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The People's House: The White House

by Charlie Collie
October 13, 2015

There was no ceremony  in 1792 to mark the construction of the White House, but on October 13th of that year, the building of what is today, the most ceremonial place in America began. The first President to live in the White House was John Adams of Quincy, Massachusetts.  Three other sons of Massachusetts, John Quincy Adams, John F. Kennedy, and George H. W. Bush have lived there as well. Today, October 13th, we celebrate the building of the White House.

The original design for the White House by French architect and civil engineer Pierre Charles L’Enfant called for it to be modelled after the Palace of Versailles, but after a six year war for Independence from England and yet another war with England thirty years later in 1812, the White House, the future home of the Presidents would, not even remotely, be based on a “palace” design.

The original design for the White House by French architect and civil engineer Pierre Charles L’Enfant called for it to be modelled after the Palace of Versailles, but after a six year war for Independence from England and yet another war with England thirty years later in 1812, the White House, the future home of the Presidents would, not even remotely, be based on a “palace” design.

Built in 1792 on a very swampy part of Washington, DC. The White House has survived a massive fire, the British set it ablaze in the War of 1812, and a near natural collapse, by 1949, the load bearing timbers in the building had rotted out.

While on a tour of the south, the neoclassical design of the court house in Charleston, South Carolina caught the eye of George Washington. It had been designed by Irish born Thomas Hoban so Hoban was given the nod by Washington to design a similar looking building in Washington, DC that would become the home of our future Presidents.

It took 5,000 laborers eight years to build the White House. Construction was started in 1792. Porous sandstone from a quarry near Aquia Creek 45 miles south of Washington, DC was used to construct it.  When we look at the White House today, we are only seeing 20% of the original building. The building has been added onto throughout its’ 200 year old history.

After British Troops set it on fire in 1812, a fire that gutted the interior and the roof, President James Monroe had it rebuilt right away. The South Portico where Marine One, the President’s helicopter lands, was built in 1824. The North Portico in 1829. The only original part of the White House are the window frames. President Theodore Roosevelt along with President William Howard Taft had the West Wing constructed in 1901. The iconic symbol of America has six floors, 132 rooms, 35 bathrooms, and is 55,000 square feet which sits on eighteen acres. It also has 412 doors, 147 windows, 28 fireplaces, eight staircases, 3 elevators and 5 full-time chefs. It cost $232,371.83 to build the original White House, $3,196,252.00 in today’s dollars.

The current real estate value, according to Zillow is $319 million. A low estimate to be sure. This reporter thinks it’s more along the lines with the credit card commercial: Priceless, given the history of the place

Why is the Oval Office in the shape of an oval?

The Oval Office is oval for a very specific reason, to draw all eyes and attention to the President, not very democratic, but very effective in getting visitors and staff give the President their full attention. These days, 1700 people work at the White House. This does not include the President’s political appointees. 400 of the workers are office staff.

What was originally used to paint the White House?

The porous sandstone was whitewashed with a mixture of lime, rice glue, casein, and lead. After British Troops ransacked the building in 1812, the White House was a charred mess. The whitewash was used to cover the burn marks the fire had left all over the outside walls.

There were five previous homes for the Presidents as the vital center of political power in America moved from New York, to Philadelphia, and finally to Washington, DC. There were three homes in Manhattan, two homes in Philadelphia and the one now in Washington. The name White House was first officially used when President Teddy Roosevelt started adding it to White House stationary.

In 1949, it was discovered that the load bearing wooden timbers that held up The White House had rotted out. The White House was in imminent danger of collapsing. The Army Corps of Engineering wanted to level it and build a new White House, but Harry Truman said no. Truman had the timber beams replaced with steel ones. He then moved to Blair House across the street during the major renovations. Truman also had the original timber frames saved. The timbers were turned into paneling for the Vermeil Room, the Library, the China Room and the Map Room.

These days, no parts of the White House, outside of the First Family's private quarters can be renovated. Each President is given a budget of $100,000 a year to be used for any improvements they would like to make to the private quarters. There is also a full Solarium on the roof of the White House which is much used by the first families. Hillary Clinton grew vegetables in it. President Eisenhower grilled steaks. Each first family who has occupied the White House has left its mark. Teddy Roosevelt had a tennis court built; President Eisenhower had a putting green put in; Clinton added a running track and a hot tub; JFK had an indoor swimming pool added complete with a Cape Cod wall mural; Truman, a horse shoe pit; Nixon, a bowling alley; Gerald Ford had an outside swimming pool constructed. Some of the beautiful rooms in the White House rooms are named after colors: There is a formal Green Room, a Red Room, a Blue Room, and a Yellow Oval Room. Outside the White House there are two official rose gardens; one of them is named the Jacqueline Kennedy Rose Garden.

Just 17 miles from the White House in Washington, DC is a private home that is almost an exact duplicate of the President’s home. It is one fifth the size of the White House in Washington and was built by a recent immigrant to the United States.  When asked why he had his smaller White House built which is accurate in almost every detail, and yes, it does include an Oval Office, he simply said,“I wanted to show my appreciation for America.”

As a former reporter and social studies teacher, I have always thought of the White House as a fascinating place. All reporters hope to be assigned there one day to cover the most important events that affect all Americans. I didn’t get the chance to work there as a reporter, but, in 1981, I was lucky enough to be a press officer to former Massachusetts governor Edward J. King and went to the White House when he had to meet with Edwin Meese, Ronald Reagan’s Chief Counsel.

When I saw the Oval Office, I just thought of all the history that happened in that room, JFK watching John John and Caroline dancing; Franklin Roosevelt having his intimate meetings with the press; Richard Nixon excoriating his staff during Watergate; Harry Truman deciding how to end World War Two; and so much more history involving other Presidents. It all happened there in the Oval Office. The White House has always been a special place to me as, I’m sure it is, for so many millions of other Americans.

Air Force One.

FDR as Secretary of the Navy in 1903.

President Truman in the Oval Office announcing the surrender of Japan.

President Nixon faces the press in October, 1973.

US_Navy Capt.Kevin E. O'Flaherty, Commanding Officer of the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush escorts former President George H.W. Bush on January 9, 2009.

Charles Collie is a Holliston resident and former reporter for a CBS television station in Ohio. 

 

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Comments (4)

Very interesting and well researched article. Your appreciation of the history of the Whilte House and your personal connection to it make it all the more interesting.

- Sheila Adams | 10/14/15 4:16 PM

Great article -- I've always wanted to know more about the 1947 reconstruction. You can see from the photo that virtually nothing was left inside. Kind of sad when you think about it -- the actual rooms and corridors that Lincoln and TR knew are gone, replaced with modern reconstructions. In many ways it's really no longer a 200 year old historic structure, but a less-than-70-year-old replica. Of course, much the same can be said about our Town Hall, which was altered significantly (and before anyone gets mad at me, for the better, in my opinion) during its last renovation. Gets you thinking about the nature of public buildings and how we keep them useful as times and needs change, without losing our history in the process. Thanks Charlie.

- Frank Chamberlain | 10/14/15 9:01 AM

Wow. Great article came away with a lot of good information thank you

- Anthony Stefanini | 10/13/15 6:48 PM

Thank you once again for such an interesting article on the beautiful, majestic White House. I always come away with more information and understanding of the topic you are writing about. Thank you, Mary

- mary patch | 10/14/14 4:44 PM

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