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The White House

Part 1: History


White House Daguerreotype

Daguerreotype of President's house (i.e. White House) showing south side (ca 1846).

Courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
"I pray heaven to bestow the best of blessings on this house and all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but the wise men ever rule under this roof."
John Adams writing to Abigail Adams on Nov 2, 1800.

It was on November 1, 1800 that John Adams took up residence at the White House, a then unfinished building in the heart of Washington, D.C. Over the last two centuries every U.S. President except for George Washington has lived and worked at the White House. It has a unique and interesting history and it stands today as an architectural symbol of the American Presidency. Despite some additions and minor changes, the exterior of the main structure has remained much as it was two centuries ago. Interestingly enough, it is both a unit of the National Park Service and the only private residence of a head of state that is open to the public, free of charge.

The Nation's Capital Moves to Washington

Before the federal government was established in Washington, D.C., George Washington was officially inaugurated as our nation's first president in New York City on April 30, 1789. In December of the following year, Washington signed an Act of Congress declaring that the federal government would reside in a district "not exceeding ten miles square…on the river Potomac." Together with city planner Pierre L'Enfant, a site was chosen for the new residence.

As preparations began for the new federal city, Philadelphia was named temporary capital (1790-1800), and a competition was held to find a builder of the "President's House." Irish-American architect James Hoban's design was selected and he was awarded $500 for the winning proposal. Hoban's inspiration for the house was drawn from an Anglo-Irish villa called the Leinster House in Dublin. With the laying of the cornerstone in October of 1792, the White House became the first public building erected in Washington, D.C.

During his two terms as as President, (1789-1797), Washington oversaw the construction of the White House, but never lived in it. John Adams was inaugurated as president at Federal Hall, Philadelphia, on March 4, 1797, and it wasn't until November of 1800, two days after his 65th birthday, that Adams moved into the President's House. Fifteen days later, he was joined by his wife Abigail. The Adams would only spend the next few months in their new home in Washington, D.C., as John Adams was soon defeated in a bitterly contested presidential race with Thomas Jefferson.

From President's Home to White House

When Thomas Jefferson moved into the house in 1801, he was said to be not terribly impressed. Under the direction of architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe, he ordered several structural changes, including the addition of terrace-pavilions on either side of the main building and single-story wings for storage. On August 4, 1814, during James Madison's administration (1809-1817), British troops set fire to the structure (during the War of 1812), destroying the interior. Madison brought James Hoban back to supervise it reconstruction, a process that took three years. It was during this phase that the house was painted white and the south portico was added.

Up until now, I have been referring to the president's home as the "White House," but throughout its early history it was also referred to as the President's Palace, the President's House, and the Executive Mansion. The popular designation "White House" didn't become official until 1901, when Theodore Roosevelt had the name engraved on his stationery. The White House survived another fire in 1929, this time in the West Wing, while Herbert Hoover was President. Between 1948 and 1952, during Harry S. Truman's presidency, the interior of the house (with the exception of the third floor) was substantially renovated while the Trumans lived at Blair House, right across the street. This renovation included building new foundations and a steel framework to strengthen the original sandstone walls. As a result, the number of rooms was increased from 62 to 132.

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