occupants. . . . Nobody knows more about the White House than William Seale and no one can match his gift for making America’s House come alive through many centuries.”
Seale’s subsequent books on the White House and the President's Neighborhood amplified the work of the pioneering volume. These included The White House Garden (1995), The White House: History of an American Idea (2001, 2018), The Night They Burned the White House (2014), and Blair House: The President’s Guest House (2018). He contributed to The White House, An Historic Guide, 50th Anniversary Edition (2011), provided the narrative to At Home in the President’s Neighborhood (2016), and edited The White House: Actors and Players (2000). In 2017 he released A White House of Stone: Building the First Ideal in American Architecture, a study of the fabric and embellishment of the house itself. During his research he identified the carved rose on the famous stone garland on the North Front as the Scottish Rose—a discovery that further connected this, the “finest stone work in America,” with the homeland of the master craftsmen who embellished the White House with their rich carvings. His final work for the Association, To Live on Lafayette Square: Society and Politics in the President's Neighborhood was released in May 2019. At the time of his death, he was compiling the Association’s forthcoming anthology on architect James Hoban.
Marcia Anderson, Vice President of Publications and Executive Editor for the Association, observes, “Perhaps Dr. Seale’s greatest contribution to the realization of Mrs. Kennedy’s vision was made through White House History Quarterly, the journal he founded for the Association in 1983 and which he continued to edit for more than fifty issues, working through his final illness, until the time of his death. He insisted he wanted it to be, ‘everyman’s journal with scholarly articles that would not be scholarly in the exclusive sense.’ This determination opened the doors of ‘America’s House’ to America. He welcomed not only accomplished scholars, but graduate students, first family members, and White House staff and their descendants to contribute. He delighted in publishing new voices, photographic discoveries, and first-person memories. He guided more than two hundred authors from concept to publication, bringing out the best in their work and making lifetime friends along the way.”
It is William Seale's legacy that White House History Quarterly, now so well established, will be carried forward by the scholars whose work he has nurtured. Historian and frequent White House History Quarterly contributor Clifford Krainik, explains, “As an editor, William Seale was that extraordinary combination of inquisitor and cheerleader. His historical perspectives were vast, outdistanced only by his ability to extract the larger and more meaningful story from his contributors. Dr. Seale’s passion for accurate historical research and writing was the hallmark of his career."
Born in east Texas, where his family has deep roots, William Seale naturally took Texas history among his subjects. His Texas Riverman: The Life and Times of Captain Andrew Smyth (University of Texas Press, 1966), Sam Houston’s Wife: A Biography of Margaret Lea Houston (University of Oklahoma Press, 1970), and Texas in Our Time (Hendrick-Long, 1972) are testimony to his interest in place, as are his books on Alexandria, where his family also lived: The Alexandria Library Company: A History (Alexandria Library Company, 2001), and Alexandria: Historic Guide (City of Alexandria, Va., 2003). His strong research connections to the city of Washington are reflected in The Imperial Season: America’s Capital in the Time of the First Ambassadors, 1893–1918 (Smithsonian Press, 2013). “All history is in a sense local history,” Seale said, “or a combination of local histories.”
But it is for his books on American interiors that Seale was perhaps best known nationally. These include The Tasteful Interlude: American Interiors Through the Camera’s Eye, 1860–1917 (Praeger Publishers, 1975), with Henry-Russell Hitchcock, Temples of Democracy: State Capitols of the USA (Harcourt, Brace, 1976), with Henry-Russell Hitchcock et al., Courthouse (Horizon Press, 1978), Recreating the Historic House Interior (American Association for State and Local History, 1979), The Kentucky Governor’s Mansion: A History (Harmony House, 1984), The Virginia Governor’s Mansion: A History (Virginia State Archives, 1985), Domestic Views: Historic Houses of the Colonial Dames of America (American Institute of Architects, 1992), Of Houses and Time: Personal History of the National Trust Houses (Abrams, 1992), Michigan’s Capitol (University of Michigan Press, 1995), and with Eric Oxendorf, Domes of America (Pomegranate Press, 1998).
William Seale lived what he wrote about, and nowhere was his approach to history more influential than in the restoration projects he guided. In cooperation with the architects in charge, Seale oversaw the historical aspects of the restoration of ten state capitol buildings and governor’s mansions: Alabama State Capitol, Montgomery; Georgia State Capitol, Atlanta; Kansas Statehouse, Topeka; Kentucky Governor’s Mansion, Frankfort; Louisiana Governor’s Mansion, Baton Rouge; Michigan State Capitol, Lansing; Minnesota State Capitol, St. Paul; Mississippi State Capitol, Jackson; Ohio Statehouse, Columbus; and the Old Florida Capitol, Tallahassee. “No one has had more influence on the way our state houses and executive mansions look today than William Seale,” states Joseph Opperman, an architect who collaborated with Seale on many restoration projects.
Seale was interested in old houses since childhood, as he told an interviewer for CRM: The Journal of Heritage Stewardship. With his father, a contractor who studied historic building practices, he “would walk around town, look at houses, and discuss them.” This emphasis on human personality infused all the restoration projects Seale undertook. Among his many restoration projects, described by colleagues as "truly innovative" were: The Ximenez-Fatio House in St. Augustine, Florida; George Eastman House, Rochester, New York; George C. Marshall House, Leesburg, Virginia; Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontanne House, “Ten Chimneys,” Genesee Depot, Wisconsin; Bulloch Hall, Roswell, Georgia; Stratford Hall, Westmoreland County, Virginia; Travelers Rest, Nashville, Tennessee; McLean House (“The Surrender House”), Clover Tavern, and Appomattox Court House, Virginia; Free State Capitol, Topeka, Kansas; Old Governor’s Mansion, Milledgeville, Georgia; and Eugene Field House, St Louis, Missouri.
Whether it was one-on-one with colleagues—young or old—or at the lectern of a scholarly symposium or a small town public library, or on national television, William Seale conveyed an enthusiasm for his subject that was inspirational. “Bill Seale was a national treasure,” says C-SPAN Co-CEO Susan Swain. “As a historian, author, and educator, Bill combines a passion for historic preservation with his encyclopedic knowledge of the White House and its inhabitants and his Southern gift for storytelling.”
Less well known to his colleagues in the fields of history and preservation were William Seale’s contributions to landscape history and the humane treatment of animals. His book on The Garden Club of America: One Hundred Years of a Growing Legacy was released by Smithsonian Press in 2013. As a timber farmer in east Texas, Seale took in, nurtured, and advocated for the dozens of abandoned hunting dogs who sought refuge on his property. That he saw the best in everyone was true not only for the people in his life, but for the unfortunate animals he befriended.
“History teaches perspective,” William Seale once said. “In the avalanche of words that rush over us now from the printed page and television, perspective is important. . . . You’ve got to be able to judge to live in a free society. History helps with your thinking. And three-dimension history—houses, etc.—help with that all-important and life-enriching historical imagination.”