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Front Entrance to the White House. U.S. Government Printing Office

WHITE HOUSE HISTORY

For more than 200 years, the White House has been more than just the home of the Presidents and their families. Throughout the world, it is recognized as the symbol of the President, of the President's administration, and of the United States.

About the Building

For more then two hundred years, the White House has stood as a symbol of the Presidency, the United States government, and the American people. Its history, and the history of the nation's capital, began when President George Washington signed an Act of Congress in December of 1790 declaring that the federal government would reside in a district "not exceeding ten miles square…on the river Potomac." President Washington, together with city planner Pierre L’Enfant, chose the site for the new residence, which is now 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Originally, plans for a "President's Palace" were developed by artist and engineer Pierre Charles L’Enfant. L' Enfant envisioned a majestic home approximately four times the size of the present White House. As preparations began for the new federal city, a competition was held to find a builder of the "President’s House." Nine proposals were submitted, and Irish-born architect James Hoban won a gold medal for his practical and handsome design.

Whitehouse Floor Plan Drawing

Construction began when the first cornerstone was laid in October 13, 1792. Although President George Washington selected James Hoban's plan, but he felt that it was too small and simple for a president. Under Washington's supervision, Hoban's plan was expanded and the White House was given a grand reception room, elegant pilasters, window hoods, and stone swags of oak leaves and flowers. However, George Washington never lived in the White House.

Upon it's completion in 1800, America's second president, John Adams moved in. Adam's wife Abigail complained about the unfinished state of the presidential home. Costing $232,372, the house was considerably smaller than the grand palace L' Enfant had envisioned. Since that time, each President has made his own changes and additions. The White House is, after all, the President’s private home. It is also the only private residence of a head of state that is open to the public, free of charge.

Stone Ornaments Above the White House Entrance

As with many things in the United States; the White House could not have been completed without European artisans and immigrant laborers. Scottish stone workers raised the sandstone walls. Craftsmen from Scotland also carved the rose and garland ornaments above the north entrance and the scalloped patterns beneath the window pediments. Irish and Italian immigrants did brick and plaster work. Later, Italian artisans carved the decorative stonework on the White House porticoes.

White House on Fire, 1814. William Strickland, engraver. Library of Congress LC-USZC4-405 DLC
The White House has a unique and fascinating history. It survived a fire at the hands of the British in 1814 (during the war of 1812) and another fire in the West Wing in 1929, while Herbert Hoover was President. Throughout much of Harry S. Truman’s presidency, the interior of the house, with the exception of the third floor, was completely gutted and renovated while the Truman's lived at Blair House, right across Pennsylvania Avenue. Nonetheless, the exterior stone walls are those first put in place when the White House was constructed two centuries ago.
The Blue Room

Thomas Jefferson held the first Inaugural open house in 1805. Many of those who attended the swearing-in ceremony at the U.S. Capitol simply followed him home, where he greeted them in the Blue Room. President Jefferson also opened the house for public tours, and it has remained open, except during wartime, ever since. In addition, he welcomed visitors to annual receptions on New Year’s Day and on the Fourth of July. In 1829, a horde of 20,000 Inaugural callers forced President Andrew Jackson to flee to the safety of a hotel while, on the lawn, aides filled washtubs with orange juice and whiskey to lure the mob out of the mud-tracked White House.

After Abraham Lincoln’s presidency, Inaugural crowds became far too large for the White House to accommodate them comfortably. However, not until Grover Cleveland’s first presidency did this unsafe practice change. He held a presidential review of the troops from a flag-draped grandstand built in front of the White House.This procession evolved into the official Inaugural parade we know today. Receptions on New Year’s Day and the Fourth of July continued to be held until the early 1930s.

White House after the roof burned, 1929. LOC, Theodor Horydczak Collection, LC-H832-3044-x DLC
In 1929, shortly after the United States fell into a deep economic depression, an electrical fire broke out in the West Wing of the White House. Except for the third floor, most of the rooms in the White House were gutted for renovations.
Franklin D. Roosevelt.Photo 73113:61 by Margaret Suckley, FDR Presidential Library/National Archives
The original builders of the White House didn't consider the possibility of a handicapped president. The White House didn't become wheelchair accessible until Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office in 1933. President Roosevelt suffered paralysis due to polio, so the White House was remodeled to accommodate his wheelchair. Franklin Roosevelt also added a heated indoor swimming pool to help with his therapy.
Work on the South Portico, ca. 1950. Image #71-298, Truman Library/National Archives
After 150 years, wooden support beams and exterior load-bearing walls of the White House were weak. Engineers declared the building unsafe and said that it would collapse if not repaired. In 1948, President Truman had the interior rooms gutted so that new steel support beams could be installed. During the reconstruction, the Truman's lived across the street at Blair House.

Some interesting facts:

  • There are 132 rooms, 35 bathrooms, and 6 levels in the Residence. There are also 412 doors, 147 windows, 28 fireplaces, 8 staircases, and 3 elevators.
  • At various times in history, the White House has been known as the "President's Palace," the "President's House," and the "Executive Mansion." President Theodore Roosevelt officially gave the White House its current name in 1901.
  • Presidential Firsts while in office... President James Polk (1845-49) was the first President to have his photograph taken... President Theodore Roosevelt (1901-09) was not only the first President to ride in an automobile, but also the first President to travel outside the country when he visited Panama... President Franklin Roosevelt (1933-45) was the first President to ride in an airplane.
  • With five full-time chefs, the White House kitchen is able to serve dinner to as many as 140 guests and hors d'oeuvres to more than 1,000.
  • The White House requires 570 gallons of paint to cover its outside surface.
  • For recreation, the White House has a variety of facilities available to its residents, including a tennis court, jogging track, swimming pool, movie theater, and bowling lane.

 

Front Entrance to the White House. U.S. Government Printing Office