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LESSONS: GRADES 4-8  ›  Building the White House
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CORRESPONDING TEACHER'S TEXT

The White House is an enduring symbol of our nation’s leadership. It is also the most recognized structure in America. From the beginning, the White House was meant to be a flexible structure. With America not yet a quarter of a century old when John Adams inhabited the President’s House in 1800, it was impossible to foresee how and when the needs of the chief executive would call for expansion, renovation, or redesign. George Washington, who selected the site and approved the final design, knew that the residence and the public buildings, such as the Capitol, would need to serve "beyond the present day." The White House survived near destruction in the War of 1812, a major expansion in 1902, and a near-total reconstruction in the early 1950s — yet each time the essence of the building was preserved. Amazingly, if George Washington were to see it today, he would easily recognize the structure he once called the "President’s Palace."

In 1790, Congress passed the Residence Act, which established a permanent national capital to be built on the Potomac River. The Federal City, as it was first known, would need buildings for the national government, and Congress allowed 10 years for them to be built. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson organized a design contest and Irish-born James Hoban won. Hoban was hired to oversee construction of the White House. In 1800, the federal government moved from its temporary home in Philadelphia to the city that was named Washington.

President John Adams (1796-1800) and his wife Abigail moved into an unfinished White House in November 1800. Just a few months later, the newly elected president, Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809) took Adams’s place. He appointed architect Benjamin Latrobe the "Surveyor of the Public Buildings," and Latrobe designed and had constructed a replacement for the original roof, which was so heavy that it caused the walls to spread and opened cracks for rain to enter the house. Jefferson designed low-lying colonnaded pavilions that stretched east and west from the house, and Latrobe oversaw their construction in 1808.

Disaster struck in 1814, when the British invaded Washington during the War of 1812. British troops stormed the White House and set it aflame. It was a humiliating defeat for Americans at the hands of their old enemies. The roof and the interior of the White House were destroyed. There was talk of building a new White House from scratch at another location — perhaps even another city — but President James Madison (1809-1817) moved quickly to have Hoban return to reconstruct the building. The selection of Hoban sent a clear message that the White House was to be rebuilt according to the original design. Sections of the original walls were inspected and saved, and the home was ready for James Monroe (1817-1825) to inhabit by September 1817.

With a renewed sense of pride in the White House, Congress appropriated $20,000 for furnishing the president’s home. James Monroe, who had once served as diplomat in Paris, outfitted the house with elegant gilded French furniture. Today’s touring visitors still see many of these pieces. Throughout the remainder of the 19th century, presidents have attempted to furnish the house according to the style of their time. Congress held the purse strings, however, and more often than not the president and first lady felt the budget was inadequate.

As the tasks of the executive grew, and the business of leading the nation became more complex, the private space available for the first family shrunk. Of more than 100 rooms in the White House only a dozen were available for the president’s wife, children, and other relatives who may have taken up residence. The family’s private quarters were located on the second floor, and so were the president’s offices. Those coming to the White House on business would be walking the same halls as the family members.

When Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909) took office in 1901 upon the assassination of President William McKinley, he was the youngest president ever. He brought six children with him and immediately realized that he needed more room. The addition of the West Wing allowed the president’s office and the cabinet room to be moved from the second floor area in the core structure to the new wing. The entire second floor was then available to the first family.

In 1927 a third floor was added and in 1934 the East Wing was constructed, offering three stories of offices, a bomb shelter, and a movie theater. With each 20th-century addition supported by heavy steel trusses, the weight on the original wood beams caused dangerous stress. After a thorough examination by architects and engineers, President Harry S. Truman (1945-1953) ordered a complete renovation of the house. The outer walls remained intact, but the interior was entirely dismantled. Bulldozers dug out two additional basement levels and new foundations bolstered the old sandstone walls. For several years, the president and first lady lived at Blair House, across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House. After the renovation was complete in 1952, Truman went on television to give Americans a tour of the remodeled White House. For the first time, millions of Americans had an intimate view of the president’s house.


Objectives:

By successfully completing this lesson and accompanying activities, students will:

  1. Track the changes in the physical structure of the White House during its history as the home and office of the president.

  2. Understand how a building can be a symbol for the larger ideals of a community or nation.

  3. Utilize their spatial skills to understand the form and function of a building plan, and to create their own design for the White House of the future.




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