The White House: The History Behind the Presidential Home | History Hit

The White House: The History Behind the Presidential Home

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The iconic facade of the White House, Washington, DC.
Image Credit: Shutterstock

The White House is the home and workplace of the President of the United States and has long stood as a symbol of American democracy.

Located in Washington, DC, the White House has witnessed some of the most pivotal moments in US history. It was built over two hundred years ago, opening in 1800, and has since evolved from a striking neoclassical structure to an elaborate complex of some 132 rooms spread over 55,000 square feet.

The construction of the White House began when President George Washington declared in 1790 that the federal government would reside in a district “not exceeding ten miles square, on the river Potomac.”

Variously known as the ‘President’s Palace’, ‘President’s House’, and ‘Executive Mansion’, the White House is now consistently voted as one of the most popular landmarks in America, and it is the only private residence of a head of state that is open to the public.

Here’s the story of the White House.

Designing the White House

A 1793 elevation by James Hoban. His 3-story, 9-bay original submission was altered into this 2-story, 11-bay design.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

In 1792, a competition to find a designer for a ‘President’s House’ was held. 9 proposals were submitted, including an application by later president Thomas Jefferson under the initials ‘A. Z.’

Irish-born architect James Hoban modelled his plans on Leinster House in Dublin and won the competition for his practical and attractive design. Construction began immediately, with the neoclassical style building being built by enslaved people, labourers and stonemasons imported from Edinburgh, Scotland, between 1792 and 1800.

The use of Aquia Creek sandstone, painted white, served as the house’s namesake, which remained a nickname until it was formalised by President Roosevelt in 1901.

Though President Washington oversaw the White House’s plan and build, he never lived there. Instead, it was first lived in by President John Adams and his wife, Abigail, the latter of whom was disappointed at its unfinished state, and used the East Room as a place to hang her washing rather than entertain the public.

When Thomas Jefferson moved into the house in 1801, he added low colonnades on each wing that concealed stables and storage. Successive presidents and their families have also made structural changes, and it is custom for presidents and their families to decorate the interior to suit their personal taste and style.

Devastated by fire

The White House as it looked following the fire of 24 August 1814.

The White House was set on fire by the British Army in 1814, during the Burning of Washington. This incident formed part of the War of 1812, a conflict fought primarily between the US and the UK. The blaze destroyed much of the interior and charred most of the exterior.

It was almost immediately reconstructed, and a semi-circular South portico and North portico were added a while later. Because of overcrowding, Roosevelt had all work offices relocated to the newly-constructed West Wing in 1901.

The first Oval Office was created 8 years later. The White House survived yet another fire in the West Wing in 1929 while Herbert Hoover was President.

Renovations

Throughout much of Harry S. Truman’s presidency (1945-1953), the interior of the house was entirely gutted and renovated. However, the original exterior stone walls have remained.

The complex has been regularly renovated and extended since. It is now made up of the 6-storey Executive Residence, West Wing, East Wing, Eisenhower Executive Office Building and Blair House, which is a guest residence.

Across its 18 acres, the 132-room building is accompanied by a tennis court, jogging track, swimming pool, cinema and bowling lane.

It is owned by the National Park Service and is part of the President’s Park.

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Opening to the public

The White House was first opened to the public during Thomas Jefferson’s presidency in 1805. It happened because many who attended the swearing-in ceremony at the US Capitol simply followed him home, where he then greeted them in the Blue Room.

Jefferson then formalised the open house policy, opening up the residence for tours. This has at times proved dangerous. In 1829, an inaugural crowd of 20,000 people followed President Andrew Jackson to the White House. He was forced to flee to the safety of a hotel while staff filled washtubs with orange juice and whiskey to lure the mob out of the house.

Since Grover Cleveland’s presidency, inaugural crowds have no longer been able to freely enter the house. After his inauguration, he held a presidential review of the troops from a grandstand constructed in front of the building. This procession then evolved into the official inaugural parade we recognise today.

The South Portico of the White House is decorated in cornstalks, pumpkins and Autumn colors Sunday, Oct. 28, 2018, welcoming guests for the 2018 White House Halloween event.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

It is understood that the American people ‘own’ the house, and simply loan it to whoever they elect as president for the length of their term. As a result, the White House still frequently hosts members of the public for tours free of charge, except during times of war. It attracts more than 1.5 million visitors annually.

The scale and status of the building today reflects its profile on the world stage as a landmark of presidential – and by extension, American – power.

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Lucy Davidson

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