The Day the Pi Phis Came to the White House

Nearly 100 years ago, on April 11, 1924, more than 1,200 Pi Phis, including founders Jennie Horne Turnbull and Inez Smith Soule, posed for a picture on the White House lawn; the culmination of months of planning and a cherished memory for our sisterhood. It commemorated a unique occasion in the history of both Pi Beta Phi and the United States. First Lady Grace Goodhue Coolidge, a charter member of Vermont Beta at the University of Vermont, was honored by our Fraternity with an official portrait painted by Howard Chandler Christy. On that April afternoon, nearly 100 years ago, Pi Beta Phi presented the portrait to the United States—and it remains on display in the China Room in the East Wing of the White House.  

The June 1924 issue of The Arrow credits Michigan Beta Katharine Tower Barnes with setting in motion the plan to present a portrait of the First Lady to the nation. She wrote that the idea “just drifted into my mind one day last summer. It lay tucked away until November, when a small group of scattered Pi Beta Phis held a Cookie Shine with me in Concord, New Hampshire. Their enthusiasm prompted a letter to Massachusetts Alpha Anna Robinson, a dear friend of Grace’s since their meeting at the 1901 Syracuse Convention, who suggested we show our love and appreciation of the signal honor that had come to Mrs. Coolidge by keeping a portrait of our First Lady of the Land always in the White House, so surely does she stand for gracious American womanhood.” 

After Katherine’s initial inspiration, it was Anna who helped drive forward the plan to present the portrait of Grace at an April 1924 meeting of the Fraternity called the Eastern Conference—a supplemental educational and networking opportunity outside the convention schedule. Grace was honored to host the Eastern Conference at the White House after her years of service to our sisterhood. She had not only been a charter member of her chapter, but also of her alumnae club in western Massachusetts before serving as President of the Alpha Province, overseeing the collegiate chapters in that region beginning in 1908. She later transitioned to Vice President of the province, overseeing alumnae clubs.  

Grace stepped away from her Pi Phi office when her husband, Phi Gamma Delta Calvin Coolidge, was elected lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, later becoming governor. He was then elected Vice President a year later, moving the couple to Washington, D.C., where Grace was welcomed by the Washington, D.C., Alumnae Club. Vice President Coolidge became President Coolidge in 1923, upon the untimely death of President Warren G. Harding.  

With Anna coordinating the event through her role as Grand Vice President of the Fraternity and serving as toastmistress during the conference, the two friends were able to pull off an effort never undertaken before—and likely to not happen again. The likelihood of a sitting First Lady to host her fraternal organization in the White House seems implausible in modern day, but Grace held deeply her commitments to both her country and her sisterhood.  

The presentation of the portrait took place on a Friday afternoon. Escorted by the Army, Naval and Marine aides to the president, the First Lady wore a soft grey dress trimmed with crystals. Pointed upward over her heart was the diamond-studded arrow which her Pi Phi sisters presented to her before the festivities began. After the presentation, she headed to the Blue Room, where she gave each guest a smile, a word of greeting and the Pi Phi grip, then they gathered on the lawn for a picture. As the crowd was leaving, Grace said to the Pi Phis surrounding her, “This is the loveliest thing I have seen here. I should like to keep you here always, to make beautiful the White House lawn.” 

As the centennial of the event approaches, Pi Phis should remember the day our sisterhood went to the White House and left a lasting mark on the home of the United States. Still today, while taking a tour of the White House, Grace’s portrait can be viewed in all its glory in the China Room; a testament to her service as First Lady and her commitment to our beloved sisterhood.  

The only woman without a hat in the picture is the First Lady—she was at her home and therefore did not wear a hat. The other women were visitors, and in 1924, one always wore a hat when visiting. Another notable Pi Phi, Illinois Epsilon Amy Burnham Onken, had commissioned a new hat for the occasion, but it didn’t turn up in time for the event. She is instead wearing a borrowed hat from another attendee, and it appears by her expression this was a disappointment on an otherwise joyous day.  

This story was originally published in the Winter 2024 issue of The Arrow. View the full issue here.

Published April 10, 2024


About The Author

Fran DeSimone Becque

The Fraternity's historian, Fran DeSimone Becque, is the resident expert on all things Pi Phi, from historical events and antiques to current happenings and modern artifacts. Fran is recognized in the fraternity and sorority community for her passion for Greek-letter organization history. She has conducted extensive research at the Student Life and Culture Archives at the University of Illinois and is the author of several fraternity histories, completed as part of the National Society for the Preservation of Greek Housing.