District of Columbia: The White House Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

This National Historic Landmark, the official residence of the president of the United States, has three stories and 132 rooms and is situated on eighteen acres. It was designed by architect James Hoban and constructed between 1792 and 1800. Though popularly known as the “White House” throughout the nineteenth century, its official title from 1818 to 1901 was the Executive Mansion; the name was changed by executive order in 1901 to the White House.

Site Offices:

White House Historical Association

740 Jackson Place NW

Washington, DC 20503

ph.: (202) 737-8292

White House

c/o National Capital Region

National Park Service

1100 Ohio Drive SW

Washington, DC 20242

ph.: (202) 619-7222

Web site: www.nps.gov/whho/

The White House and the U.S. Capitol are the oldest public structures in Washington, D.C. Around this nucleus the city spanned out over time, and the U.S. presidency evolved into the most important and the highest office in the land–which few would have guessed at the outset. The story of the White House is far more than the story of a building, but of an institution and of a nation. The million and a half visitors to the White House each year enter a living museum of the presidency, carefully restored to its appearance in the early decades of the United States.

A Federal City

The history of this important national symbol began well before the first stone was ceremoniously laid by George Washington on October 13, 1792. The idea of having a new “federal city,” carefully designed to reflect the separation of powers embodied in the new Constitution, was proposed and subsequently approved by an act of Congress in 1790. Three commissioners, Thomas Johnson, Daniel Carroll, and David Stuart, were appointed to oversee the transition to the permanent new capital from its temporary location, Philadelphia. Washington, already a revered hero, was president, and he was given wide latitude over the construction of the first federal buildings. In fact, while he never had a chance to live in the White House, he was intimately involved in all details of its design and construction, and even personally selected a site for the building, where it currently stands, on Pennsylvania Avenue.

The three commissioners set off for the new federal district in 1791. According to the act of Congress establishing the federal capital, they would have until 1800 to prepare the new capital to become the seat of government. Even in those days of poor transportation, ten years seemed more than enough time.

When the three commissioners arrived in the federal district, they found an unhealthy, unpopulated swampland. Only the chief architect of Washington, Captain Pierre Charles L’Enfant, saw the potential for a beautiful, graceful capital. Building this “Paris on the Potomac” would take careful planning, money, and plenty of workers. The three commissioners had the first, but little of the second and none of the last. Throughout the building of the capital, labor would be a problem. To resolve it, the commissioners sent letters to Europe, imploring skilled workers to come to the United States. Few of them did, particularly since it was a time of war in Europe and crossing the seas was especially treacherous. Another reason for their hesitancy was the existence of slavery in and around the federal city which skilled workers, in the U.S. as well as overseas, reasoned would keep wages low. Finally, slaves from nearby plantations were procured. Some of them had to be trained on the spot.

Designing a House for Presidents

All three commissioners had a great deal of planning experience. To begin with, they decided upon a name for the new capital–after the hero of the Revolutionary War–with no objections from George Washington. Thomas Jefferson next suggested an architectural competition–the winner of which would receive five hundred dollars–to attract the best architect for the future home of the presidents. By then it was mid-March, 1792. The competition was widely advertised, and historians of the White House are almost certain that Jefferson himself entered the competition with an anonymously submitted proposal. If that was the case, he was undoubtedly chagrined when it was rejected in favor of James Hoban’s plan.

Hoban was living in Charleston, South Carolina, when he saw an announcement of the competition in a city newspaper. While little is known of the future architect of the White House, much exhaustive scholarly research has revealed important fragments of this man’s life and career. He was born in Ireland in 1758. As a native Irishman of the lower classes, he was legally barred from learning to read and write, but he learned anyway. When he entered the Dublin Royal Society’s drawing school to become an architect, Hoban resented being excluded from architectural competitions in his own city, which were reserved for the British. When Hoban arrived in Philadelphia in 1785, he found that no commissions or competitions were barred to him, and he soon received important assignments, such as designing South Carolina’s new state capitol at Charleston. Then, in the summer of 1792, he learned that he had come out the winner in the competition in Washington.

Present-day scholars of the White House agree that Hoban’s plan for the Executive Mansion was not particularly original, but it was popular, conforming to the public’s taste in those days for elegant neoclassical designs and clean, even austere lines. Especially important was the fact that George Washington liked it, and he had the ultimate say in selecting the winner. Washington was partial to spacious houses, but he asked the young architect to scale down his plan to a simpler version (two floors instead of three, for instance, and no added wings), reasoning that future generations could augment and embellish the mansion as they saw fit. Hence Hoban’s final plan included a large but simple structure, containing those rooms that are accessible to the public today: the ground floor (basement) and first-floor rooms, including the celebrated East Room (the largest room in the White House), and the state dining room.

At last, after two years of agonizing over labor and money, George Washington laid the cornerstone of the future White House in the fall of 1792. Building the White House, however, took another eight years. The walls were made of sandstone, laboriously dragged to the site by slaves from a quarry near Aquia Creek, in Virginia. With much effort on Jefferson’s part, Scottish skilled workers–never enough of them–became the stonemasons, responsible for the intricate carvings gracing windows and doorways. In those years the White House was a beehive of activity, all work being done by hand, with kilns and heaps of garbage still littering the grounds when the first occupants, John and Abigail Adams, moved into the drafty, unfinished house in 1800. It is unclear whether the term “White House” was in use by then. Officially, it was called “The President’s House.” When it was rebuilt after the British destroyed it in 1814, its official name became “The Executive Mansion.” By then, however, the nickname “White House” was firmly entrenched in the public’s vocabulary. No color of paint other than white ever appeared on the president’s house.

Public Opinion and Presidential Styles

It is significant that the history of the White House’s occupation began in 1800, the first year of the new century. Both Adams and Jefferson were impressed by the sheer size of the building (minus the East and West Wings that would be added decades later); for the vast majority of U.S. residents, it was the biggest house they had ever seen. It was another hundred years, however, before the first perceptible signs of a kind of reverence for the White House began to emerge, as evidenced in the first major renovation of 1902.

It might surprise contemporary observers that in the nineteenth century, no president felt he must live there, although all of them did (Theodore Roosevelt ignored suggestions that he and his family live elsewhere). In fact, when the British destroyed the nation’s capital in 1814, Congress narrowly voted to keep the District of Columbia as the capital only after local bankers and businessmen guaranteed a loan to help rebuild the infant city. Also surprising to modern sensibilities is the fact that a president with too many enemies in Congress could expect to receive little or no appropriations for the White House–yet Andrew Johnson, with nothing but enemies, paradoxically received a generous allotment for his home.

Last, there was no special role for the president’s wife. Abigail Adams, wife of the first president to inhabit the White House, would have been astonished to hear herself called “First Lady.” In the case of bachelor President James Buchanan, his youthful niece Harriet Lane served as White House hostess. The public’s acceptance of the title “First Lady” by the end of the nineteenth century indicated that the White House had become a place where a woman also could leave her mark. The nineteenth century therefore defined the institution of the presidency and the character of the White House, and brought to the fore a special identity, if not yet a real role, for the president’s spouse or hostess.

The first inhabitants of the White House, John and Abigail Adams, tended to be very formal in the four months that remained of Adams’s presidency. The house was not open to the public, and Adams bowed stiffly to guests invited to formal dinner parties. Thomas Jefferson, the first president to spend both terms in the White House, antagonized many society matrons by often appearing at the White House door in his slippers, ignoring social rank at dinner parties, and shaking everyone’s hand. In 1801 the White House’s doors were thrown open to the public. While this was a democratic gesture, it became a nuisance for the president and his family, who inhabited the second floor, a favorite lounging area for lobbyists and job seekers. This remained the case until the Civil Service Act of 1883 turned many job appointments into civil service jobs, and definitely ended when the president finally established separate offices for himself and his staff in a new wing of the White House in 1902.

Until the Civil War the White House was considered merely a home for the president who, if he happened to wring sufficient funds out of Congress, could do what he wanted with it. The Adamses had brought their own furniture with them, at no expense to taxpayers. With a new president, Jefferson, to follow, improvements were made: The White House was fenced in for the first time, rubbish and decrepit laborers’ huts were removed, and, in 1803, Jefferson designated an Englishman, Benjamin Henry Latrobe, to be the official architect of the White House, or Surveyor of Public Buildings. He installed a new roof, which had been badly leaking, and designed porticos for the north and south ends of the building, which remained incomplete, although he managed to add on a terrace and pavilions before the next president and his wife, James and Dolley Madison, moved in in 1809.

Destruction

The most notable happening in the tenure of James Madison was the War of 1812, which resulted in the torching of the entire capital by British troops under Rear Admiral Sir George Cockburn in August, 1814, during the hottest month in Washington. With the city open to invaders, thanks to the architectural plans of L’Enfant, and the president with his troops in Maryland, Dolley Madison could have fled immediately. Instead, she made a name for herself by rescuing a large portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart and by ensuring that valuable Cabinet papers were carted off to safety before she left the White House.

After the fire, a disheartened Congress had decided to abandon the District of Columbia when area businessmen, fearful of losing their only good customer, lobbied successfully to retain Washington as the capital. The Madisons spent more than a year living in quarters close to the White House until it could be rebuilt. It had been gutted entirely by the fire on August 24, with only the blackened exterior walls left standing.

James Hoban was called upon to rebuild the structure he had designed. This time he had a freer hand, and went to work not only restoring the White House to its original appearance but also eventually (in 1824 and 1829 respectively) overseeing the construction of the now-familiar north and south porticos. The White House was ready for occupancy again by September, 1817, and President James Monroe threw open the doors to the public in January, 1818.

Politics and Decor

President Monroe had used Congress’s twenty-thousand-dollar appropriation to finance the purchase of costly material and Bellangé furnishings from France and elsewhere to decorate the White House. More than a century later, Monroe’s acquisitions made up the core of the White House’s antique collection.

Subsequent presidents, however, had little control over the fate of the White House, which was at the whim of congressional appropriations. John Quincy Adams, who followed Monroe, was castigated by his enemies on Capitol Hill for purchasing a billiard table–hence money for the White House’s upkeep was meager. In contrast, the popular Andrew Jackson spent thousands of dollars on fine china, wine glasses, and elegant furniture. In the case of President John Tyler, however, Congress refused to appropriate a penny, and the White House interior rapidly went downhill. An observer complained that the once-elegant East Room was shabbier than the shabbiest bordello.

Abraham Lincoln had far weightier matters on his mind than furniture when he became president in 1861. While Mary Todd Lincoln overspent funds in her attempt to restore some semblance of dignity and beauty to the White House, her unpopularity combined with the exigencies of war made the task of keeping up the White House difficult. During the Civil War, Union troops were bivouacked on the White House lawn and bedded down in the East Room, which soon would witness the silent procession of mourners past Lincoln’s coffin. After the president’s assassination, Mary Lincoln’s grief was so paralyzing that for the five weeks she spent mourning in the White House, she was oblivious to the intruders who openly pillaged furniture and goods, despite the existence of a White House police force since 1842.

Lincoln’s death and the great Civil War drama that had unfolded in the White House seemed to put an end to congressional haggling over White House appropriations. Even the much-maligned Andrew Johnson had no trouble drawing sufficient funds for the White House’s upkeep. For the rest of the century, succeeding presidents and their wives refurbished the White House in the style of the day, auctioning off wagonloads of furniture regardless of its historical value, a practice that continued until well into the twentieth century.

Modern Conveniences

While the seeds of reverence for the White House were implanted by the end of the Civil War, the house was still in the main regarded as a building meant to be little more than functional–the seat of the executive branch–and livable. Presidents and their spouses throughout the nineteenth century were primarily interested in installing creature comforts, such as modern heating and plumbing (1850’s), telephones (1879), the first elevator (1880), and electricity (1891). The First Ladies, although they were not called this until after 1900, began to make their mark in the nineteenth century. In addition to Dolley Madison, notable nineteenth century presidents’ wives included Lucy Webb Hayes, who in 1879 began the annual Easter Egg Roll, and Caroline Harrison, who started the famous White House china collection in the 1890’s.

When Theodore Roosevelt became president following William McKinley’s assassination in 1901, he was reminded that he could live somewhere other than the White House. Instead, he hired the most prestigious architectural firm of the day, McKim, Mead, & White, to construct offices for himself and his staff in a separate wing of the White House, and to determine what needed renovation and alteration. The firm was renowned for its colonial-style buildings, and the three architects began the effort, which took decades to complete, of restoring the White House to its early nineteenth century appearance. The huge greenhouse on the White House lawn, in place since 1857, was ordered removed; an entire suite of presidential offices, the West Wing, was constructed; and other major repairs and restorations took place. The West Wing offices were enlarged in 1909. This process included the building of the Oval Office, which has been the president’s office ever since. In late 1901, Roosevelt had signed an executive order declaring the “White House” the official name of the executive mansion.

First Ladies

Although the twentieth century started off with the president having a decisive impact on the future of the White House, First Ladies–the title was popularly accepted by Theodore Roosevelt’s time–also would leave their mark in major ways. Thanks to President Woodrow Wilson’s first wife, Ellen, the now-famous Rose Garden was born. Her successor, the second Mrs. Wilson, Edith, was much criticized for becoming a “president in petticoats” when Woodrow Wilson lay incapacitated by a major stroke. It was left to her to make important decisions; however, these decisions did not include major changes in the White House. Grace Coolidge took the restoration of the White House interior a step further when she persuaded Congress to provide funds for the acquisition of colonial-era and early nineteenth century antiques. A third floor was finally added in 1927, during the Coolidge administration.

Lou Henry Hoover continued the trend of restoring the White House interior by having copies made of President Monroe’s early nineteenth century furniture. Eleanor Roosevelt, the most influential First Lady of the twentieth century, had little interest in interior decorating. Exigencies of war, however, demanded an expansion of the White House, and in 1942, the cornerstone for the new East Wing was laid in the presence of Franklin D. Roosevelt. President Roosevelt also enlarged the West Wing and installed the first heated, indoor swimming pool in the executive mansion.

Total Renovation

After Harry S Truman became president in 1945, he took an interest in the White House architecture, adding a controversial second-floor balcony, completed in 1948. By then, however, the White House showed conspicuous signs of structural damage. The extensive remodeling and rebuilding throughout the years had weakened the house’s wooden beams and interior walls, but the full extent of the damage was not discovered until a thorough examination made during Truman’s administration, prompting President Truman to appeal to Congress to establish a Commission on Renovation of the Executive Mansion.

The result of this study was the most important renovation of the White House since its rebuilding after the fire of 1814. In fact, the entire interior was demolished, with only the original sandstone walls left standing. The president and First Lady meanwhile moved to temporary quarters in Blair House across the street. By the spring of 1952, the rebuilding of the White House was completed. The entire interior had been restored, with many of the heavy decorative effects added in the late nineteenth century removed. A new, two-story basement was dug, a new foundation was laid, the original sandstone walls were girded by concrete and steel, and the interior was restored and refurbished with antiques, all interior details having been painstakingly catalogued before the demolition. A gymnasium, solarium, motion-picture theater, and air conditioning were installed. When it was all over, at a cost of nearly six million dollars, Truman became the first U.S. president to give a guided tour of the White House on television.

Ten years later, when John F. Kennedy was president, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy took the initiative to preserve the executive mansion as a living national shrine for future generations. A Fine Arts Committee, appointed by her in 1961, conducted a nationwide search for antiques and White House furnishings that had been auctioned off in the nineteenth century. The Fine Arts Committee gave rise to the White House Historical Association, which raises funds for the preservation of the White House and the acquisition of historic furnishings, as well as disseminating knowledge about the history of this important structure through numerous publications. President Lyndon B. Johnson furthered this effort in 1964 by an executive order that established the Committee for the Preservation of the White House, which for the first time in White House history provided for a permanent curator. No longer could a president or First Lady sell White House furnishings at will; no one could ever doubt that the executive mansion was a historical monument that must be preserved for future generations. Since then, there have been further interior refurbishings and repaintings of the exterior walls, and serious scholarship has emerged on the history and architecture of the White House.

For Further Information
  • Freidel, Frank, and William Pencak, eds. The White House: The First Two Hundred Years. Boston: Northeastern University, 1994. A compendium of symposium papers commemorating the two hundredth anniversary of the White House. It is edited by two historians.
  • McCullough, David. Truman. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992. A Pulitzer Prize-winning, readable, and fascinating biography of Harry S Truman. During Truman’s tenure as president the most extensive renovation in the White House’s history took place, requiring the President and First Lady to seek other living quarters.
  • Seale, William. The President’s House. 2 vols. Washington, D.C.: White House Historical Association, 1986.
  • _______. The White House: The History of an American Idea. Washington, D.C.: American Institute of Architects Press, 1992. Both works are standard, authoritative histories of the White House. The most recent is a fully illustrated, portrait-like presentation of the White House since its inception; Seale’s 1986 work is the most exhaustive account ever written of the history of America’s most famous historic building.
  • White House Historical Association, with the cooperation of the National Geographic Society. The White House: An Historic Guide. 20th ed. Washington, D.C.: The Association, 1999. The official guide for the White House, updated annually. Beautifully illustrated, to the point and informative, especially for the would-be tourist.
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