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The History of the White House

By V. I. Andronache


The White House, located at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., in Washington DC, has been the home of every U.S. president since John Adams. The presidential mansion is situated on some 18 acres (7.3 hectares) of land amid a parklike setting. The building's main section measures 170 feet (52 meters) long and 85 feet (26 meters) deep. Its 2½ stories are mounted on an English basement, which, because of the slope of land, becomes a ground floor, on the south side. Two wings flank the original structure. The West Wing was constructed in 1902, following a Congressional appropriation of $ 65,196. It contains the Oval (presidential) Office, the Roosevelt or staff meeting room, a reception room, and the Cabinet Room. French doors within the president's office open onto the Rose Garden, which continues to follow the plan of an 18th century flower garden. The president regularly receives official visitors in the Rose Garden. The East Wing was built in 1942 and contains offices for presidential aids. The Jacqueline Kennedy Garden, so named by Mrs. Lyndon B. Johnson in honor of her predecessor, is off the East Wing and is used by the First Lady as a reception area.

Prior to 1902, the ground floor served as the president's work area. This floor now features the Library, which was completely reorganized in 1962; the Vermeil or Gold Room, which serves as a display room as well as a ladies' sitting room; the China or "Presidential Collection Room," which includes a wide exhibit of White House China; the Diplomatic Reception Room, formerly a boiler room; and the Map Room, from which president Franklin Delano Roosevelt monitored the events of World War II.

Although the rooms of the first (state) floor have been refurbished many times over the years, the floor has not changed architecturally since the White House was designed by John Hoban in 1792. The East Room, three reception rooms (the Green Room, Blue Room, and Red Room), the State Dining Room, and the Family Dining Room comprise the first floor. With the exception of the Family Dining Room, these rooms are open to the public. The East Room, called the "Public Audience Room" by Hoban, retains its classical stile of the early 19th century. It has been the scene of many White House dances, concerts, weddings, funerals, and bill-signing ceremonies. Gerald R. Ford took the oath of office in the East Room when he succeeded Richard M. Nixon as chief executive. The State Dining Room was originally much smaller and functioned as a drawing room, office, and cabinet room. The dining hall now can seat as many as 140 guests. The second floor includes the Queen's Suite, formerly the Rose Guest Room and now a sitting room and bedroom; the Lincoln Bedroom, which was the office and the cabinet room of the 16th chief executive; the adjoining Lincoln Sitting Room; and the former Cabinet Room, which was designated the Treaty Room during the John Fitzgerald Kennedy administration to reflect the many important decisions made in it. The private quarters of the president and his family are located on the west end of the second floor.

The History of the White House:

Construction of the White House was begun in 1792 after an architectural competition won by James Hoban, an Irish born architect who had immigrated to America some years earlier. After many delays and financial problems the building was habitable (but not completed) in 1800, when President John Adams and his wife, Abigail, moved in. Hoban's original drawing of the north façade, which has survived, reflects the English-Palladian architecture of the mid 18th century.

Thomas Jefferson, the second president to occupy the White House, employed the gifted architect Benjamin H. Latrobe in 1806 to help design the east and west pavilions. The latter has survived in its nearly original state. Latrobe also made designs of the north and south porticoes which were executed in a modified form at a later date.

In 1814 during the War of 1812, British forces burned all of the public buildings in Washington. The White House was not spared. With the exception of a Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington, now in the East Room, all of the furnishings from the Adams, Jefferson, and Madison administrations were destroyed. Under James Hoban's supervision the White House was rebuilt and was ready for occupancy in 1817, refurnished in the Empire Style with items imported from France by President James Monroe. However, in the architecture of the building, and particularly in the interior, Hoban returned to his earlier Palladian style and did not repeat the neoclassic innovations made by Latrobe. The scorched exterior walls were painted white. There is the misconception that this is the reason it was called the White House. Actually it had borne that name since it was first built.

Throughout the 19th century the interior of the White House went through each successive decorative style, but the exterior appearance of the building remained the same. Gas lighting was introduced in 1849 and central heating in 1853. The first bathroom was installed in 1877. In 1833 pipes bringing water from a nearby spring replaced the pump formerly used. After 1853 water was piped in from the city's water system. Electricity came to the White House during the residency of Benjamin Harrison.

In 1902, during the administration of President Theodore Roosevelt, the White House underwent its first major renovation, under the direction of the architectural firm of McKim, Mead, and White. The rooms on the first floor were stripped of their Victorian overlay and returned to their early-19th-century appearance. The grand staircase was moved into the entrance hall to permit the creation of the State Dining Room at the southwest corner of the building.

In 1949, under the administration of President Harry S. Truman, the White House was found unsafe for occupancy. The exterior walls were retained while the interior fabric of the building was removed and rebuilt on a steel and concrete frame. Great care was taken to preserve the original woodwork, marble mantle-pieces, and decorative plasterwork. The original floor plan was followed faithfully. A balcony, now known as the Truman Balcony, was built on the second-floor level of the South portico. It has become a favorite spot of presidential families.

Under the guidance of Mrs. John F. Kennedy, the restoration of the interior of the White House to its original late-18th and early-19th century appearance was begun. A Fine Arts Committee, composed of museum specialists and others, was formed to direct the work of restoration. This committee was further strengthened by a special Advisory Committee and a Paintings Committee. Prior to this there had been little attempt to preserve or to use historic White House furnishings, and the rooms of the first floor were largely furnished with reproductions. Many important objects were recovered from White House storage areas. Other outstanding examples of American cabinetmaking and the decorative arts were supplied by generous donors. Mrs. Kennedy felt strongly that "everything in the White House must have a reason for being there." Subsequently, the Committee for the Preservation of the White House and the permanent office of curator were established by President Johnson. Additional pieces of valuable furniture and American paintings were acquired for the White House during the Nixon administration, and the principal rooms of the first and ground floors were redecorated during the Nixon years. After moving to the executive mansion in January 1981, Mrs. Ronald Reagan oversaw the remodeling of the first and second floor rooms and several preservation projects.

For the American public, the executive mansion has become a national palace as well as a home for the chief executive. For, in the words of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the "White House has been and should always remain a place to be venerated by its occupants as well as by all Americans."

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