The White House is
the most recognized building in America. Since it was first constructed
200 years ago, the basic form, shape, and use of the structure
have remained the same. Although many technological changes have
occurred, and wings and porches have been added, the White House
looks much as it did in November 1800 when President John Adams
(1797-1801) first moved in. Because the building has kept its
form and shape, the image of the Presidents House has remained
constant for two centuries. The White House has come to symbolize
the presidency and American leadership here in the United States
and around the world.
L'Enfant-Ellicott map of Washington, 1792
L'Enfant's sketch of presidential "palace," 1792
A view of the countryside where the nation's capital would
1790, Congress passed the Residence Act. This established a permanent
national capital on the Potomac River. The federal government
the president, Congress, and the Supreme Court was
ordered to move in 1800 from its temporary home in Philadelphia
to the city that would be named Washington.
Congress asked President
George Washington (1789-1797) to select the site for the city.
From a 10-mile square section of farmland, a French engineer,
Pierre LEnfant, mapped the city streets. Washington himself
selected the spot where the Presidents House would be built.
LEnfant set aside space for what he called a "palace"
for the president..
What would the Presidents House look like? Who would design
it? Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson announced a contest, or
competition, for architects and builders to enter their plans.
He placed an advertisement in newspapers. The winner would choose
a prize of $500 or a medal of the same value. Design drawings
from several of the competitors still survive today. James Hoban,
a builder who was born in Ireland but was working in America,
was declared the winner.
The earliest known
drawing of the White House is Hobans plan, which he drew
in 1792. A plan gives a view from above, as if you were looking
down at the house and could see the way the rooms are laid out.
This plan shows the first floor, or "state" floor, where
public business was conducted. Hoban created rooms of different
sizes and shapes. Most of the rooms were for entertaining guests
or holding receptions or dinners. The presidents family
would live on the second floor.
This advertisement announced a prize for the best design
of the "President's House"
James Hoban's earliest known drawing of the White House,
Hoban's exterior drawing, or "elevation," 1793
John Adams orders the government to move to Washington
design had two stories and a raised basement, but some thought
the house was too large. There was also a question of whether
enough quality sandstone could be collected for building such
a large house. Stone was also needed to build the Capitol, where
Congress would work. George Washington agreed that the Presidents
House could be reduced to two stories by eliminating the raised
basement. He knew that the design would enable future presidents
to make additions if they needed more space. As Washington said,
the Presidents House and the other government buildings
would need to change according to needs "beyond the present
Hoban was hired to
oversee construction. The cornerstone was laid on October 13,
1792. Stonemasons from Scotland, along with free laborers and
hired slaves, worked on the building from spring through fall
each year until November 1800, when John and Abigail Adams moved
in. Adams came to a house that was still unfinished. Many of the
plaster walls were still wet and fires were lit in many of the
39 fireplaces to help them dry. About half of the 36 rooms had
not been plastered at all. There was a big hole where the Grand
Staircase was planned, but not yet begun. The largest room in
the house, the East Room, was also unfinished. Because Abigail
Adams thought that the presidents laundry should not be
hung to dry outside on the lawn for everyone to see, she set up
lines in the East Room.
Abigail Adams used the East Room to dry the laundry
Adamss blessing was carved into the State Dining Room
mantel in 1945
Thomas Jefferson's drawing of White House wings, c. 1803
Mrs. Adams thought
the view to the Potomac River was beautiful, but her list of problems
in the house was a long one. Yet, from the outside, the house
looked finished, and the day after John Adams moved in, he wrote:
"I pray Heaven to bestow the best of blessings on this house,
and on all that hereafter inhabit it. May none but honest and
wise men ever rule under this roof!"
Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809) was the first president to spend
his entire term in the Presidents House. A creative architect
himself, Jefferson designed two long colonnades connected to the
house which stretched to the east and west. These wings added
office and storage space.
Thanks to several
presidents, the White House still looks much as it did when it
was first built. Our fourth president, James Madison (1809-1817),
moved quickly after the British burned the White House. During
the War of 1812, the British attacked the nations capital.
James and Dolley Madison escaped capture, but enemy troops torched
the Presidents House on August 24, 1814. Some members of
Congress discussed the possibility of completely rebuilding the
Presidents House in another location, perhaps in another
city. Madison wanted Americans to know that the British invasion
was not a serious threat to the capital. By rebuilding the White
House to appear exactly as it did before the war, it would symbolize
Americas determination. The message would be that the nation
and its government were permanent.
After engineers examined
the building, they saw that the entire interior the floors
and inside walls were destroyed, but parts of the exterior
stone walls were strong enough to use again. To ensure that the
construction was done properly, James Hoban was hired to rebuild
the Presidents House. There was no one who knew the building
better than Hoban, the original designer. The house was ready
in 1817 for the fifth president, James Monroe (1817-1825). After
the White House was rebuilt, there were no major changes to the
building, except for the addition of porches on the north and
south sides, until the beginning of the 20th century.
When Theodore Roosevelt
(1901-1909) was sworn in as president, he was the youngest man
to hold the office. At 42 years old, Roosevelt brought a wife
and six children to the White House. From the very beginning,
the Presidents House was designed to be an office and a
home. Although the family lived on the second floor, anyone who
had business with the president would walk upstairs to the presidents
office. Throughout the day, strangers would be only a doors
thickness away from the first family.
The greenhouses that Roosevelt demolished
The third floor of the White House
The east entrance BEFORE and AFTER the Roosevelt renovation
to move his office and the offices of his cabinet and staff from
the second floor of the White House to a new West Wing he ordered
constructed in 1902. Now the entire second floor could be used
for the family. To build the West Wing, large greenhouses were
taken down. For years they were the home of flowers and potted
plants that were grown to decorate the Presidents House.
Roosevelt ordered: "Smash the glass houses!" A new east
entrance was also built. It was big enough to allow large groups
to enter with their carriages.
During the administration
of Calvin Coolidge (1923-1929), a third floor was built to add
more space for guest bedrooms and for storage.
By the middle of the 20th century, hundreds of thousands
of visitors had moved through the White House. Dozens of smaller
renovations and additions had weakened the structure, and the
floors were in danger of collapsing. In 1948, President Harry
S. Truman (1945-1953) wrote something frightening in his diary.
In his daughter Margarets second floor bedroom, the leg
of her piano fell through the floor. The impact knocked loose
the ceiling of the Family Dining Room below. Sometimes, Truman
would notice that chandeliers in the Blue Room and the East Room
would sway back and forth for no reason anyone could discover.
President Truman gathered
engineers and architects together to study the condition of the
White House. They found that the house needed an enormous amount
of work in order to save it. The president wrote to a congressman:
"My suggestion is that we do not tear down the present building.
The outside walls are in good condition . . . . We could put a
steel and concrete structure inside the walls and restore the
inside of the house to its original condition. We are saving all
the doors, mantels, mirrors and things of that sort so that they
will go back just as they were."
The White House, as it appeared after British soldiers burned
it in 1814
Theodore Roosevelt and his family
Harry S. Truman, with wife Bess and daughter Margaret
A bulldozer digs out two new basement levels for the White
House in 1950
The outer walls
the same walls that James Hoban built were saved, and so
was the third floor. Otherwise, the entire interior was taken
down. Bulldozers moved in and dug down two additional basement
levels to provide more storage room and space for heating and
air conditioning equipment. The White House was also fireproofed.
The size and shape of the first and second floor rooms were rebuilt
to appear as they did throughout the buildings history.
This work took four years to complete. The Truman family moved
across the street to Blair House.
In 1952 the work was
done, and the first family moved back to the White House. The
Presidents House was stronger, safer, and ready to serve
the nations leader for years to come, and the image of the
White House never changed. After the house burned in 1814, some
thought that it should be rebuilt in a new way, or in a new city.
By the middle of the 20th century, there was no discussion
at all about starting from scratch. The White House was part of
Americas history, and it would endure into the future.