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Historic Sites and Buildings

National Historic Landmark THE WHITE HOUSE
District of Columbia
The White House
The White House

Location: 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW., Washington, D.C.

The official residence of our Presidents since 1800 and a national shrine that symbolizes the honor and dignity of the highest office in the land, the White House has been the scene of many historic events and brilliant social affairs. Like the Nation itself, it bears the influences of successive Chief Executives. Although rebuilt and modernized, it retains the simplicity and charm of its original appearance.

Appropriately enough, one of the early occupants of the White House was "Father of the Constitution" James Madison, the fourth President. He and his wife, Dolley, who had also often served as official hostess for President Thomas Jefferson, introduced some of the elegance and glitter of Old World courts into its social life when he took office in 1809. Because of the burning of the White House by the British late in 1814, however, the Madisons were forced to live out the rest of his second term at other residences in Washington.

President George Washington approved the plans for the White House, drawn by Irish-born James Hoban, winner of the prize competition. Maj. Pierre Charles L'Enfant, the French artist-engineer, located the mansion in his plan of the Federal City, in which it and the Capitol were the first public buildings erected. The cornerstone was laid on October 13, 1792. Workmen used light gray sandstone from the Aquia Creek quarries, in Virginia, for the exterior walls. During the course of construction or soon thereafter, they apparently were painted white. The building was thus unofficially termed the "White House" from an early date, but for many years it was usually referred to as the "President's House" or the "President's Palace."

The White House
The White House. (National Capital Parks (Abbie Rowe).)

In the Palladian style of architecture, the main facade resembles the Duke of Leinster's mansion in Dublin. Hoban probably derived the details of the other faces and the interior arrangement from various contemporary European mansions. He supervised the original construction, the rebuilding after the burning by British forces in 1814, and the erection of the north and south porticoes some years later. Over the course of time, however, various architects modified Hoban's original plans, notably Benjamin H. Latrobe during and after the Jefferson administration.

Although the interior had not been completed, President and Mrs. John Adams were the first residents, in November 1800, when the Government moved from Philadelphia to Washington. During Jefferson's term, the east and west terraces were constructed.

Madison's occupancy was interrupted in August 1814 when, during the War of 1812, the British captured the city and set the torch to the White House, the Capitol, and other Government buildings in retaliation for the destruction by U.S. troops of some public buildings in Canada. Before Mrs. Madison fled to Dumbarton House in Georgetown for temporary refuge, she managed to remove many valuable documents and the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington that now hangs in the East Room. In the spring of 1815 when reconstruction began, only the partially damaged exterior walls and interior brickwork remained. The Madisons lived out his term of office in the Octagon House and "Seven Buildings."

By 1817 rebuilding of the White House was completed and it was ready for occupancy by Madison's successor, James Monroe. In 1824 builders erected the south portico; and, 5 years later, the large north portico over the entrance and driveway. The west wing, including the President's oval office, was added during the first decade of the 20th century. The east wing was built in 1942.

The White House
The White House after British troops burned it in 1814 and forced the Madisons to flee. (Engraving (ca. 1814) by William Strickland, after George Munger. Library of Congress.)

Over the years, the White House has been extensively renovated and modernized on various occasions. The old sandstone walls have been retained, however. The aim has been to preserve the historical atmosphere while providing a more livable home for the President and his family.

On the first floor of the main building are the East Room, Green Room, Blue Room, Red Room, State Dining Room, and Family Dining Room. These richly furnished rooms are open to the public on a special schedule. The ground and second floors are restricted to the use of the Presidential family and guests. On the ground floor are the Diplomatic Reception Room, Curator's Office, Vermeil Room, China Room, and Library. The second floor contains the Lincoln Bedroom, Lincoln Sitting Room, Queens' Bedroom (Rose Guest Room), Treaty Room, and Yellow Oval Room. The Empire Guest Room is the most important one on the third floor. Neither of the wings, reserved for the President and his staff, are ordinarily accessible to the public.

The simple dignity of the White House is enhanced by the natural beauty of its informal but carefully landscaped grounds.

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Last Updated: 29-Jul-2004