No other house in America, and perhaps the world, is as famous as the White House. It is the oldest federal building in Washington and the most prevalent symbol of the Presidency.
The White House was only adopted as the site's official name during the Theodore Roosevelt administration, although it had carried the name since early in its existence. The President's House, as it was first called, was the first official building of Washington, constructed before the Capitol or any of the monuments. George Washington chose the site for the President's House. He loved the view offered by the downhill swoop to the Potomac. Despite having chosen its location, George Washington never got the chance to sleep, much less live, at the White House. But all other presidents, from John Adams to Bill Clinton, have lived at the White House.
A competition was held to find the design for the executive mansion. One of the entries received was a simple Roman design submitted by none other than Thomas Jefferson. Perhaps had Jefferson signed his own name rather than with pseudonym to his entry, his design might have won the competition. Instead, the man who won, and received the $500 prize money, was James Hoban, a little-known, self-taught craftsman from Ireland. His winning design was based on a classical Irish manor near Dublin.
Although most people today can only dream of living in the White House, early presidential families would have loved to live elsewhere. For the first twenty years or so, the White House was a chilly and barren mansion. The first president to live in the White House was John Adams, who moved in on November 2, 1800, before the building was completed. First lady Abigail Adams probably had it the hardest of any first lady. Legend has it that she actually hung her family's wash in the East Room.
The White House has seen plenty of alterations. When the British burned the mansion in 1814, it forced a dramatic re-modeling. The interior was completely gutted and the house was not reopened until 1818. The place was also trashed during the near-riots of Andrew Jackson's inaugural celebration.
In 1926, President Calvin Coolidge was warned that the roof would cave in unless major renovations were undertaken to the White House. The president ignored the warnings and the rotting infrastructure was overlooked until a piano partially fell through a floor in the mansion. In 1950 the White House went through a drastic overhaul. The renovation gutted most of the interior. President Truman and his family moved to Blair House for the duration of the renovation. When the construction was complete, alterations were barely visible from the outside. However inside, it was a whole new house. Unfortunately much of the historical interior pieces were dumped in a landfill or given away as souvenirs. Little of the original interior was restored to the house. The best that curators could do was approximate the look of the original house and fill the mansion with modern reproductions of the old decor.
In 1961, Jacqueline Kennedy decided to make the White House into a true showplace. She sent out a world-wide request for original furnishings from the house. To show off her changes, she left the nation on the first-ever televised tour of the White House. To preserve the historical integrity and decor finally established at the house, Congress passed an act declaring all furnishings and decorations to be property of the White House. If anyone, even the president, wants to dispose of any White House item, it now must be donated to the Smithsonian Institution.
For more information on the White House, please visit this virtual historical tour of the White House where you can view the rooms and furnishings. You can also visit the White House on the Web at www.whitehouse.gov.
This is the end of the White House Area tour.
If you'd like, you can return to the beginning or return to the Tour Starting Point.