The White House
Eng. and Printing
Ford's Theatre
National Arboretum
National Archives
Old Post Office
Old Stone House
Supreme Court
U.S. Botanic Garden
U.S. Capitol
National Zoo

Live Theaters
Art Galleries
Phone Numbers
What's New
Books And Videos

1600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW
Telephone: 202.456.7041 (Visitors Center)
Admission: Free
Hours: Tours 10:00 AM - Noon Tuesday through Saturday of selected rooms on the ground floor

The White House: A Brief History

The White House is the oldest public building in the District of Columbia, and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is the most famous address in the United States. Here every President, except George Washington, has conducted the government of the Nation. In the past 200 years, the White House has become symbolic of the American Presidency throughout the world. While the Capitol represents the freedom and ideals of the Nation, the White House stands for the power and statesmanship of the chief executive.

The White House itself has been altered, adapted, or enlarged to suit the needs of the residents and the demands of a growing Nation and of a more complicated world. Throughout all the changes, the basic structure has been honored. Following the British burning in 1814, the house was rebuilt between 1815 and 1817 on the same walls. The State Dining Room was enlarged and space for presidential staff was created in a new West Wing in 1902. A greatly weakened structure was completely rebuilt within its original walls in 1948-1952. Yet it has remained recognizable for more than 200 years. Engravings and photographs show alterations, additions, and landscape features since the White House was first built, but what remains is a structure that George Washington would recognize show he come upon it today.

On July 16, 1790, the U.S. Congress passed the Residency Act that established a permanent capital for the United States on the banks of the Potomac River. It empowered George Washington to select the site of the Federal City. Once he chose the precise location, planning for the city began. French engineer Pierre L'Enfant created a plan based on two strong focal points: the Capitol and the President's House, symbolic of two of the three branches of government. Thomas Jefferson, then Secretary of State, suggested to Washington and the commissioners for the District of Columbia that designs for both structures be solicited through a nationwide architectural competition. On March 14, 1792, the Commissioners announced a competition. On July 17, 1792, James Hoban, an architect who was born and trained in Ireland, was declared the winner. His design was based on the country houses of the British Isles. On October 13 the cornerstone was laid by the Freemasons and the Commissioners of the District of Columbia. Hoban supervised the construction.

Work began with the establishment of a brickyard on what is now the north grounds of the White House. Three kilns turned out several million bricks that were used in the White House and other federal buildings. Huts were built on what is now Lafayette Park to house the laborers. Finding skilled workers was one of the enduring problems that vexed Hoban throughtout the project. In 1793 a number of stonemasons were recruited in Edinburgh, Scotland. Slaves were hired from their owners, too. The stone for the foundations and for the facings on the exterior walls came from the Aquia Creek quarry in Stafford County, Virginia. Boats could navigate the creek up to the quarry and then carry the stone back up the Potomac to Washington. Hoban advertised throughout the region for fine quality wood to be used in flooring and doors, as well as for lumber for framing. Much of it came from North Carolina and Virginia, including Mount Vernon and Stratford Hall Plantation. Lime for the mortar was procured from the region around Frederick, Maryland. By the time Washington left office in 1797, the walls stood and the roof was framed. In the next three years windows were installed, and interior walls were plastered. The house was not quire finished when on November 1, 1800, John Adams, the second President, moved into the White House, just a few months before his term ended. At that time, much of the building's interior had not yet been completed, and Abigail Adams used the unfinished East Room to dry the family wash. During Jefferson's administration, the east and west terraces were built. He also opened the house each morning to all visitors - an extension of his democratic beliefs and a practice that continues today.

When James Madison moved into the White House in 1809, he and his wife, Dolley, introduced brilliance and glitter into the social life of the new capital in a White House that dazzled as well from the work of architect Benjamin Latrobe. The Madisons had hired him to decorate the oval room and to design furniture. None of his work survives except in sketches, for on August 24, 1814, British forces captured Washington and burned the White House in retaliation for the destruction of some public buildings in Canada by American troops. The exterior sandstone walls and interior brickwork were all that remained. Reconstruction began in 1815 under Hoban's supervision, and the White House was ready for James Monroe in September 1817.

By the time Andrew Jackson came to live in the White House, the Nation was expanding rapidly. Jackson, elected by a large margin, reflected that growth; he was the first "westerner" in the White House. Under his guidance, the East Room was first furnished and opened for public use. These years before the Civil War are important ones for the White House, for under the direction of the now aged Hoban, the north and south porticoes were built in 1824 and 1829 respectively. Running water was added, and an indoor bathroom was constructed in 1833. Gas lighting was installed in 1848. When Franklin Pierce was President, the first truly central and efficient heating system was introduced in 1853. Bathrooms and water closets were improved on the second floor.

Increasingly the role of the White House expanded as the Nation grew in importance and as the City of Washington developed. Two great social events of the Buchanan administration in 1860 are indicative of this evolving stature: the arrival of Japanese officials following Matthew Perry's 1853-1854 trip to Japan and the visit of the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII. Within the year, the Civil War tore the Nation apart. The White House became a center for decision-making and for activity during the Civil War. It was in President Abraham Lincoln's second floor office that he signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Troops were quarted in the East Room during the early stages of the war. In the wake of this national conflict came the first assassination of a President. Thousands of stunned mourners filed by Lincoln's coffin in the East Room in 1865. Only 16 years later the White House was draped in mourning as once again a President - James A. Garfield - fell victim to an assassin.

A glass conservatory planned during the last year of the Pierce Presidency, was built on the west terrace in 1857. It proved a delight and became a private domain for the Presidential families and, because of the good light, a favorite place for taking photographs. During the administration of Rutherford B. Hayes the conservatory was greatly expanded with walks and benches as part of the interior design, and it was connected to the White House through the State Dining Room.

In March 1885, the second bachelor President, Grover Cleveland, took office. Little more than a year later, on June 2, 1886, Cleveland married Frances Folsom in the Blue Room. Though other weddings have taken place in the White House, this was the only time a President was married here. Cleveland's successor, Benjamin Harrison, made some notable changes, including adding electric lights in 1891.

When Theodore Roosevelt became President, one of the first things he did was to change the name of the structure to the White House. Since the mid-19th century it had been called the Executive Mansion, and before that it had been described in government documents as the President's House. But almost from the beginning it was known popularly as the White House; certainly the name predated the fire of 1814. In 1901 Roosevelt made it official. Roosevelt faced major problems, for he found that the house needed extensive structural repairs, more space for both the family and staff was required, and the interior was a conglomeration of styles. Congress appropriated money to repair and refurnish the house and to construct new offices for the President, with an executive office building (the West Wing) replacing the old conservatories. Work began in June 1902 under the supervision of the architectural firm of McKim, Mead, and White. By the end of the year the job was complete.

Despite the great amount of work done in 1902, demands for more space grew, and in 1909 the West Wing offices were enlarged and the well-known Oval Office built. Prior to construction of the West Wing, different Presidents had used various arrangements of rooms in the mansion for their offices. Since 1909 the Oval Office has been the President's Office. Outside the Oval Office is the Rose Garden. The 1902 renovations made this space available for a formal garden. Roses were first planted here in 1913. A third floor was added in 1927 to provide more living space in the residence.

Soon after his election Franklin Roosevelt began radio broadcasts to the Nation that became known as his "fireside chats." The very next year, 1934, FDR again had the West Wing enlarged. Once the United States entered World War II, the East Wing and an air raid shelter were built and a movie theater was installed in the east terrace. In 1948 Harry Truman added a balcony to the south portico.

Over the years, the almost unceasing pace of remodeling, alterations, and rebuilding had weakened many of the building's old wooden beams and interior walls. But not until a thorough examination of the structure in 1948 was the alarming condition of the house revealed. A decision was made for complete renovation. The Trumans move to Blair House, across Pennsylvania Avenue, for almost four years during the White House reconstruction. Paneling, ceilings, and furniture were all removed, the interior was gutted, a new basement was excavated, new foundations were laid, and a steel framework was erected to take the burden of carrying the load off the walls. In March 1952, the Truman family moved back into the renovated White House.

Succeeding administrations, hoping to make the White House a showcase of American furniture and paintings, have focused on the acquisition of historic and artistic objects for its permanent collection as well as on the preservation and maintenance of the house. The most recent project is the preservation of the exterior walls. Some 28 layers were stripped while expert stone carvers repaired the historic sandstone. Column capitals, carved roses and garland details, cleaned of thick layers of paint are once again seen in their original crispness. Scorch marks from the mighty fire that consumed the White House during the 1814 British invasion were briefly visible while the naked walls awaited repainting.

More detailed information about the White House may be found in The White House, An Historic Guide; The Living White House; The Presidents of the United States; First Ladies of the White House; and The President's House: A History, by William Seale, all published by the White House Historical Association, 740 Jackson Place, NW, Washington, DC, 20560, 202-737-8292.
Text by The National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior
© Copyright Thaddeus O. Cooper 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000