The House That The Presidents Built
THE White House, America's revered and beloved home, is marking its 200th year. Since the cornerstone was set in 1792, it has been the home and workplace of every president except George Washington.
Despite drastic damage in a time of war, jarring excrescences, and, sometimes, strongly debated permanent additions, the familiar Georgian-style white structure, regarded as the nation's finest standing 18th-century stone building, has retained the original regal, classical design created by the Irish-born architect-builder James Hoban.
Pierre Charles L'Enfant, designer of the capital city, envisioned a vast palace for the president situated above the Potomac River and the Tiber Creek. The house was constructed on the site designated by L'Enfant, but it was five times smaller than the huge structure he would have preferred.
In fact, after being selected from nine other contestants, James Hoban designed the President's House, as it was then called, to resemble the mid-18th-century Irish Georgian-style Leinster House in Ireland. As a result, the plan was for a wide, rectangular structure with a center section featuring four columns and hooded windows.
Eight years were to pass before the house was completed. The sandstone that served as a facing for a brick shell was quarried and cut in Virginia, then slowly towed up the Potomac River to the construction site.
Skilled labor was scarce. Masons, carpenters, and jointers were recruited from the local populace and from among African-American slaves in the region. Masons were brought from Scotland in 1793 to complete the stone work that was whitewashed to seal its porous quality. Money, too, was not always readily available.
Abigail and John Adams were the first presidential residents of the mansion. It was hardly complete for the four months remaining of Adams's term when the family lived there. The plaster was damp. Wood for heating was not provided. The large building was drafty, making it even more uncomfortable. The grand staircase was not in place.
And it is said that in the servantless, ill-equipped house, Mrs. Adams was forced to hang the laundry to dry in the East Room where gusts of wind blew in through unfinished windows.
President Thomas Jefferson, an ardent amateur architect who followed the Adamses and lived and worked in the mansion through his two terms of office, introduced low-lying pavilions at the east and west of the building that were as graceful as they were practical for needed extra work space.
Jefferson's innovations signaled the many changes that were to come. Although the changes included the addition of north and south porticos in the early 1800s that were designed by the noted architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe with construction supervised by James Hoban, and numerous enlargements and room rearrangements, it was a disastrous fire, a drastic emergency gutting of the building, and a 20th-century addition that were probably the most dramatic.
The fire that left only the scorched exterior walls of the newly completed President's House was set by the British when they invaded the capital city during the War of 1812.
President James Madison's wife, Dolley, a quick-witted woman who was home alone at the time, fled the mansion with objects she believed were of importance, among them the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington.
WHEN the severely damaged house was reconstructed the outer stonework became permanently white after a mixture of white lead ground in oil, Spanish whiting, and linseed oil was applied. But the president's home was not referred to as the White House until 1901, when it was so designated by President Theodore Roosevelt.
It was during President Harry S. Truman's terms of office in the 1940s and 1950s that the two other major changes were made.
By the mid-1940s, continuing strains, some exerting stress since the reconstruction of the mansion following the fire of 1814, began to threaten the existence of the historic building. A massive renewal of the structural elements was required to strengthen the building, and the entire interior of the mansion was gutted.
Truman insisted that the modernization be limited to structural needs, such as a steel frame, and that both the facade and interior remain as much as possible as they had been.
Although he resisted change, President Truman could also introduce it. His plan for a second-floor porch brought widespread furor within official Washington and among the public. Both sectors feared that the porch would flaw the classic symmetry of the building. But, since it was completed in 1948, the much-debated porch has become an integral and complementary part of the overall White House design.
Today, the White House is the only head-of-state's home in the world that is open to the public, enabling one and all to have a close-up view of this unique and distinguished structure where history has been made time and again.
Located at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue N.W., the White House is open for tours Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to noon.
Free tickets are distributed at 8 a.m. from a kiosk on the neighboring Ellipse grounds.
Tickets are not needed between Labor Day and Memorial Day.
"VIP" passes for tours that are given from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. before regular tours begin can be obtained by writing or phoning (well in advance) your representative's or senator's office.