Local historian William Seale dies at 80

Local historian William Seale dies at 80
William Seale leads a group on a walking tour of Embassy Row in fall 2007. (Photo/Ralph Goodrich)

By Luke Anderson | landerson@alextimes.com

William Seale, an Alexandria historian, author and resident, died Nov. 21 in Washington D.C. following a long illness. He was 80.

Seale was born and raised in Beaumont, Texas and became interested in architecture and antiques at an early age. His father was a contractor who built houses and his mother “had an eye for interiors and could easily date furnishings in them,” Seale said in a National Park Service interview.

He graduated from Southwestern University and received a master’s and Ph.D. from Duke University before beginning his career as a professor of history at Lamar College in Texas.

Dr. William Seale. (Photo/Louise Krafft)

He married his wife, Alexandrian Lucinda Smith Seale, in Christ Episcopal Church on North Washington Street in 1966. By 1969, he had quit full-time teaching and, in 1971, worked with Henry-Russell Hitchcock on writing a history of the state capitols, which sparked his interest in public buildings.

In the early 1970s, Seale worked briefly as a curator at the Smithsonian Institution before he began work as an independent contractor with the White House Historical Association, contributing to their publications for more than 40 years.

Seale was the founding editor of “White House History Quarterly,” a journal of the White House Historical Association. He also appeared in many interviews and panels on CSPAN and was instrumental in preserving many historic structures across the country, including multiple state capitol buildings and governors’ mansions.

Some of his most notable books include “The tasteful interlude: American interiors through the camera’s eye, 1860–1917” (1975), the two-volume “The President’s House: A History” (1986 and 2008) and “Blair House: The President’s Guest House” (2016).

The historian’s affiliation with the White House allowed him to study its history, but it also allowed him to experience history in the making firsthand. Throughout his career, he met many presidents and first ladies and was afforded a rare glimpse into their personal lives, in good times and bad.

Seale was inside the White House on the day Richard Nixon resigned.

“It was the strangest thing I have ever experienced,” Seale told Presidential historian Richard Norton Smith in March 2011. “The day of the actual resignation I was over there and the action was taking place in the East Room of the state floor, and people on the floor below were all watching it on television.”

Seale was also interested in the abundant history of Alexandria.

William Seale speaks with Debbie and Braxton Moncuret at a fall Historic Alexandria Foundation Antique Show. (Photo/Louise Krafft)

To commemorate the 250th anniversary of Alexandria, Seale wrote “A guide to historic Alexandria” (2000). Jean Taylor Federico was director of the Office of Historic Alexandria at the time and said she remembers Seale for his wonderful storytelling.

“I just admire someone who can write with such ease and tell such a great story,” Federico said.

When Federico initially entered the director position, she remembered Seale being one of the first people to invite her to dinner at his home.

“He talked a lot about the importance of the history of the town and how that needed to be preserved, and he was really counting on me to make sure it happened,” Federico said, laughing.

“He was just a marvelous spirit,” said photographer Louise Krafft, who met him during her time at the Alexandria Gazette. “He was so passionate about historic preservation and the importance of understanding history through the buildings people lived in and used on a daily basis.”

In 2007, Seale wrote “The Alexandria Library Company,” a book documenting the history of a subscription library founded in Alexandria in 1794 and modeled after the Library Company of Philadelphia, which was founded by Benjamin Franklin. The library served Alexandria until the first public library opened in 1932.

Seale asked Krafft to help him supplement the book with photographs. He gave her access to all the archives in the historic section, which contained items that were more than 200 years old.

Former Library Company President Oscar Fitzgerald said that Seale’s approach to researching the Library Company was “quite clever.” Seale looked at all the books acquired by the library during certain periods and determined the interests of Alexandrians who lived during those times based on the topics of the books being read, Fitzgerald said.

The book went on to win the 2008 Alexandria Historical Society Award.

Two hundred-year-old White House gates now grace the border of the perennial garden at River Farm. The gates were rediscovered by Seale at River Farm while he was walking through the gardens in the early 2000s. (Photo/Louise Krafft)

Perhaps one of Seale’s most extraordinary discoveries was a set of gates at River Farm that once guarded the White House. Seale was on the board of the American Horticultural Society, whose headquarters are still at River Farm, just a short distance from Mount Vernon.

In 2002, Katy Moss Warner was president of the society and was having discussions with Seale about how to improve the property and return it to the original formation.

Warner said that while walking the property together one day, Seale spotted the rusty, bent gates beneath some vines. She said that he immediately recognized them as the White House’s former northeast gates, which had been installed shortly after the War of 1812 and later removed during a renovation in the 1930s. Under Seale’s direction, the gates were restored and remain a focal point of the property to this day.

Seale’s impact on Alexandria is best summarized in his own words, delivered in a keynote address to the Board of Architectural Review in 2007:

“I tried to stand aside from this town […] and see it in the broader context of American history and historic preservation,” he said. “It is interesting when you do that, to realize how much greater and more pivotal Alexandria is than just the town we know everyday.”