Those who read my Post on Dolly Madison may have noticed that when I referred to the White House, I usually used the term “President’s House”. I did this because as I was researching Dolly, I noticed that the more reliable sources mentioned that the use of the term “White House” was not official until much later. This tweaked my interest, so I did some research that showed me how little I really knew about the history of residences that the Presidents have occupied. What I learned was very interesting to me, so I am presenting a summary of what I learned. Some of you may know all this information, but I’m betting most don’t.
When our country was established, all the little things we take for granted now had to be recognized and established, for instance, where would the President and his family live? New York City was the capitol at that time, and obviously someone had given some thought to this question because the First Family occupied the Samuel Osgood House on 23 April 1789, one week before Washington was inaugurated. The Osgood mansion was located at the corner of Pearl and Cherry Streets, the current location of the Manhattan Civic Center.
The Osgood mansion was built in the Georgian Style in1770. Congress paid $845.00 per month rent and directed the Osgoods to “put the house and furniture thereof in proper condition for the residence and use of the President of the United States”. Congress also invested $8,000.00 preparing the mansion. Martha Washington said it was a “handsomely furnished house”.
Unfortunately, the house proved too small, and was in the most congested area of Manhattan near the noisy East River port. When another residence, The Alexander Macomb House at 39 Broadway, became available, it was acquired, and the President and his household moved in on 23 February 1790. This house was much larger, and in a much more convenient and more quiet area.
The house had been built by Irish-born Alexander Macomb in 1786-1788 and had been leased to a French minister who returned to Paris in early 1790. Washington purchased much of the contents of the house with his own money and some of that furniture survives at Mount Vernon.
The July 1790 Residence Act was passed by Congress to move the national capital to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania for ten years while the permanent capital was being constructed in the District of Columbia. Washington left New York on 30 August 1790 and occupied a house in Philadelphia on 27 November 1790 following a visit to Mount Vernon. President Washington occupied the three-and-a-half-story Robert Morris Mansion until 10 March 1797. President John Adams occupied it from 21 March to 30 May 1800.
The Masters-Penn-Morris Mansion was located at 190 High Street in Philadelphia and had an interesting background. It was built in 1767 by widow Mary Lawrence Masters who gave it as a wedding gift to her eldest daughter in 1772. The daughter married Richard Penn, a grandson of William Penn, and the Lieutenant-Governor of the Pennsylvania Colony.
The Penn and Masters families moved to England shortly before the Revolutionary War broke out. During the British occupation of Philadelphia, September 1777 – June 1778, General Sir William Howe occupied the house. Following the British evacuation of the city the American Military Governor, Benedict Arnold, used the mansion. He began his treason during this time. When Arnold left, the next resident was John Holker. The house was damaged by fire and Holker sold it to Robert Morris, Financier of the Revolution.
In 1781, Morris refurbished and enlarged the mansion and lived there while he was Superintendent of Finance. George Washington shared the house with Morris during the 1787 Constitutional Convention and in 1790 Morris gave up the house for his friend to use as the new Executive Mansion.
While New York and Philadelphia served as capitals of the new United States of America, there was no official designation for the president’s house. The three buildings were randomly referred to as: Presidential Mansion, President’s House, Executive Mansion, or President’s Residence. These names were still in use when President John Adams oversaw the transfer of the government to the new permanent capital and when he occupied the new executive mansion on 1 November 1800.
The new residence was referred to by the same names as before but was also shown as the “Presidential Palace” on many maps. This prompted the official designation of Executive Mansion in 1810 in order to avoid any connotations of royalty. However, all the names continued in common use until President Theodore Roosevelt in 1902 designated the official name to be “White House”. He had all official documents and references changed and the official name is White House to the entire world.
The white reference was because of the color of the Virginia sandstone that makes up the exterior of the building. The residence had been unofficially called white house since first constructed, but more like you would say “the white house on the corner”.
The White House is the symbol of the presidency, but even more importantly it is to the world a symbol of our nation. It is the oldest federal building in the District of Columbia and has survived being burned during the War of 1812, another fire in the West Wing in 1929, and the structural decay that was corrected during the Truman administration. From the time of Thomas Jefferson until Grover Cleveland, the public had uncontrolled access to the White House.
The White House belongs to the American people and the presidents are temporary occupants. We are “citizens”, not “subjects”. We have rights that no other people have and one of the symbols of our rights is the beautiful White House.
I will do a history of the White House at a future time, but I want to end this post with this interesting note. On his second night in the new residence, President John Adams wrote these words in a letter to his wife:
“I pray heaven Bestow the Best of Blessings on This House and All that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but Honest and Wise Men ever rule under this Roof.”
President Franklin Roosevelt had this quote inscribed on the fireplace of the State Dining Room.