The White House is one of the most recognizable buildings in the world and is an iconic symbol of our country. To Americans, it is the people’s house with the Presidents being temporary residents. Portions of the White House have been open for public tours since Thomas Jefferson and it has remained open for tours ever since, except during wartime. It is the only private residence of a head of state that is open to the public, free of charge. The White House is the oldest federal building in the nation’s capital, and for over 200 hundred years its history and the history of the country have been intertwined.
This article is a follow-up to the one on the “President’s House” which concerned presidential residences prior to the White House. The history of the White House merits its own telling. This is about the mansion and Presidents are only mentioned when they effected the real estate.
This is the time to summarize information on the official name of the “President’s House” or “President’s Residence,” which were the earliest names used. It was called the “President’s Palace” on early maps, but this was officially changed to “Executive Mansion” in 1810 to avoid suggestions of royalty. It had been unofficially referred to as the “White House” since first constructed because the white-gray sandstone contrasted strikingly with the nearby red brick buildings. In 1902 President Theodore Roosevelt officially adopted the name as the “White House.” He had all presidential items altered to reflect the new name, and it is still the official name of the residence.
The history of the White House, and the capital city, began in December 1790 when President George Washington signed the Act of Congress which declared that the federal government would reside in a district “not exceeding 10 miles square…..on the river Potomac”. President Washington and city planner, Pierre L’Enfant, chose the 18-acre site for the residence, which became 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
A public competition was held to find a builder for the “President’s House.” Nine proposals were submitted, including one from Thomas Jefferson using an alias. The winner was Irish-born architect James Hoban who won a gold medal and $500.00 for his design for a Georgian mansion in the Palladian Style. It was to have three floors, more than 100 rooms and be built using sandstone from quarries along Aquia Creek in Virginia.
The cornerstone for the residence was laid on 13 October 1792. On site temporary quarters were constructed for laborers, and Scottish stone masons joined the builders in 1793. President Washington supervised construction of the residence but he never occupied it. The presidential residence was just one part of the massive building program that was taking place in the District to eventually accommodate the entire federal government.
In 1800 the federal government moved from Philadelphia to the new Federal City. John Adams had been elected the second American President and moved into the unfinished mansion. He was the first resident and wrote in a letter to his wife, Abigail, the following:
“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.”
About 133 years later the 32nd President, Franklin D. Roosevelt, had the above quotation inscribed on the fireplace of the State Dining Room below the Healy portrait of the 16th President, Abraham Lincoln.
Abigail Adams moved into the mansion a few days later and was disappointed with the inadequacy of the residence. She wrote:
“There is not a single apartment finished. We have not the least fence, yard, or other convenience outside. I use the great unfinished audience room (East Room) as a drying room for hanging up the clothes.”
Despite the shortcomings, the mansion rapidly became a focal point of the new Federal City and was symbolically linked to the Capital Building by construction of Pennsylvania Avenue.
The third President, Thomas Jefferson opened the mansion to public visitation each morning, a tradition continued by all his successors. Jefferson also personally drew up landscaping plans. Construction continued on the mansion’s interior, which still lacked ample staircases, and suffered from a leaky roof. During the Jefferson administration the mansion was furnished in Louis XVI Style (known in America as Federal Style). Until 1909 all the Executive Mansion personnel, much of the furnishings, and building maintenance was paid by incumbent presidents. They also had to foot the bill for official functions.
The War of 1812 occurred during the administration of the fourth President, James Madison. The mansion, and most of the federal buildings, were burned by the British and the Madison’s were forced to abandon the city. When they returned the residence was nothing but an empty shell, and the family was forced to take up residence in the Octagon House.
The restored mansion was ready for occupancy in 1817 during the administration of the fifth President, James Monroe. The original builder, James Hoban, oversaw the rebuilding, which included addition of the east and west terraces on the mansion’s flanks, a semicircular south portico, and a colonnaded north portico. The additions were not complete until 1820.
Early foreign visitors generally were unimpressed by our Executive Mansion because it was not as ostentatious, and regal as those found in Europe. Americans wanted a beautiful but relatively simple mansion to reflect the values of our people who had contempt for foreign rulers and their royal and elite trappings.
The custom of an inaugural open house at the executive mansion, which was started by President Thomas Jefferson in 1805, was not ended until the administration of Grover Cleveland, the 22nd and 24th President. (He served two non-consecutive terms.) Cleveland ended this practice because it was unsafe, and he established the practice of viewing inaugural parades in a flag-draped stand in front of the mansion.
The inaugural open houses had been started when there was no security at the mansion and people could just walk in and wander around. The open houses drew very large and unruly crowds. Probably the most notorious was the inauguration of the seventh President, Andrew Jackson. Up to 20,000 people tried to enter the mansion and did considerable damage. They even placed tubs of whiskey on the lawn trying to reduce the number inside. Friends of the President had to protect him from being crushed by the adoring public, and they rushed him out of the building for his safety.
President Jackson spent more than $50,000 refurbishing the mansion, and more than $4,000 on sterling silver dinner place settings decorated with an American Eagle. Some of this money was obviously to repair the open house damage.
President Lincoln’s body laid in state in the East Room of the mansion in 1865. The first such use of the mansion. While Mary Lincoln stayed in her room for five weeks grieving, the mansion was looted. Initially, Mary was accused of stealing the looted items, mainly because she was a southerner and was disliked by the rabid abolitionists. She angrily inventoried all the items she had taken from the mansion, mostly personal items, and gifts.
Presidents have all decorated the Executive Mansion according to their individual tastes, and few significant changes were made to the mansion during the 19th century. Some modernization did occur, however. A refrigerator was added in 1845, gas lighting in 1849, and electric lighting in 1891.
The 26th President, Theodore Roosevelt, converted the second floor of the mansion from offices to family quarters, mainly because the Roosevelt’s had six very active children. The children used the whole building as a playhouse and more space had to be made for their many exotic pets. The President and his family also used the grounds for a target range.
To accommodate growing presidential staffs and to provide more space for the president, the West Wing was constructed in 1902. By 1942 more office space was needed and the East Wing was constructed. The East and West wings were connected to the main building by the east and west terraces.
In 1948, during the administration of the 33rd President, Harry Truman, it was discovered that the main building of the White House was structurally “unsound.” I remember seeing pictures of the deterioration, which looked much worse than “unsound,” on news reels at the movies. (In those days, a visit to a movie consisted of news, a cartoon, a special attraction, coming attractions and the movie. On Saturdays, the line-up included a serial episode and a western movie.) The Truman’s moved across the street to the Blair House while work on the mansion was carried out for four years.
The mansion had to be completely gutted except for the third floor and the interior was completely and carefully rebuilt. The original exterior walls were retained, and the rebuilding adhered to the original design and plans. The new structure was built around a heavy steel frame. A second story balcony was added on the south portico by President Truman.
During the short administration of the 35th President, John Kennedy, his wife, Jacqueline, collected and displayed items of historic and artistic value throughout the White House. She made the White House a center of national culture and made the public aware of its beauty, significance, and history by hosting a televised tour of the mansion in 1962.
Today the White House contains132 rooms, 35 bathrooms, 412 doors, 147 windows, 28 fireplaces, eight staircases, and three elevators. The mansion includes family living quarters, guest rooms, a state dining room, and various reception rooms. All rooms are decorated in 18th and 19th century styles and contain priceless antiques.
The west terrace contains the press briefing room, and the east terrace contains a movie theatre. The West Wing contains the Oval Office (President’s office) and the cabinet and press rooms. The East Wing contains more offices. For physical activity there is a tennis court, jogging track, swimming pool, and a bowling lane. Five full-time chefs can prepare a state dinner for 140 guests, and hors d’oeuvres for more than 1,000.
Over the years there has also been considerable construction of hardened command bunkers, and other security features. Most of this is highly classified, but we know it is extensive. The safety of the Executive Branch and other parts of the government in case of attack or severe natural disasters are the highest priority of our government.
The public tours of the White House started by President Jefferson continue to this day and are the most popular tourist destination in the capital. Most visitors become hushed and respectful during the tours and are awed by the beauty and grandeur of the mansion while learning about its history. The White House is rightfully the most recognized symbol of the United States of America. It is beautiful and grand but not too grand. It represents us, the people because we are the government.