Main Content

big enough for two emperors, a pope, and the grand lama.

— Political satirist

Following a competition for the design of the President's House in the spring of 1792, Irish born and trained architect James Hoban was commissioned to build a home and office for the President of the United States. With guidance from President George Washington, Hoban employed craftsmen brought from as far away as Scotland and oversaw a free and slave labor force that constructed what is considered today America's finest 18th-century stone building. The cornerstone for the residence was laid on October 13, 1792. Labor and material shortages forced revisions in the original plan earlier developed by French engineer Pierre Charles L'Enfant for a "pallace" that was five times larger than the house that was eventually built. Most significantly, there would only be two main floors not three, and a less expensive brick made at the site was employed as a lining for the stone facades.

A view where the nation's capital Would be built, 1801.

Library of Congress

The name "White House" probably came into colloquial use soon after the stonemasons whitewashed the house in 1798 to protect the walls. The white finish brought out the fine exterior ornamentation. On November 1, 1800, President John Adams became the first occupant of the house. He and his family would shiver within the house's unfinished walls for four months.

Hell itself couldn't warm that corner.

— President Andrew Jackson, 1829-1837

Thomas Jefferson was the next president to reside in the house. Before moving in, he fit fireplaces with coal-burning fixtures and installed two water closets. With architect Benjamin Latrobe's assistance, Jefferson also built long, columnar terraces extending on the east and west.

In 1810, Latrobe installed a "Pettibone" furnace for James and Dolley Madison. It used a series of kettles and clay pipes to force hot air up from the basement. When British troops set fire to the house on August 25, 1814, the system was destroyed and never replaced.

Burned to a charred ruin during the War of 1812, the President's House became an object of shame and wonder. Talk spread of moving the capital inland with a suggestion to go as far as Cincinnati, Ohio. But Andrew Jackson's victory over the British at the Battle of New Orleans restored national pride and the idea of rebuilding in the nation's capital became symbolic of triumph.

It is what the mansion of the head of this Republic should be and should be finished and maintained in a style to gratify every wish for convenience and pleasure.

— The People's Magazine, 1831

James Hoban was hired to rebuild the executive mansion in 1815. Two years later, President James Monroe took residence and purchased furnishings for the still unfinished interiors. During Monroe's administration in 1824, Hoban completed the south portico. Double stairs curved up to a much-needed porch, and columns lent a vertical sweep to the architecture of the house.

Folk painting celebrating the rebuilt White House, c. 1820

In 1829, Hoban started construction of the north portico and finished it a year later during the presidency of Andrew Jackson. The fine carved stone north door surround and garland of roses and acorns over the north portal were overshadowed by the mass of the portico. With the finishing of the porticoes the image of the White House as we know it today was complete. Running water was introduced to the Jackson White House in 1833. An ingenious system was devised to pump water to an east terrace bathing room. In 1840, Martin Van Buren hired a live-in fireman to manage the boilers of a monstrous new furnace. In 1848, James Polk directed that gas lights replace candles in the chandeliers and wall fixtures. It was an era of great innovations.

The first photograph of the White House, 1846.

I would not wish to exchange this house for any other. I think it beautiful. I love this house for the associations that no other could have.

— First Lady Lucy Webb Hayes, 1877-1881

In the years prior to the Civil War, the cumbersome furnace was converted to an efficient hot water system. Franklin Pierce installed a private bath in 1853. James Buchanan added a wooden greenhouse on the roof of the west terrace in 1857, adjacent to the State Dining Room. This simple structure burned in 1867 and was replaced by an iron and wood greenhouse twice as large as the earlier one. In the 1870s and 1880s, additional conservatories were added to the White House, including rose houses, a camellia house, orchid houses and a house for bedding plants. All were removed to construct the Executive Office Building (the West Wing) in 1902.

From the 1830s until 1902, changes to the main block of the White House occurred principally to its interiors. Andrew Jackson furnished the East Room for the first time in 1829. Succeeding presidents and their wives periodically refurbished the house to reflect the changing tastes of their time.

The White House, 1860.

Abraham Lincoln was too immersed in the crisis of the Civil war to care about flub dubs for this damned old house, but after Lincoln's presidency, the White House was no longer just a house, but an icon of the presidency and all that America stood for.

In 1879, the first telephone was connected for President Rutherford B. Hayes. Electric wiring was installed in 1891. President and Mrs. Benjamin Harrison, afraid of being shocked, were nervous about working the lights.

Chester A. Arthur, president from 1881 to 1885, called on Louis C. Tiffany to add his touch to the state floor of the White House. Practically every surface was transformed with his decorative patterns and complicated glazing accented in the transverse hall and entrance hall by his trademark colored glass. In 1890, First Lady Caroline Harrison promoted a major expansion of the White House complex that included an art wing open to visitors, but Congress refused to fund the project.

I don't think that any family has ever enjoyed the White House more than we have.

— President Theodore Roosevelt, 1901-1909

One of Theodore Roosevelt's earliest acts, as president was to issue an order establishing the "White House" as the building's official name. Previously, it had been called the "President's House" or the "Executive Mansion." In 1902, Mrs. Roosevelt asked the distinguished architect Charles McKim for his advice concerning the cramped second floor quarters. His recommendations for a complete renovation of the house doubled the space allocated to the family living quarters, provided a new wing for the president and his staff, and created a new area on the east for receiving guests. The plans changed the interior and the functioning of the White House. With a few exceptions, much of the complex as we know it today reflects the design of 1902.

The North portico during Theodore Roosevelt's administration, c. 1906.

I never forget that I live in a house owned by all the American people and that I have been given their trust.

— President Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1933-1945

In 1909, President Taft had the West Wing enlarged, adding the first oval office. Herbert Hoover remodeled the wing and rebuilt it after a fire in 1929. With the expansion of the staff in the 1930s, Franklin D. Roosevelt requested additional space, and the wing was renovated under the eye of architect Eric Gugler. He built a second story, excavated a larger basement for staff and support services, and moved the oval office from the south to its present location in the southeast corner, adjacent to the Rose Garden. The term "West Wing" for the new executive office space came into common usage in the 1930s.

In 1948, architect Lorenzo S. Winslow built a balcony on the south portico for Harry Truman. This was hardly done when the whole building gave signs of collapsing. The brick that Hoban had used to line the stone facade was being stressed to its limits. Winslow began a full renovation of the White House, which, as one inspector put it, was standing up purely from habit.

The Truman renovation retained the original walls, the third floor and the roof, while removing and then reinstalling the interiors within a skeleton of steel structural beams on a new concrete foundation. Two levels of subbasements, and service areas under the North Portico were constructed, and the Grand Staircase was substantially changed. Of the state floor rooms, only the State Dining Room wall panels were reinstalled, but then were painted. Updated conveniences were added, including central air. On March 27, 1952, Truman moved back into his new home.

The White House during the Truman renovation, 1950.

Harry S. Truman Library

Since 1952, attempts to provide a sense of past history of the President's House and new research have resulted in decorative interior changes but no substantive architectural work. Beginning in 1978, as many as 40 successive layers of paint were removed from the exterior walls. Following the removal of the paint, masons restored the stone. In 1988, the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) began a five-year documentation project to record the exterior elevations and the interior architecture of the White House. This comprehensive record of the historic main house will be used for base documents for future renovation, restoration, maintenance, and interpretation of the house.

The White House has been pulled apart, rearranged, gutted by fire and renovation, reassembled; yet it is always the same. Its idea has become its essence.

— William Seale, White House historian

You Might Also Like