Historic Sites and Buildings
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 not only been the scene of many historic events and brilliant social affairs but has also reflected the triumphs and tragedies of the Nation as well as the joys and agonies of the First Family.
A home as much as the focus of national pride, the residence has reverberated with the pronouncements of statesmen and international dignitaries, the sounds of children at play, recitations of marriage vows, the sobs of mourners at state funerals, the gaiety of splendid balls. World leaders and ordinary people have trod the halls. The panorama of furnishings, decorations, portraits, other paintings, and art objects reveal the diverse careers and tastes of the occupants and portray the history of our country.
Like the Nation itself, the building and furnishings bear the influences of successive Chief Executives. Although it has often been renovated and modernized, the original sandstone walls have been preserved to maintain the historical atmosphere, and the structure retains the simplicity and charm of its original appearance.
PRESIDENT Washington approved the plans, drawn by Irish-born James Hoban, winner of a prize competition, in which one of the participants, anonymously, had been Thomas Jefferson. Maj. Pierre Charles L'Enfant, the French architect-engineer, located the mansion in his plan of the Federal City, in which it and the Capitol were the first public buildings erected.
Construction began in 1792. Light gray sandstone from the Aquia Creek quarries, in Virginia, was used for the exterior walls. During the course of erection or soon thereafter, they were apparently 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."
Hoban probably derived many of the architectural details from various European mansions, and the main facade resembles the Duke of Leinster's mansion in Dublin. Although the roof has subsequently been altered and is now flat, it was originally hipped. Hoban supervised the basic construction, the rebuilding after the burning by British forces in 1814, and erection of the north (front) and south porticoes some years later. Over the course of time, however, various architects, notably Benjamin H. Latrobe during and after the Jefferson administration, modified the original design. He added long, terrace-roofed arcades, which faced south, at the east and west ends of the building.
The John Adamses moved in during November 1800, late in his administration when the Government moved to Washington from Philadelphia. The White House was then unfinished, barely habitable, and offered few conveniences of the day. Many of the walls were still unplastered, the principal stairs had not been erected, and the roof leaked. Temporary wooden steps flanked the principal entrances, the grounds were untidy, and outbuildings were lacking. Abigail dried the family wash in the uncompleted East Room.
By the time Jefferson assumed the Presidency in 1801, the residence was still only partially finished. During the last years of his occupancy, he and Latrobe were so busy making it more livable and enhancing the exterior appearance that they found almost no time to decorate the interior. That task was partially accomplished with Latrobe's aid by Dolley Madison, who had often served as Jefferson's official hostess and who in 1809 became the new tenant with her husband. She introduced some of the elegance and glitter of Old World courts into the social life of the White House until the War of 1812 struck home. In August 1814 British forces captured the city of Washington and set the White House, the Capitol, and other Government buildings to the torch in retaliation for the destruction by U.S. troops of some public structures in Canada. Before Mrs. Madison fled, she arranged for the removal of many valuable documents, objects, and the Gilbert Stuart portrait of Washington that now hangs in the East Room.
A torrential rain prevented total destruction of the edifice. Because of the fire, however, the decorations and furnishings, all of which perished, and the interior arrangement of rooms before that time are not precisely known. Only the partially damaged exterior walls and interior brickwork remained in the spring of 1815, when reconstruction under Hoban began. The Madisons lived out the remainder of his term in Octagon House and "Seven Buildings."
In September 1817 James Monroe, who had been renting a home on I Street NW. (the Monroe-Adams-Abbe House, described elsewhere in this book), was able to occupy the White House. Among its treasured possessions today are some of the furnishings he installed. During his second term, in 1824, builders completed the semicircular south portico; and in 1829, the first year of Jackson's tenancy, the front, square north portico. No other substantive changes were made in the exterior during the rest of the century, though the landscaping was improved and the garden and stable areas were reduced. President Buchanan replaced the west arcade with a greenhouse; and Grant razed the east one which had become dilapidated.
The interior of the structure remained basically the same throughout the 19th century, but various new facilities were provided: gaslights (1848), furnace (1853), telephone (1877), elevator (1882), and electricity (1891). During the early 1880's, while widower President Arthur resided for a few months in the home of a friend on Capitol Hill, New York designer Louis C. Tiffany extensively redecorated the interior.
Late in the century, various individuals and organizations advanced proposalspractical and grandiosefor the renovation, enlargement, or replacement of the White House. One suggestion was that it be used only for state functions and that a new private residence be built for the President. At the root of these proposals was recognition that the interior had become a conglomeration of styles and periods representing the previous occupants, though it had remained sparsely furnished until the latter part of the century. Also, the use of the east end of the second floor for the Presidential and staff offices, a practice that had originated about 1850, not only made for crowded conditions but also interfered with the privacy of the First Family.
In 1902 Theodore Roosevelt, moving his family temporarily across the street to a privately owned residence on the west side of Lafayette Park at 736 Jackson Place, undertook a major restoration and expansion program. Rebuilding much of the interior, workmen enlarged the State Dining Room by removing the west stairway, altering the arrangement of the Cross Hall, and combining two smaller chambers, one of which had served as Jefferson's library and Cabinet Room. This created the present north-south orientation of the State Dining Room. Before that time, large dinners had required use of the Cross Hall or the East Room.
The main stairway was also rebuilt to open on the Cross Hall near the East Room instead of just off the north foyer, or main Entrance Hall. A solarium and guest annex were created by reconstructing the attic; a new basement was dug; and the old ground-floor rooms, which had been used for service purposes, were finished off. In addition, a new West Wing was erected to provide office space for the President and his staff, and Latrobe's east and west (replacing the greenhouse) terraces were rebuilt in gallery form. Finally, the first floor was redecorated and refurnished to conform essentially with its early 19th-century appearance.
Between 1903 and 1948 a series of alterations occurred. President Taft, the first Chief Executive to utilize automobiles, replaced the stable with a garage. In 1909 the West Wing was doubled in size by the addition of an Oval Office for the President and other offices. In 1927 a third floor was superimposed on the wing. That same year, the attic of the main building was converted into a full additional floor to provide more guestroooms, a new glassed-in sunroom, storage areas, and servants' quarters. During the renovation, the Coolidges first temporarily resided at 15 Dupont Circle, in a still-extant mansion loaned by the Patterson family, and then took an extended vacation in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
Improvements during the Franklin D. Roosevelt era (1933-45) were enlargement of the West Wing (1933-34) including a swimming pool, financed by private donations, which facilitated Roosevelt's recuperation from poliomyelitis; addition of a modern electric kitchen on the ground level of the main part of the residence (1936); erection of additional storerooms and service areas in the basement (1936); and construction of the two-story East Wing (1942), consisting of additional offices and an underground air-raid shelter.
In 1946 President Truman built a second-floor balcony inside the columns of the south portico, under which the year before Roosevelt for wartime security reasons had taken the formal oath of office for his fourth term. Later during the Truman period, in 1949-52, the White House underwent a major renovation, during which time the First Family lived at nearby Blair House, described elsewhere in this volume. Because examination had revealed that the main section of the building lacked adequate support, certain ceilings had dropped several inches, and the foundations were too weak to support the walls, the interior was dismantled and reconstructed. New concrete foundations and floors were laid, the wooden beams and interior brick supporting walls were replaced with steel framework, and new partitions were erected. The only basic change in the floor plan was the turning of the main stairway from the Cross Hall to the north foyer.
The walls and ceilings were plastered, woodwork installed, and the interior and exterior repainted. Third-floor alterations included the addition of bedrooms and a parlor, as well as enlargement of the sunroom. A new basement and mezzanine for service facilities and the placement of machinery and electrical equipment were also constructed.
Since that time, structural alterations and repairs have been minimal. President Nixon replaced the swimming pool in the West Wing with additional press facilities; and President Ford, an avid swimmer, constructed an outdoor pool, financed by private donations, behind the Oval Office.
THE White House represents the Adamesque-Federal style of architecture. The main structure is 11 bays wide and five deep, each Ionic-columned portico traversing three bays. The square front portico is gabled, whereas the semicircular rear one is flat-roofed. The large and alternately pedimented and hooded windows on the first floor and the smaller, plainly trimmed ones on the second level are the only embellishments in the regular mass and form. The center windows on the sides are Palladian on the first floor and arched, or lunette, on the second. Also providing symmetry are a crowning balustrade, the dentiled cornice, and the long east and west galleries and adjoining wings.
Because the galleries are scarcely visible from Pennsylvania Avenue, the front of the White House appears to be rectilinear in shape and its scope to be comparatively restricted. The extra ground-level story of the rear facade and the visual impact of the galleries and wings enhance the esthetic effect from that orientation; especially because the galleries give the impression of low colonnaded wings. The terraces above them provide spacious promenades at the first-floor level. Arcades, behind a series of rooms, lead under the terraces from the East and West Wings to the basement of the main structure.
The only floor open to the public is the first. Its furnishings and decorations are predominantly 19th century. Portraits of several Presidents and First Ladies hang in the foyer (Entrance Hall), main corridor (Cross Hall), and the various rooms. The main stairway to the second floor is just off the lobby on the east side of the Entrance Hall. The seals of the Thirteen Original States are carved on the marble sides of the stair archway. Six modified Classic columns separate the lobby from the main corridor. The columns and pilasters spaced along the latter's walls are of vari-colored Vermont marble; the floors are of gray and pink Tennessee marble.
The East, Green, Blue, and Red Rooms, as well as the State Dining Room, are used mainly for public functions. The East Room, which spans that end of the floor, is the largest chamber in the building and is used primarily for state receptions and balls. The dominant colors are white and gold. Decorative highlights include fluted pilasters, a cornice decorated with Greek palmettes, ceiling medallions, and parquet floors. On the east wall is the most notable portrait in the White House, Stuart's rendition of Washington that Dolley Madison removed as she fled from advancing British troops in 1814. It is said to be the only object that has been in the residence since the John Adamses first occupied it in 1800.
The East Room has other rich history. During the Civil War, troops guarding Lincoln occupied it. While the mansion was draped in mourning, the bodies of Presidents William Henry Harrison, Taylor, Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, Harding, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Kennedythe first two of whom were the only Chief Executives to die in the White Househave lain in repose in the room. Married in it were Maria Monroe, Elizabeth Tyler, Nellie Grant, Alice Roosevelt, Jessie Wilson, and Lynda Bird Johnson. Because January 20, 1957, fell on Sunday, when it was considered inappropriate to take the oath of office publicly, Eisenhower took a Preliminary one in the chamber before taking part in the formal ceremonies the next day at the Capitol. The second inauguration held in the room was that of Ford, who was formally sworn in there in 1974 after Nixon resigned.
The elliptically shaped Blue Room, a drawing room that was once used for diplomatic receptions, is opposite the Entrance Hall in a central position on the south side of the first floor. Furnished to represent the Monroe period, it is one of the most beautiful in the Executive Mansion. There the Chief Executive and First Lady receive guests at state dinners and receptions. The only wedding of a President in the White House took place in the Blue Room in 1886, when Grover Cleveland and Frances Folsom took their vows. Also married in the chamber were John Adams, son of John Quincy, in 1828; and Eleanor Wilson, in 1914. Franklin D. Roosevelt maintained his public office there during the summer of 1934 while the West Wing was being enlarged.
The Green Room, a parlor between the East Room and the Blue Room, also on the south side of the floor once served as Jefferson's dining room. Restored in the Federal style, it now hosts informal receptions. The Red Room, another parlor, just west of the Blue Room, was once called the "Ladies' Drawing Room" and "Mrs. Madison's Parlor." It is decorated in the American Empire motif, and is now used for informal receptions, mainly by the First Lady. Heeding the Sabbath restriction on public oaths, on Sunday morning, March 4, 1877, Hayes first took his in the Red Room and then, the next day, repeated the words at the Capitol.
The State Dining Room, exceeded in size only by the East Room, is the southwest portion of the first floor. It is decorated in white and gold. Up to 140 guests can be accommodated at large dinners and luncheons. The Family Dining Room, just to the north, is furnished in the late 18th-century pattern, is decorated in yellow, and features a vaulted ceiling. The Presidential family dined there until 1961, when separate dining and kitchen facilities were created on the second floor. This freed the Family Dining Room for more intimate official functions.
The ground and upper three floors, as well as the East and West Wings, are reserved for the use of the First Family, staff, and guests. A corridor, whose ceiling is vaulted and whose walls are vari-colored Vermont marble, gives access to the ground floor. The oval Diplomatic Reception Room is below the Blue Room. Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered some of his "fireside chats" over the radio from this chamber. It is furnished with Classical Revival pieces and antique French wallpaper. The rug bears the seals of the 50 States. The China Room houses a collection of Presidential dishware. The Library contains a suite of rare Duncan Phyfe furniture. Other ground-floor rooms include the Curator's Office, Vermeil (Gold) Room, and the kitchens.
The President's private apartments occupy the west end of the second floor; the principal guest suites, the east. The Lincoln Bedroom, near the southeast end of that level, features items associated with Lincoln and is furnished in the Victorian style. It is now a guestroom, but was his Cabinet Room and he signed the Emancipation Proclamation there. Adjoining this chamber, in the southeast corner of the building, is the Lincoln Sitting Room, where various Presidents maintained their offices during the last half of the 19th century. Just west of the Lincoln Bedroom is the present Treaty Room, which the President now uses for informal conferences. Lincoln used it as his office, and during the period 1865-1902 it accommodated the Cabinet Room. The Lincoln Sitting and Treaty Rooms are decorated basically in the Victorian motif.
The Rose Guest Room (Queens' Bedroom), near the northeast corner of the floor, is furnished as an elegant lady's bedchamber of the early 19th century. In the Yellow Oval Room, a Louis XVI salon directly over the Blue Room, the President and his lady receive visiting heads of state prior to official dinners and other functions in their honor.
The present Cabinet Room, which faces south to the Rose Garden, is in the West Wing. Truman took his oath of office there in 1945 upon the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The natural beauty of the informally but carefully landscaped 18-acre grounds enhance the dignity of the White House. Particularly notable are the Rose Garden, begun by Mrs. Ellen Wilson in 1913 and the scene of Tricia Nixon's wedding in 1971, which is behind the West Wing; and the present Jacqueline Kennedy (formerly East) Garden, to the rear of the East Wing, which was dedicated to her by President and Mrs. Lyndon B. Johnson. The Chief Executives and members of their families have planted many of the trees on the grounds, which have other Presidential associations.
Last Updated: 22-Jan-2004