Authoring, Researching, Reporting and other Work
 
Learning On-Line
 

Inside the Modern White House

The White House "Inside and Out"

The History of its Making, Destruction and Rebuilding

 
(From the Lincoln Presidential Museum, Springfield, IL)

 

history 1789–1952

 

Following his April 1789 inauguration, President George Washington occupied two executive mansions in New York City: the Samuel Osgood House at 3 Cherry Street (April 1789 – February 1790), and the Alexander Macomb House at 39–41 Broadway (February–August 1790). In May 1790, New York began construction of Government House for his official residence, but he never occupied it. The national capital moved to Philadelphia in December 1790.

The July 1790 Residence Act named Philadelphia, Pennsylvania the temporary national capital for a 10-year period while the Federal City was under construction. The City of Philadelphia rented Robert Morris's city house at 190 High Street (now 524-30 Market Street) for Washington's presidential residence. The first president occupied the Market Street mansion from November 1790 to March 1797, and altered it in ways that may have influenced the design of the White House. As part of a futile effort to have Philadelphia named the permanent national capital, Pennsylvania built a much grander presidential mansion several blocks away, but Washington declined to occupy it.

President John Adams also occupied the Market Street mansion from March 1797 to May 1800. On 1 November, in 1800, he became the first president to occupy the White House. The President's House in Philadelphia became a hotel and was demolished in 1832, while the unused presidential mansion became home to the University of Pennsylvania.

First Presidential Mansion: Samuel Osgood House, Manhattan, New York. Occupied by Washington: April 1789 - February 1790.

Second Presidential Mansion: Alexander Macomb House, Manhattan, New York. Occupied by Washington: February - August 1790.

Third Presidential Mansion: President's House, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Occupied by Washington: November 1790 – March 1797. Occupied by Adams: March 1797 – May 1800.

Government House, New York (1790-91). Built to be the permanent presidential mansion, Congress moved the national capital to Philadelphia before its completion.

House intended for the President, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (1790s). Built to be the permanent presidential mansion, neither Washington nor Adams would occupy it.

Architectural competition

 

Hoban's Charleston County Courthouse, Charleston, South Carolina, 1790–92, was admired by Washington.

 

 

 

A 1793 elevation by James Hoban. His 3-story, 9-bay original submission was altered into this 2-story, 11-bay design.

 

Drawing of Andrea Palladio 1570

 

The North Portico of the White House compared to Leinster House

 

The Château de Rastignac compared to the South Portico of the White House, ca. 1846

 

 

 

The President's House was a major feature of Pierre (Peter) Charles L'Enfant's's plan for the newly established federal city, Washington, D.C. The architect of the White House was chosen in a design competition which received nine proposals, including one submitted anonymously by Thomas Jefferson.

President Washington visited Charleston, South Carolina in May 1791 on his "Southern Tour", and saw the under-construction Charleston County Courthouse designed by Irish architect James Hoban. He is reputed to have met with Hoban then. The following year, he summoned the architect to Philadelphia and met with him in June 1792.

On July 16, 1792, the President met with the commissioners of the federal city to make his judgment in the architectural competition. His review is recorded as being brief, and he quickly selected Hoban's submission.

Washington was not entirely pleased with the original submission, however; he found it too small, lacking ornament, and not monumental enough to house the nation's president. On his recommendation, the house was changed from three stories to two, and was widened from a nine-bay facade to an 11-bay facade. Hoban's competition drawings do not survive.

Design influences

The building has classical inspiration sources, that could be found directly or indirectly in the Roman architect Vitruvius or in Andrea Palladio styles; Palladio being an Italian architect of the Renaissance which had a considerable influence on the Western architecture (Palladian architecture). The building Hoban designed is verifiably influenced by the upper floors of Leinster House, in Dublin, which later became the seat of the Oireachtas (the Irish parliament). Several other Georgian-era Irish country houses have been suggested as sources of inspiration for the overall floor plan, details like the bow-fronted south front, and interior details like the former niches in the present Blue Room. These influences, though undocumented, are cited in the official White House guide, and in White House Historical Association publications. The first official White House guide, published in 1962, suggested a link between Hoban's design for the South Portico and Château de Rastignac, a neoclassical country house located in La Bachellerie in the Dordogne region of France and designed by Mathurin Salat. Construction on the French house was initially started before 1789, interrupted by the French Revolution for twenty years and then finally built 1812–1817 (based on Salat's pre-1789 design). The theoretical link between the two houses has been criticized because Hoban did not visit France. Supporters of a connection posit that Thomas Jefferson, during his tour of Bordeaux in 1789, viewed Salat's architectural drawings (which were on-file at the College) at the École Spéciale d'Architecture (Bordeaux Architectural College). On his return to the U.S. he then shared the influence with Washington, Hoban, Monroe, and Benjamin Henry Latrobe.

Construction

Construction of the White House began with the laying of the cornerstone on October 13, 1792, although there was no formal ceremony. The main residence, as well as foundations of the house, were built largely by enslaved and free African-American laborers, as well as employed Europeans. Much of the other work on the house was performed by immigrants, many not yet with citizenship. The sandstone walls were erected by Scottish immigrants, employed by Hoban, as were the high-relief rose and garland decorations above the north entrance and the "fish scale" pattern beneath the pediments of the window hoods. The initial construction took place over a period of eight years, at a reported cost of $232,371.83 (equal to $3,229,057 today). Although not yet completed, the White House was ready for occupancy circa November 1, 1800.

Shortages, including material and labor, forced alterations to the earlier plan developed by French engineer Pierre Charles L'Enfant for a "palace" that was five times larger than the house that was eventually built. The finished structure contained only two main floors instead of the planned three, and a less costly brick served as a lining for the stone façades. When construction was finished, the porous sandstone walls were whitewashed with a mixture of lime, rice glue, casein, and lead, giving the house its familiar color and name.

As it is a famed structure in America, several replicas of the White House have been constructed.

Architectural description

The principal façade of the White House, the north front, is of three floors and eleven bays. The ground floor is hidden by a raised carriage ramp and parapet, thus the façade appears to be of two floors. The central three bays are behind a prostyle portico (this was a later addition to the house, built circa 1830) serving, thanks to the carriage ramp, as a porte cochere. The windows of the four bays flanking the portico, at first-floor level, have alternating pointed and segmented pediments, while at second-floor level the pediments are flat. The principal entrance at the center of the portico is surmounted by a lunette fanlight. Above the entrance is a sculpted floral festoon. The roofline is hidden by a balustraded parapet.

The mansion's southern façade is a combination of the Palladian and neoclassical styles of architecture. It is of three floors, all visible. The ground floor is rusticated in the Palladian fashion. At the center of the façade is a neoclassical projecting bow of three bays. The bow is flanked by 5 bays, the windows of which, as on the north façade, have alternating segmented and pointed pediments at first-floor level. The bow has a ground floor double staircase leading to an Ionic colonnaded loggia (with the Truman Balcony at second-floor level), known as the south portico. The more modern third floor is hidden by a balustraded parapet and plays no part in the composition of the façade.

Naming conventions

The building was originally referred to variously as the "President's Palace", "Presidential Mansion", or "President's House". The earliest evidence of the public calling it the "White House" was recorded in 1811. A myth emerged that during the rebuilding of the structure after the Burning of Washington, white paint was applied to mask the burn damage it had suffered, giving the building its namesake hue. The name "Executive Mansion" was used in official contexts until President Theodore Roosevelt established the formal name by having "White House–Washington" engraved on the stationery in 1901. The current letterhead wording and arrangement "The White House" with the word "Washington" centered beneath goes back to the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Although it was not completed until some years after the presidency of George Washington, it is also speculated that the name of the traditional residence of the President of the United States may have derived from Martha Washington's home, White House Plantation in Virginia, where the nation's first President had courted the First Lady in the mid-18th century.

Evolution of the White House

Early use, the 1814 fire, and rebuilding

On Saturday, November 1, 1800, John Adams became the first president to take residence in the building. During Adams' second day in the house, he wrote a letter to his wife Abigail, containing a prayer for the house. Adams wrote:

I pray Heaven to bestow the best of blessings on this House, and all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof.

Franklin D. Roosevelt had Adams's blessing carved into the mantel in the State Dining Room.

Adams lived in the house only briefly before Thomas Jefferson moved into the "pleasant country residence" in 1801. Despite his complaints that the house was too big ("big enough for two emperors, one pope, and the grand lama in the bargain"), Jefferson considered how the White House might be added to. With Benjamin Henry Latrobe, he helped lay out the design for the East and West Colonnades, small wings that help conceal the domestic operations of laundry, a stable and storage. Today, Jefferson's colonnades link the residence with the East and West Wings.

In 1814, during the War of 1812, the White House was set ablaze by British troops during the Burning of Washington, in retaliation for burning Upper Canada's Parliament Buildings in the Battle of York; much of Washington was affected by these fires as well. Only the exterior walls remained, and they had to be torn down and mostly reconstructed because of weakening from the fire and subsequent exposure to the elements, except for portions of the south wall. Of the numerous objects taken from the White House when it was ransacked by British troops, only two have been recovered. Employees and slaves rescued a painting of George Washington, and in 1939, a Canadian man returned a jewelry box to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, claiming that his grandfather had taken it from Washington. Some observers allege that most of these spoils were lost when a convoy of British ships led by HMS Fantome sank en route to Halifax off Prospect during a storm on the night of November 24, 1814, even though Fantome had no involvement in that action.

After the fire, President James Madison resided in The Octagon House from 1814 to 1815, and then the Seven Buildings from 1815 to the end of his term. Meanwhile, both architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe and Hoban contributed to the design and oversight of the reconstruction, which lasted from 1815 until 1817. The south portico was constructed in 1824 during the James Monroe administration; the north portico was built six years later.   Though Latrobe proposed similar porticos before the fire in 1814, both porticos were built as designed by Hoban.  An elliptical portico at Château de Rastignac in La Bachellerie, France with nearly identical curved stairs is speculated as the source of inspiration due to its similarity with the South Portico, although this matter is one of great debate.  Italian artisans, brought to Washington to help in constructing the U.S. Capitol, carved the decorative stonework on both porticos. Contrary to speculation, the North Portico was not modeled on a similar portico on another Dublin building, the Viceregal Lodge (now Áras an Uachtaráin, residence of the President of Ireland), for its portico postdates the White House porticos' design. For the North Portico, a variation on the Ionic Order was devised incorporating a swag of roses between the volutes. This was done to link the new portico with the earlier carved roses above the entrance.

The White House as it looked following the conflagration of August 24, 1814

 

Jefferson and Latrobe's West Wing Colonnade in this nineteenth-century engraved view, is now the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room.

Principal story plan for the white house by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, 1807.

 

 

 

 

Earliest known photograph of the White House, taken c. 1846 by John Plumbe during the administration of James K. Polk.

Overcrowding and building the West Wing

Entrance Hall in 1882, showing the new Tiffany glass screen

By the time of the American Civil War, the White House had become overcrowded. The location of the White House was questioned, just north of a canal and swampy lands, which provided conditions ripe for malaria and other unhealthy conditions. Brigadier General Nathaniel Michler was tasked to propose solutions to address these concerns. He proposed abandoning the use of the White House as a residence and designed a new estate for the first family at Meridian Hill in Washington, D.C., but Congress rejected the plan.

 

The White House North Lawn in the 1860s, during the Abraham Lincoln administration

The Panic of 1873 had led to an economic depression that persisted through much of the decade. The Statue of Liberty project was not the only undertaking that had difficulty raising money: construction of the obelisk later known as the Washington Monument sometimes stalled for years.

When Chester Arthur took office in 1881, he ordered renovations to the White House to take place as soon as the recently widowed Lucretia Garfield moved out. Arthur inspected the work almost nightly and made several suggestions. Louis Comfort Tiffany was asked to send selected designers to assist. Over twenty wagonloads of furniture and household items were removed from the building and sold at a public auction. All that was saved were bust portraits of John Adams and Martin Van Buren. A proposal was made to build a new residence south of the White House, but it failed to gain support.

In the fall of 1882 work was done on the main corridor, including tinting the walls pale olive and adding squares of gold leaf, and decorating the ceiling in gold and silver, and colorful traceries woven to spell "USA". The Red Room was painted a dull Pomeranian red, and its ceiling was decorated with gold, silver, and copper stars and stripes of red, white, and blue. A fifty-foot jeweled Tiffany glass screen, supported by imitation marble columns, replaced the glass doors that separated the main corridor from the north vestibule.

In 1891, First Lady Caroline Harrison proposed major extensions to the White House, including a National Wing on the east for a historical art gallery, and a wing on the west for official functions.[35] A plan was devised by Colonel Theodore A. Bingham, which reflected the Harrison proposal.[35] These plans were ultimately rejected.

However, in 1902 Theodore Roosevelt hired McKim, Mead & White to carry out expansions and renovations in a neoclassical style suited to the building's architecture, removing the Tiffany screen and all Victorian additions. Charles McKim himself designed and managed the project, which gave more living space to the President's large family by removing a staircase in the West Hall and moving executive office staff from the second floor of the residence into the new West Wing.

President William Howard Taft enlisted the help of architect Nathan C. Wyeth to add additional space to the West Wing, which included the addition of the Oval Office. The West Wing was damaged by fire in 1929, but rebuilt during the remaining years of the Herbert Hoover presidency. In the 1930s, a second story was added, as well as a larger basement for White House staff, and President Franklin Roosevelt had the Oval Office moved to its present location: adjacent to the Rose Garden.

 

Truman reconstruction, 1949–1952, a steel structure is built within the exterior shell

Decades of poor maintenance, the construction of a fourth story attic during the Coolidge administration, and the addition of a second-floor balcony over the south portico for Harry S. Truman took a great toll on the brick and sandstone structure built around a timber frame. By 1948, the house was declared to be in imminent danger of collapse, forcing President Truman to commission a reconstruction and move across the street to Blair House from 1949-51.The work, done by the firm of Philadelphia contractor John McShain, required the complete dismantling of the interior spaces, construction of a new load-bearing internal steel frame and the reconstruction of the original rooms within the new structure. The total cost of the renovations was about $5.7 million (US$ 52 million in 2015). Some modifications to the floor plan were made, the largest being the repositioning of the grand staircase to open into the Entrance Hall, rather than the Cross Hall. Central air conditioning was added, as well as two additional sub-basements providing space for workrooms, storage, and a bomb shelter. The Trumans moved back into the White House on March 27, 1952. While the house's structure was kept intact by the Truman reconstruction, much of the new interior finishes were generic, and of little historic value. Much of the original plasterwork, some dating back to the 1814–1816 rebuilding, was too damaged to reinstall, as was the original robust Beaux Arts paneling in the East Room. President Truman had the original timber frame sawed into paneling; the walls of the Vermeil Room, Library, China Room, and Map Room on the ground floor of the main residence were paneled in wood from the timbers.

Additional Information Resources

White House Historical Association
White House History: American Treasure
 

Learning On-Line Activities

Learning On-Line Home Page