William Seale. Presidents: A Reference History. Editor: Henry F Graff. 3rd edition. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2002.
The White House is perhaps the most remarkable artifact of the American nation. The concept of an official home for the president originated with the constitutional government in 1789, and in 1790 such a home was prescribed in the Residence Act calling for the creation of a permanent federal city. In 1791 this proposed city was named for the nation’s first president, George Washington. Thus by law the White House—and the federal city and Capitol as well—was set down by Congress, written into the Constitution.
The act presented the issue of what sort of a house the president of the United States should have. Congress provided a rented town house for President Washington in New York and then, after the temporary capital was relocated in 1790, in Philadelphia. Washington wanted the new capital city to be built on the Potomac River, for reasons of security and commerce. He engaged the services of the French engineer and architect Pierre Charles L’Enfant to design the city. L’Enfant designed what is essentially the Washington, D.C., we know today. His plan included a “presidential palace.” Little is known about this structure, except that the plan was for a building about four times the ground dimensions of the White House as built, and some twenty feet higher. The plan was approved by Washington, and like the design for the city itself, the proposed residence suggested Washington’s initial vision of the nation’s capital as a place of grandeur and pomp.
The President’s House
L’Enfant, ultimately dismissed for insubordination in 1792, left the layout of the federal city complete on paper, but it is generally believed that there were no building plans for the proposed structures, only lines of demarcation that indicated the buildings on their sites. Washington, acting on the suggestion of his secretary of state, Thomas Jefferson, announced a national competition for plans for the design of the Capitol and President’s House (as it was then typically called). While the competition was being advertised, Washington contacted James Hoban, a builder he had met in Charleston, South Carolina, and consulted with him about the type of design Washington envisioned for the presidential residence. Hoban, an Irish American schooled in monumental building arts in Dublin, had followed his trade in Philadelphia and Charleston. He ultimately won the competition as Washington’s man. Other entries were for structures that suggested palaces. Hoban’s entry shows how Washington’s ideas had changed in only a few years in favor of a building less palatial, yet by American standards still very grand.
Hoban almost certainly held up models before his presidential patron. The chosen design was based on a house that had been familiar to Hoban in Dublin, the palace of the Duke of Leinster. It was about fifty years old at the time, a broad stone mansion rising two stories above a rustic base. More the house of a squire than a lord, the image appealed to Washington. The commissioners charged with overseeing construction of the city attempted to modify the plan by changing the material to brick; Washington disallowed this. When they respectfully protested the scale, Washington omitted the raised rustic base story and increased the volume of the house by twenty percent. He insisted that the stonework be elaborately rendered in the grand Anglo-Palladian manner.
The commissioners, unpaid government appointees, were left with the responsibility of getting so ambitious a house built. A sandstone quarry was purchased downriver on the Potomac at Aquia Creek. Stonemasons were engaged in Scotland, a party from the Highlands and one from Edinburgh. Both were expert; both had worked to plans of the celebrated Scottish architects Robert and James Adam. They put their best efforts into the President’s House, which must have seemed very out of style to them, having recently worked on the restrained neoclassical buildings of New Town in Edinburgh.
By 1798 the building stood much as we know it today. Washington never lived there. He set the stakes for it, establishing the north wall, in cellars already dug out for L’Enfant’s “palace.” In moving the building north, Washington took it out of view in the axis down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol, a vista filled by the Treasury portico today. He violated the eighty-two acre preserve, called from the outset “the President’s Park,” by mandating that the government offices be built there, flanking the executive mansion. Thus Washington started the pattern of change with respect to the White House that would be followed by presidents for two centuries to come.
As prescribed in the Residence Act, John Adams, who had become president in 1797, moved into the new house on November 1, 1800. His wife, Abigail, remarked innocently that the East Room was larger than a New England meetinghouse. Because the house was as yet unfinished, lacking sufficient stairs, service bells, some plasterwork, and kitchen fittings, and was sparsely furnished, neither Adams can have been very comfortable, but the rhythms of great events came in with them. In the house on 12 December 1800, Adams heard the election results from South Carolina that put his party, the Federalists, out of the presidency forever; Adams lost to Thomas Jefferson in a contest that pitted the Federalist ideology of a strong central government against that of the more democratic “Republicans,” who favored more limited government. In a small second floor room just east of his bedroom on his last night in office, Adams made his famous Midnight Appointments, commissioning several federal judges who were sympathetic to his views. It was Adams who, in a letter to his wife, wrote the timeless benediction for the White House: “I pray Heaven to bestow the best of Blessings on this House, and on all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof!”
Adams’s use of the word “rule” might have given his successor pause. Jefferson, president from 1801 to 1809, brought a new tone to government, reducing it where possible and largely stripping it of ceremony. The White House—for it was first called that in Jefferson’s time—could be seen as a glaring anachronism in an era dedicated to “republican simplicity.” In various improvements Jefferson made the house seem less august. He built low-lying wings to the east and west that made the house seem not so tall and guant; they contained the “offices” that typically served such a residence in scattered outbuildings. He made no effort to complete the unfinished East Room, and put his office squarely in the State Dining Room, which the Federalists had used for their levees or formal receptions. Jefferson’s usual entertaining consisted of small dinners.
He opened the house to the public in the spring of 1801, and it has remained open to tours, except in wartime and for reasons of national security, as following the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks, ever since. The Marine Band, early-on an Italian family orchestra rescued by the Marine Corps from Mediterranean pirates, was brought in for concerts; the Marine Band, titled by Jefferson the “President’s Own,” remains the source of White House music today. One continuing White House ceremony was established by Jefferson: When a foreign diplomat presents his credentials to the president, the exchange takes place in the center of the Blue Room.
By the time of Jefferson’s departure, British military provocation against the United States at sea was creating great public tension. As the second greatest maritime power in the world, the new United States considered itself a plumb Britain might one day return and pluck. James Madison came to the presidency in 1809 as a man of action. Needing political support, he turned the White House into a most formidable rival to every tavern in Washington. In the able hands of Dolley Payne Madison, his wife, the public rooms were redecorated in sumptuously theatrical elegance that was, oddly enough, British high style. Politicians and officials scrambled to attend the weekly receptions of Dolley Madison, providing Madison with opportunities to make political hay.
The quiet that followed the United States’ declaration of war on Britain in 1812 soon ended in 1814, when the British, free to turn their attention from European conflicts after the defeat of Napoléon Bonaparte that year, sailed for American shores. On 24 August, British sailors under Rear Admiral George Cockburn marched toward Washington, entering the city after dark. Meanwhile, the White House was the scene of pandemonium, with the packing of papers and valuables. Fearing that the British might make a mockery of Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of George Washington, Mrs. Madison entrusted it to two visitors, who removed it from the frame and fled with it through Georgetown. Mrs. Madison departed in a carriage with her coachman, some baggage, and her macaw, and began a wandering journey through the Virginia countryside that would last until nearly dawn. Madison returned to the White House at about dark, had a glass of port with secretary of state James Monroe and other officials, then went to join American troops.
Cockburn’s detail of 150 sailors entered the White House at about eleven. Finding the table set for dinner for forty, the officers dined and drank and took souvenirs (Cockburn ordered that these be of no value) and generally enjoyed themselves while Lieutenant Richard Pratt, who had been the fire expert under the command of General Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, during Britain’s Spanish campaign of 1812, prepared the house for its fate. At last the sailors stood in a circle around the house and hurled flaming javelins through the broken-out windows, igniting the house and burning it to its stone walls.
The loss of the White House had an even more profound effect upon the Americans than the burning that same night of the Capitol, which was unfinished and had yet to achieve its visual identity. After a brief effort to remove the capital to Cincinnati, Congress approved the repair of the public buildings in Washington, and Madison insisted that the White House be rebuilt to match the original structure. What was ultimately salvaged was the central pedimented section of the north front, the basement level, and the entire south front. The rest of the structure was rebuilt, and finished in time for the New Year’s Reception in 1818 of a new president, James Monroe.
Monroe was a popular president. The period was called the Era of Good Feelings, due to explosive national prosperity. Monroe ordered furniture for the White House state rooms from France. Pieces of the suite of gilded furniture designed by the French cabinetmaker P. A. Bellangé remain in the oval Blue Room. Many other purchases were made at this time: silver, statuary, chandeliers, carpets, clocks, urns, and a pair of elegant decorative ostrich eggs set up upon golden stands are items included in Monroe’s invoices from Paris and later inventories of the house. Some of the silver purchased during Monroe’s tenure continues to be used at White House tables, and the French clocks, although not allowed to chime, still tick away White House hours. While the Era of Good Feelings collapsed in the Panic of 1819, Monroe’s popularity did not. His most memorable marks on the White House are the South Portico—so-called, when in fact the unpedimented colonnade is a porch—and the large stone gate piers on Pennsylvania Avenue. A pair of iron gates installed under Monroe’s direction in 1818 stood in place until 1976. The present-day fence and gates were designed after Monroe’s originals.
The People’s House
The tempo of politics surrounding the White House rose to a fever pitch in the 1820s with factions in a newly expanded nation battling for control. John Quincy Adams ultimately paid dearly for what was termed a fixed election in 1824, that paved the way for Andrew Jackson’s election in 1828. Jackson’s inaugural on 4 March 1829, amounted to mass hysteria, as thousands accompanied him from the Capitol to the White House. Jackson, professing to take his mandate from the people rather than from politicians, rode to the White House on horseback in what became the first inaugural parade. The teeming crowd did not disperse when the doors of the executive mansion opened. Where once a few supporters had come to toss back a glass with the new president, now crowds flowed in. Jackson eventually had to flee the White House; he was held up and carried down the steps of the new South Portico to a carriage and then on to a hotel for the night. The unruly crowd, unaware that the president was gone, celebrated on; the steward of the house eventually had washtubs full of whiskey-laced orange juice put out on the south grounds, to draw the visitors outside so that the doors of the residence could be locked.
It was during Jackson’s administration that the White House was at last finished. Construction of the North Portico commenced at once, having been planned along with the South Portico in the rebuilding of the White House after the 1814 fire. It was completed in 1831. The vast East Room, which up until then had been furnished somewhat arbitrarily, was now given a proper presidential decor. Major William B. Lewis, a Jackson crony who lived at the White House, went to Philadelphia and selected wall-paper, curtains, chandeliers, colossal mirrors, carpets, tables, lamps, and “twenty-two spittoons” to complete the room. Not least, he ordered 150 gilt stars to be pasted over the room’s arched door; the stars formed a galaxy over Old Hickory as he entered the room to attend receptions.
Jackson built a new stable for his numerous horses, including the racehorses that he regularly ran in competition. Probably to rescue a sago palm extracted from the burning greenhouses at Mount Vernon in 1835, President Jackson ordered an orangery built in the garden just southeast of the house. This became a delightful private retreat inaccessible to the public, where on snowy days the president and his company could enjoy not only the warmth of the tropics, but camellias, lilies, oranges, and lemons. Formal gardens soon extended beyond the tall, southward glass windows of the orangery. Garden and orangery stood where the south wing of the Treasury building now stands.
It was also in the decade of the 1820s and the early 1830s that the setting of the White House developed into a more or less permanent configuration. Originally Pennsylvania Avenue did not pass in front of the White House. In L’Enfant’s conception, the avenue and New York Avenue, both diagonals in the city plan, were to terminate in each direction at the grounds of the presidential residence, which, with Sixteenth Street going due north, was to have radial avenues to a forecourt at its north or principal facade. When L’Enfant’s “palace” was scrapped and Hoban’s design built, these plans were altered, and what was to have been a forecourt was simply open land, used for a time as a common and market place. James Monroe ordered it marked off into a park in 1820; this space became Lafayette Park in 1824, named for the nation’s first guest of state. Pennsylvania Avenue was at about that time brought in front of the White House.
The British had burned George Washington’s two executive office buildings the morning after the White House. These were replaced with four new buildings, each with columned porches. East of the White House stood the State Department, to the north, and Treasury, to the south; west of the White House were the Navy Department, which faced south, and the War Department facing north. During the time these buildings stood, a large sand-bottom pool existed between the two buildings on the east, a feature of the running water system Andrew Jackson installed in the White House in 1833.
When the Treasury building burned in 1836, the architect Robert Mills designed a grand new structure that is the Treasury building we know today, occupying the entire space on the east. The buildings on the west, together with the State Department, were combined into the gigantic granite building on the west, completed about 1873 in the French Second Empire or “General Grant” style by Supervising Architect of the U.S. Treasury, Alfred Mullet. Known for many years as the State, War, and Navy building, it is today the Old Executive Office Building (OEOB in White House jargon), housing the vice president and part of the president’s staff. Very little of a radical character was done to the White House for many years after Jackson. The residence had two distinct parts, the office in the east end of the second floor and the family quarters, seven or eight rooms in the west end, both parts connected by the long, tall transverse corridor, itself divided into three sections by fantransomed glass doors. The state rooms on the main floor were generally for entertaining and receiving, although the Red Room and the small dining room on the north were often used by the presidential families in their everyday lives.
The rooms were all wallpapered, with carpets wall to wall and heavy window hangings crowned by gilded cornices. Furniture was mostly mahogany, upholstered in satin or silk, damask or brocade, with fringe and tassels. Interior decorating is continual in such a place, where wear and tear is accelerated far beyond that in the average house. Monroe had painted one of the parlors green in 1818 and made it forever the Green Room; Martin Van Buren followed in 1838 with the oval Blue Room; and James Knox Polk in 1846 with the Red Room.
Jefferson installed the first waterclosets in 1801, one at each end of the second floor, and while many subsequent fixtures replaced his, there were not more than three waterclosets in the house until after the Civil War. The first kitchen range was also Jefferson’s, although many followed. As late as Lincoln’s time the old brick bread ovens remained, although since Polk the White House had received its bread supplies from local bakeries. Under Madison, central heating (a furnace in the basement) was installed in the parlors and dining room, but neither Madison nor Monroe apparently cared to replace this system after the fire. Van Buren had the major rooms centrally heated with a gravity system, which relied on rising heat to distribute warm air. Sarah Polk ordered gas lighting, and the lights of the White House went out at nine at night when the gas company closed. At receptions, Sarah Polk, the First Lady, strategically positioned herself beneath the candle chandelier in the Blue Room, and her guests, plunged into darkness at nine, were drawn through the dark rooms to the light.
Polk had a marble statue of Jefferson erected on the north lawn, so that Polk, who had seen the nation expand to the Pacific, might be identified with so great a founding father. Sarah Polk checkmated this effort by hanging a captured portrait of the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés in the Blue Room. And so the White House changed in small ways through the 1830s, 1840s, and 1850s, but the familiar image of the house remained unaltered.
Management of the house initially fell to a steward, who hired and managed the servants. Southern presidents brought slaves to the White House and they lived in the private quarters with the family; slaves were continually in conflict with the stewards, from whom they refused to take orders. The early stewards were European; most had seen duty in domestic service before. President Tyler brought armed Metropolitan Police officers into the house in plain-clothes as the first guard force. In idle time these officers would supervise cleaning, preparation for receptions, and purchasing from merchants and suppliers. So much were they a part of the running of the White House by the late 1850s that President Buchanan changed their titles from “doorkeepers” to “ushers.” Today the head official is the chief usher, who is in charge of the residence and grounds. All household staff is under this person’s jurisdiction.
Like any place where legendary people have lived, the White House gained a mystique, especially during and after the tenure of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln’s brief time in the residence, a little over four years, presented a domestic melodrama that paralleled the greater movements of the age and put in human terms for Americans the incomprehensible devastation of the Civil War. The Lincolns—rather than just Lincoln—sanctified the White House by epitomizing the American family in a time of personal and national crisis. After the triumph of Lincoln’s attaining of the presidency, the family was torn apart by death and sacrifice. Major Elmer Ellsworth, a close friend of Lincoln’s who had lived with the family at the White House, in 1861 became the first Union casualty of note in the war. In 1862 the Lincolns’ twelve-year-old son William (“Willie”) died of typhoid fever. Throughout her time in the White House Mary Todd Lincoln was vilified by the opposition press, which among other things accused her of spying for the Confederacy. In 1865 President Lincoln was assassinated, martyred to a world far wider than his own domestic circle, and his wife, left the White House, grief-stricken and mentally unstable. So compelling a story touched chords north and south. The White House had been Lincoln’s home and would be cherished for that ever after.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, charged with maintenance and public building in the District of Columbia, took a great interest in public improvements after the Civil War. Various officers traveled to Europe and studied public works; a nationalistic industrial age was flourishing, notably in France and Germany. Among the many projects of the Corps of Engineers that never got far from the drawing table was a new White House. Plans had been drawn up for a “suburban palace” located in the picturesque area now known as Rock Creek Park. President Andrew Johnson approved the idea in 1867. But when President Ulysses S. Grant came to office in 1869 as the peacemaker, he recognized the symbolic power of the White House and would entertain no notions of a new one.
The existing White House instead became the focus of improvements. The aftermath of the Lincoln assassination had left the house (which had been overused during the war) fairly well torn up, with the public moving idly in and out while Mrs. Lincoln lay upstairs consumed by grief. President Johnson, knowing he would never live in a new mansion if one was begun, accomplished a complete refurbishing of the interior. The office was refurnished except for Andrew Jackson’s portrait and desk, and a telegraph was installed in the southeast corner room of the office suite. A greenhouse built on the roof of the west terrace in 1857 to house plants from the former orangery caught fire in 1867 and was replaced with a greenhouse of iron, opening directly into the house. This was enlarged by Grant, who had a billiard room constructed between the house and the greenhouse; other glass extensions rambled over the west wing. Subsequent presidents had additional greenhouses built. Palms, cactus, orchids, camellias, spring bulbs, water plants, all flourished under the care of expert gardeners. A rose house stood on the site of today’s open-air Rose Garden.
The presidents welcomed the privacy that the greenhouses afforded. For some they were a promenade and for others a place for rest beneath the glass ceilings. First Ladies liked their floral bounty. Bouquet makers were employed making gift bouquets to send by coachman to hotels and boarding houses, substituting for the personal calls First Ladies traditionally made to congressmen and senators’ wives and important women visiting town. If any one feature characterized the Victorian White House it was the “glass houses” or “conservatories” that stood as large and exotic companions to the historic building.
Efforts by President Chester A. Arthur in 1881 to demolish and replace the White House came to nothing and even raised some hackles. He proposed a modern wing, with a “bridge of sighs” connecting it to the original structure, and various plans survive. The Corps of Engineers continued to await its moment to improve the presidential complex; if one thing had been learned, it was that the old White House would remain. With this in mind, the Corps began preparing plans for adding to the house in the architectural manner established by the original building. When her husband, Benjamin Harrison, came to office in 1889, First Lady Caroline Harrison oversaw various improvements to the White House, including the installation of electricity in 1891. She met with the engineers to discuss a major expansion of the house, to mark the one hundredth anniversary of George Washington’s inauguration as president. With her participation, the Corps produced detailed plans for such an expansion.
The idea was to create a quadrangle to the south, faced on one side by the south façade of the White House and on the east and west, with new space for art galleries, presidential offices, and guest rooms, and at the far south end with new greenhouses, which, because the grade slopes downward, would not obstruct the historic view of the river. Congress was not entirely opposed and a bill was born. However, Harrison appointed a certain postal official in Maine without consulting Speaker Thomas Brackett Reed from Maine (known in his day as “Czar Reed”), and Reed retaliated for what he considered a slight by obstructing passage of the bill. The celebration of Washington’s inauguration went on with considerable glitter but without a new White House.
Encouraged by construction of the massive Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress in the 1890s and the building projects of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, the Corps of Engineers in collaboration with the architectural designer Frederick Owen, continued to refine their plans for an enlarged White House. Grover and Frances Cleveland gave an idle nod to the idea. Cleveland’s successor William McKinley, president from 1897 to 1901, was generally agreeable, and the Corps, under the public buildings commissioner Colonel Theodore Bingham, planned to present its new project as part of the one hundredth anniversary of the first occupation of the White House by John Adams. In 1900 the Corps unveiled an elaborate model, tailored to please McKinley with its inclusion of a press wing. Mrs. McKinley’s remark, “There won’t be any hammering while I live here,” was hardly heard amid the enthusiasm of Bingham and his supporters.
Objections were soon voiced by various political figures, not the least of whom was Senator James McMillan of Michigan, chairman of the District Committee and Centennial Committee of Washington City. Urged on by the American Institute of Architects and his aide Charles Moore, McMillan rallied support for a comprehensive parks system for Washington, which took the form of an Act of Congress on 8 March 1901. The issue of White House expansion, although pushed by the Corps, receded, and McKinley’s assassination in September put the plan in limbo.
The Modern White House
Leading figures in the design and architectural community sought access to the new president, Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt and his wife, Edith Carow Roosevelt, sought a house that would provide a more suitable background for the newly “international” presidency than the old Victorian mansion that the White House had become. Moreover, the Roosevelts had a big family, and as Mrs. Roosevelt’s notes and sketches showed at the time, the area of the second floor that was allocated for their living quarters was not adequate to accommodate them. The offices on the second floor had to go.
By the summer of 1902 a renovation of the White House was in the hands of Charles F. McKim of the prominent Manhattan architectural firm McKim, Mead and White. McKim’s advisor was the Washington architect Glenn Brown, who had sparked much of the public controversy against the Corps of Engineer’s expansion plan. While McKim always insisted that the Roosevelt renovation was the work of his firm, all written sources make it clear that he and Glenn Brown did the designing. What they did was to rethink the White House and the manner in which it functioned.
They faced an old stone house with an interior largely of wood and plaster. Two stories and an attic rose above a basement that was beneath ground on the north and entirely out of ground on the south. The basement was for services, and housed dingy kitchens, pantries, a “meat room” where meat was stored, servants’ bedchambers, a housekeeper’s apartment, and storage rooms piled with discarded furnishings. On the main floor were the state rooms, East Room, and two dining rooms, with the three parlors in between; on the west side of it the greenhouses rambled, occupying more ground space than the house itself. The second floor held offices and living quarters, and the attic was a forgotten space, entirely isolated from the rest of the house when an elevator was installed in place of the back stairs in 1881, cutting off access.
The architects first declared the White House to be historic and thus sacrosanct. They did not want to expand it, but to bring it back in line with its original conception. By that standard, some spaces would be eliminated and new space would be found in the existing envelope. Plans to remove the greenhouses initially met with resistance from the Roosevelts, but McKim’s gentle persuading as well as, perhaps, the intervention of a cousin, the novelist Edith Wharton, finally caused the president to assert, “Smash the glass houses!” Jefferson’s west terrace would be retained. His east terrace, demolished in the Grant administration, would be reconstructed. The house and its wings would be repaired to look as they had originally, without Victorian additions.
An office building would be added to the end of the west wing to accommodate the thirty employees who had previously had their offices on the second floor of the White House. The entire second floor would thus be renovated as family living quarters, while the first or state floor would remain the official and ceremonial heart of the White House, with support facilities in a completely revised basement, now to be the “ground floor.” A program of interior decoration was also planned.
Entrance to the White House was now to be through the East Wing, as it is today. Visitors would pass along the colonnade of Jefferson’s reconstructed wing into the basement, now a “ground floor,” its magnificent structural vaulting plastered smooth and painted white, giving it a monumental and dramatic character. Coatrooms, rest rooms, a modern kitchen, and offices were on the ground floor, which now featured a special entrance into the oval room named the Diplomatic Reception Room, which was located directly beneath the first floor’s Blue Room.
President Roosevelt insisted that the White House renovation take no more than ninety days from inception to completion, and he planned to remain in the house while the work was being done. This last edict was quickly rescinded, and in a haze of plaster dust Roosevelt moved across the street to a rented row house. The work was completed in time for the first state dinner of the season, in December 1902.
It was a house transformed. Even in black-and-white photographs its attributes are clear. The interior of the state rooms was given a European flair, with the grand East Room made over in Louis XVI style, featuring parquet floors and white-painted paneling, and the State Dining Room refitted with dark-polished Georgian-style oak paneling. The parlor walls were covered in silk and arrangements of cream-colored English- and French historical-style furniture graced the rooms. Modern plumbing, heating, and wiring were installed; the upstairs now housed an abundance of bedrooms, and the gleaming bathrooms showcased nickel-plated faucets and white tile.
The new West Wing—the so-called Temporary Executive Office Building—made the greatest change in affording the family privacy and the office staff more room. Although the president was allocated work space there, the West Wing was intended for use primarily by the president’s secretary and staff. Bill signings and important meetings in which the president was in attendance continued to be held in the White House proper, in the president’s study on the second floor. Some congressmen refused to use the West Wing, thinking it inferior. In 1909 Taft doubled the size of the West Wing, building the first Oval Office, the shape chosen to reflect the most familiar—and distinctive—room in the main house.
Roosevelt’s renovation prepared the White House for the twentieth-century presidency. Ever greater crowds, more numerous events, larger staff, and greater public attention to the residence were to characterize White House life from then on. Very little was done to change the house during the next half century. In 1927 President Calvin Coolidge presided over replacement of the attic; the roof was raised to accommodate a full third floor, while the outside facade of the house remained unchanged. The solarium or “sky parlor” was built over the South Portico at this time, and guest and service rooms were added to serve the second-floor family quarters, as the ground floor served the first, or state, floor.
Herbert Hoover’s plans to double the size of the West Wing were laid aside when the wing was damaged by fire on Christmas Eve 1929. The nation was in the initial stage of the Great Depression, and Hoover decided that a reconstruction of the West Wing was more appropriate than an expanded building. Where Coolidge had delivered an occasional radio address from the West Wing, Hoover gave many such addresses, noting that they were being broadcast from his office. This was the first time that the general public became aware of the West Wing as a significant feature of the White House. Franklin D. Roosevelt (president from 1933 to 1945) carried the idea a step further by issuing cozy “fireside chats” (although these addresses were typically broadcast from the Diplomatic Reception Room, which had no fireplace.)
FDR’s interest in the White House was great and change was undertaken soon after he became president. Roosevelt, who had been stricken with polio in 1921, had an indoor swimming pool installed at the White House for his exercise therapy; its construction was paid for largely by schoolchildren in New York State who donated dimes and pennies in the first wave of the fundraising effort for polio aid and research that became known as the March of Dimes. The pool was boarded over during the Nixon administration in order to accommodate the present press room. Roosevelt loved old houses, and had remodeled the family estate at Hyde Park and helped design Eleanor Roosevelt’s Val-Kill cottage, both in the Hudson River Valley of New York. At the White House a National Park Service architect, Lorenzo Winslow, met with him frequently on projects. Together they designed the ground-floor library and would have overseen renovation of the West Wing had Mrs. Roosevelt not intervened to ensure that her friend and sometimes colleague Eric Gugler have the job. In enlarging the West Wing in 1934, Roosevelt doubled its size, but because the addition was mostly underground, the facade of the building was unchanged. Gugler designed the Oval Office that we know today.
Roosevelt had long wanted an extension of the East Wing to house a White House museum, but he was unable to raise sufficient funds. He continued to collect artifacts, and after the United States entered World War II in 1941, ordered the wing begun as an emergency action. Winslow designed it; Congress funded it, and the construction was conducted behine high wooden fences in utmost secrecy. Unknown to the public, the new addition included a bomb shelter, a grim series of concrete rooms several stories beneath the ground, with a presidential chamber in the center furnished with a cot and desk. Roosevelt is said to have refused to return to the room after seeing it once.
Preserving the Symbol
After Roosevelt’s long tenure, a new president faced a White House showing fifty years of quick alterations and structural neglect. A U.S. Army Corps of Engineers report made the week after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, had pronounced the White House a firetrap. Roosevelt had dismissed the report, saying that he had lived in old houses all his life and they all had aches and pains. When President Harry S. Truman moved to the residence in 1945 from a small apartment in Washington, the barren family quarters never looked more in need of help. There were deep cracks in the walls, and now and then the heavy chandeliers on the state floor swayed slightly, accompanied by a falling snow of plaster dust. In 1948, after a leg of the grand piano belonging to the president’s daughter, Margaret, sank between two boards in the floor of her room, the president called in the Corps of Engineers.
Truman and his family moved to Blair House across the street—which had been rescued from demolition by FDR for use as a guest house—and the Corps went to work inspecting the White House. Not long after, the Corps ordered the house emptied. One engineer recalled crawling between the upstairs floor and the East Room ceiling and finding the plaster ceiling unlocked from its lath as much as eighteen inches—in other words, the eighty-five-foot ceiling was like a hammock, largely suspended between its two ends.
Major work was required to fix the structural problems. The original interior framing of the house was constructed of wood covered with wood lath, all dry wood that indeed made it a firetrap. It could be restored, its parts carefully pieced and repaired, but it would be of use then only as a museum. Truman wanted the White House to remain the home of the presidents. For this it had to be fireproof and bombproof. Many project designs were put forth. The plan that the president favored had been carried out on a historic building at Yale University, which had been gutted, its outer walls preserved. Truman was determined to undertake just this type of renovation, to save George Washington’s original walls and otherwise empty the vessel, building a new, structurally sound White House without altering the historic facade.
Restoration was carried out between 1948 and 1952. The third floor, built during Coolidge’s tenure in 1927, was retained; permanent steel legs were built through the old house and down to the level of cellars yet to come to support it. Underpinning for the outside walls of the house extended twenty-four feet into a new foundation, and a steel framework was constructed to support the reconstructed walls of the interior. At first an effort was made to preserve old doors and paneling, but as the job progressed, most of the material was discarded or made into souvenirs. Some old wainscoting was retained, along with some window surrounds and various other woodwork. Truman was intent that the project not be seen as a violation of the historic site. Once while making his daily inspection of the work, he came upon laborers preparing to enlarge a doorway to admit a bulldozer and dump truck needed to dig the new basement. He stopped them at once, ordering that the bulldozer and truck be dismantled outside and reassembled within to accomplish the task.
Toward the end of the work, Truman cracked the whip. He wanted to occupy the house before his administration was over. The work proceeded in haste and was completed by the spring of 1952. Inside the changes were subtle, but the house did have a more monumental feel due to generous use, relative to the original White House, of such materials as marble where plaster had been before. The rooms were stylishly furnished, mostly with reproductions of American antiques. The former First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, in her syndicated newspaper column “My Day,” wrote that it reminded her of a Sheraton Hotel.
The reconstruction carried out under Truman could be dismissed as a desecration, but any judgment must be tempered by the fact that Truman was dealing with the White House, home and office of the world’s most powerful leader. He saved the image and enough of the substance to lend the restored White House historical credibility. It was not an easy decision; not nearly as easy as his decision, in 1948, to install a balcony over the South Portico, with access from the family quarters; he did this to fire a volley at the Congress, which had refused to fund a new executive office wing. But Truman’s view of history was sweeping, and he was conscious of the symbolic power of the White House, and committed to preserving that symbol. His decision in the renovations of 1948 to 1952 stands the test of time.
Enduring Image, New Challenges
Truman was the first president to understand the burgeoning power of television and the impact that this technology would have on the presidency. He insisted that the historic White House be his backdrop during televised addresses to the nation. He added a broadcast room to the residence for this purpose. Television did have a dramatic impact on the presidency, and in rescuing the physical White House, Truman preserved an American icon that, with the help of the broadcast media, became known throughout the world.
Dwight D. Eisenhower, president from 1953 to 1961, was heir to the Truman renovations. The only change that he and First Lady Mamie Eisenhower made was in the Diplomatic Reception Room, which was furnished with American antiques under the direction of the American Society of Interior Designers. Alterations to the White House were, however, a main issue in the administration of Eisenhower’s successor, John F. Kennedy.
During the brief Kennedy administration, the White House was rethought in a major way for the first time since Theodore Roosevelt’s renovation. With the advice of Letitia Baldridge, Jacqueline Kennedy’s social secretary, White House ceremony was reconsidered. For example, visiting heads of state had previously been met at the airport and driven down Constitution Avenue through crowds of government workers waving small flags distributed for the purpose. Now visiting dignitaries were transported from the airport via helicopter; at the White House, some 600 spectators were admitted to mark the occasion. The Marine Band played, and the President and guest each made brief addresses and retired to the house, the entire ceremony taking about twenty minutes.
Kennedy sought a background for his presidency that would reflect the United States’ postwar international prestige. Mrs. Kennedy envisioned a solution in refurbishing the rooms of the White House; she began making plans for redecoration even before they moved to the residence in 1961. But the idea gained new meaning when, on an official trip to France, President and Mrs. Kennedy were struck by President Charles de Gaulle’s “historically accurate” interior restorations at the palace of Versailles and its outdoor pavilion, the Grand Trainon, as well as the restoration of Empress Josephine’s chateau, Malmaison. The decorator responsible for these, Stephane Boudin, was brought to the United States to oversee interior design of the White House. Boudin’s role was a well-kept secret for fear that the public and press would criticize the president’s going to Europe to find talent sufficient for the American White House. Henry Francis du Pont, founder of the Winterthur Museum in Delaware, was the name publicly associated with the renovations at the Kennedy White House, but the decisions were Boudin’s, subject to Mrs. Kennedy’s approval.
The refurbished state rooms were dramatic in their period attire, and gained the approbation of the American public. A particular sort of personal attention was drawn to the White House and its occupants as it had not been in many years. The First Lady showcased the reenvisioned interior of the White House in a nationally televised tour, as Truman had done in 1952; President Kennedy made a cameo appearance, praising the work. Not only was the house redecorated along historical lines, but longtime government plans to bulldoze the houses around Lafayette Park so that high-rise offices could be built were scrapped in favor of restoring and reconstructing the old houses and building executive and judicial office buildings behind them. Designed and carried out by the architect John Carl Warnecke, an intimate of the Kennedys, this work was completed after Kennedy’s death in 1963.
President Kennedy, who took an interest in gardening, named the White House Reservation One of the National Park Service, and put the Park Service in charge of the grounds. Kennedy had the Rose Garden redesigned by Rachel Lambert Mellon and the horticulturist Perry Wheeler; he wanted the garden to be tranquil and private and yet able to accommodate five hundred spectators at a bill signing. Every Kennedy endeavor to update the White House was governed by the concept of historical accuracy. To further interest the public in the White House and its history, Mrs. Kennedy founded the White House Historical Association, a nonprofit organization that today funds acquisitions of antiques and many publications about the White House, including guide books and the journal White House History.
Mrs. Kennedy’s renovations were completed under the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson (1963-1969). The Committee for the Preservation of the White House was established by Executive Order in 1964 and given jurisdiction over the state rooms. Lady Bird Johnson’s program of beautification extended to the White House grounds in the planting of many trees and creation of the Children’s Garden, a space tucked away in the south grounds and featuring a fish pool.
During the administration of Richard M. Nixon (1969-1974), the West Wing, notably the basement, was remodeled, and a columned porch was added to the north side. The President and Mrs. Nixon were also interested in history and antiques and greatly expanded the Kennedy program. Most of the antique furnishings in the White House today were acquired by gift or purchase during the Nixon administration. All of the state rooms were redecorated, their contents enhanced with valuable furnishings of antique or historical value.
Interest in the White House under Presidents Gerald Ford (1974-1977) and Jimmy Carter (1977-1981) centered in art, and fine American pictures were acquired, including notable portraits, busts, and genre scenes. President Ronald Reagan (1981-1989) had the family quarters, some thirty-two rooms on the second and third floors entirely remodeled under the direction of interior designer Ted Graber of Los Angeles. His successor, President George Bush (1988-1993), showed little particular interest in redecorating an already many times redecorated White House, although he did refurbish the Oval Office, keeping with a relatively recent trend of updating this room by administration, to reflect a president’s personal tastes.
The presidency of Bill Clinton (1993-2001) saw many stylish changes in the decoration of the family quarters, but little with respect to the state areas of the house, except for the Blue Room, which was refreshed and redecorated along the lines Nixon had introduced. Hillary Rodham Clinton sought historical authenticity in following the preferences of James Monroe even with respect to the paint specifications. She removed everything that was not reflective of Monroe’s original purchases and personally refitted some reproduced period wallpaper to better suit the room. Her “restoration” perhaps begins a trend. In the administration of President George W. Bush, which began in 2001, the family quarters have been more rearranged than redecorated, although some colors have been changed.
Access to the People’s House was restricted in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries due to security threats at home and abroad. The block of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House was closed to vehicular traffic in May 1995, during the Clinton administration, after several security breaches on White House grounds and the car bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building in April 1995. Secret Service officials had been urging closure of the avenue since the mid-1980s.
The National Park Service has planned a large-scale underground expansion to the south under the Ellipse, a large open field behind the White House, and on the north, under Pennsylvania Avenue, for parking, offices, meeting rooms, and storage. Plans were being made for an ever greater pedestrian area north of the White House, and perhaps eventually on the surrounding streets. Plans had also been put forward regarding construction of a traffic tunnel beneath Pennsylvania Avenue; an alternate plan is for such a tunnel to be built beneath K Street, to the south. All of this, of course, is pending the security adjustments that will be necessary in the aftermath of 11 September 2001.
In retrospect, it seems unfortunate that the original eighty-two acre President’s Park was not preserved in Washington’s day, for if it was still intact, the problems of the White House with respect to security would be fewer. History has brought change to the White House over two centuries, as have the aims, conceptions, and preferences of the individuals residing under its roof. But the image itself is one of continuity. One thing seems certain: The White House and even its grounds within the iron fence will always look about as they do, whatever may be done to alter the broader surroundings. In a nation with little ceremony beyond the courtroom, symbols are especially important. The White House is the foremost symbol of the American presidency, and one of the most familiar symbols in the world of American democracy.