8 facts you might not know about the White House, home of the president of the USA
How much do you know about the history of the White House in Washington DC, which has been home to all US presidents since John Adams in 1800 (including the current president, Donald Trump)? Writing for HistoryExtra, White House historian Lindsay M Chervinsky shares eight surprising facts about the famous building – from how it was built by enslaved workers, to the year it caught fire…
When and how was the White House built? How many rooms does it contain? And how it is kept so white? Here’s everything you need to know about the home of the US president…
Enslaved workers helped to build the White House
In 1792, work began on the new president’s house in Washington, DC (eventually renamed the White House), on a site selected by the first US president, George Washington. Over the next eight years, a mix of free African-American and white wage labourers, enslaved workers, and skilled craftsmen built the White House. They worked in a variety of positions, including basic labourers, overseers, sawyers, carpenters, stone workers, and bricklayers.
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Some of the enslaved workers were owned by the city commissioners charged with overseeing the project or James Hoban, the architect. The vast majority, however, were hired out from their owners in Washington, DC, Virginia, and Maryland, who then pocketed the enslaved peoples’ wages. The construction crews were often shuttled back and forth between the White House and the Capitol building sites, depending on which location needed labour or had available materials at any given moment.
The White House was set on fire by British Forces
In August 1814, British forces marched into Washington, DC and burned all public buildings in retaliation for the destruction of York [now Toronto], Canada, the year prior. After enjoying a lavish meal laid out by First Lady Dolley Madison, the British forces set fire to the White House.
Urban legend suggests that a rain storm arrived and saved the White House. The truth, however, is that the rain actually made the damage worse. While the wet weather saved the surrounding buildings from catching fire, it nearly destroyed the walls of the White House. The stone walls were incredibly hot from the fire and the cold rain caused them to shrink rapidly and crack.
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Congress quickly appointed a commission to investigate the damage and rebuild the White House. The investigators discovered that almost everything inside had been destroyed except for a few pots and pans in the basement kitchens, but their report concealed the extent of the damage to get the rebuilding process started immediately.
Some officials wanted to move the capital to a more developed city – like Philadelphia, New York, or Charleston – because lodging, food, and entertainment options were still quite limited in DC. Furthermore, representatives from states far away from DC, like New Hampshire or Georgia, wanted to shorten their travelling time. They saw the destruction of the White House as an opportunity to move the capital. Eager to maintain a historic link with the earlier presidents, Presidents James Madison and James Monroe rushed to rebuild the White House exactly as before. They even hired the same architect, James Hoban, to complete the renovation.
Each president has a portrait hanging in the White House
The portrait locations follow a rough pattern; they are mostly arranged chronologically, with a few exceptions. The portraits of the most recent presidents are in the entrance hall of the State Floor and they extend chronologically up the stairway to the residence.
Others are scattered about: George Washington and Theodore Roosevelt are in the East Room, Abraham Lincoln is in the State Dining Room, and William Howard Taft is in the Blue Room because that’s where his portrait was painted. Presidents Millard Fillmore and Chester A Arthur are hung in the East Wing where guests enter because the paintings are so large that they don’t fit on any other wall. Most of the portraits in the Blue Room are of Virginia presidents… and John Adams, which I suspect would irk him.
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But President Lyndon B Johnson’s portrait has the most interesting placement. Each president has a fair amount of influence over how their likeness is captured and as a larger-than-life figure, one would expect Johnson’s portrait to be equally grand. Instead, it’s one of the smallest. He didn’t leave an explanation for why he requested such a modest portrait, but its final location offers one possible clue: Johnson’s portrait is hung in the corner of the Entrance Hall, next to the doorway into the State Dining Room. Few other portraits would fit in this space, so perhaps by selecting a diminutive portrait; Johnson was ensuring he would always retain a place of prominence on the State Floor.
It’s an ongoing battle to keep the White House walls white
Keeping the White House white is no easy feat! Lime-based white wash was originally applied shortly after the building was constructed to protect the porous sandstones. By President Jimmy Carter’s administration (1977–81), the paint was so thick that visitors couldn’t see the carving details above the windows and doors, or any of the beautiful molding. The White House underwent a significant external renovation to strip the many layers of paint, which took 20 years and wasn’t completed until President William ‘Bill’ Clinton’s administration. When finished, over 45 coats of paint had been removed from the exterior walls.
Many animals have lived at the White House
Most people are familiar with the dogs that have lived in the White House – such as Bo and Sunny Obama, or President George W Bush and First Lady Laura Bush’s Scottish terriers, Barney and Miss Beazley. But there have been a menagerie of animals that have called the grounds home. President Woodrow Wilson welcomed a herd of sheep to the South Lawn and they donated their wool to the Red Cross to create uniforms for soldiers during the First World War. One particularly adventuresome ram named Hi caused a bit of trouble when he repeatedly broke into the Oval Office.
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John F Kennedy’s daughter, Caroline, had a pet pony named Macaroni; First Lady Grace Coolidge had a raccoon named Rebecca; and President William H Taft had a cow, Pauline Wayne, which roamed in front of the Old Executive Office Building. Perhaps best of all, Alice Roosevelt (Theodore Roosevelt’s daughter) had a garter snake named Emily Spinach that she carried around in her purse and pulled out as a conversation piece at parties.
The White House complex is deceptively large
While the building appears to be two stories from the street, there are actually six floors. There are three floors above ground (the State Floor and two floors for the residence), and three floors below ground. While much of the State Floor and residence layout has remained the same since its construction, many other areas of the White House have changed dramatically. When you enter the White House today, you would probably enter on the Ground Floor, or the first of the basement floors. Until 1901, this floor was primarily a work space. Instead of the China Room, the Vermeil Room, the Library, and the Diplomatic Reception Room, there would have been a kitchen, a laundry room, a storage space for food and dishware, and sleeping spaces for the enslaved or free servants. The basement was notoriously damp and frequently infested with vermin and rodents.
There are other spaces that have been lost to history as well. The White House had a series of stables to house the president’s horses, carriages, coachmen, and grooms. The final and most elaborate stable was converted into a garage in 1909. The attic has also undergone many renovations. In its early years, it was used for storage, sleeping quarters for free or enslaved servants, and a hiding place for the presidents’ children. In 1913 First Lady Ellen Wilson added guestrooms and a painting studio for her own private use. During the Coolidge administration, engineers discovered problems with the roof structure. They installed a sunroom (now the solarium), larger guest and service rooms, and a new steel and concrete roof.
The White House grounds were once open to anyone
When President John Adams moved into the White House on 1 November 1800, there was no fence or gate, and the grounds were open to pedestrians. President Thomas Jefferson added a fence that enclosed the grounds, but they remained open for common use. In 1873, President Ulysses S Grant began closing the grounds at sunset for additional security and in 1893, President Grover Cleveland closed the South Grounds, typically the first family’s garden, after strangers tried to take a picture of his young daughter, Esther. The North and South Grounds were closed permanently during Calvin Coolidge’s presidency at the recommendation of the United States Secret Service.
The president’s cabinet hasn’t always had a home at the White House
Every president has consulted a cabinet since President George Washington convened the first full cabinet meeting on 26 November 1791. While President John Adams was the first to live in the White House, President Thomas Jefferson was the first to meet with his cabinet in the White House and gathered the department secretaries in his private study on the first floor (now the State Dining Room).
By the time of the Civil War, the president’s study had moved to the second floor and Abraham Lincoln met with the secretaries in his office in the south-east corner of the second floor (now the Lincoln Bedroom). Theodore Roosevelt built the West Wing to provide more work space for his staff, and to give his large family more room on the second floor of the original building. In 1909, President Taft expanded the West Wing, added the Oval Office, and an official Cabinet room. The Oval Office was moved to its present location during President Franklin D Roosevelt’s presidency. Since then, most cabinets have used the Cabinet room for official cabinet meetings and elected to meet with individual department secretaries in the Oval Office.
Lindsay M Chervinsky, PhD is White House Historian at the White House Historical Association, a non-profit dedicated to preserving and sharing the history of the White House. She received in PhD in Early American History from the University of California, Davis, and her book, The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution, will be published by Harvard University Press in April 2020.