The White House is perhaps the most iconic building in the entire world. From suspense dramas and tv shows to daily news reports and press photos, the Oval Office and the iconic structure of the White House are recognizable across the world. For something that we see so often and associate with perhaps the most powerful position in the world, what do we know about how this iconic building at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue was built?
An artistic interpretation of the construction of the White House in 1792. Image borrowed from The White House Museum.
What Makes Up the White House?
The White House has 132 rooms, 35 bathrooms, 6 levels, 412 doors, 147 windows, 28 fireplaces, 8 staircases and 3 elevators. The 55,000 square feet of space features a housing wing for the First Family, a number of meeting and entertainment rooms, staff offices, five full-time chefs, a movie theatre (called the White House Family Theatre), jogging track, swimming pool and bowling alley – just to name a few.
Main Parts of the White House
There are three main parts of the white house: The West Wing, East Wing and the Residence. The West Wing houses the offices of the President, the Oval Office, Cabinet Room, Situation Room and the Roosevelt Room. The East Wing often is used as an office space for the First Lady and her staff. This includes as well the White House Social Secretary, Correspondence staff, and other communications and marketing employees.
The main part of the White House is the Executive Residence. It’s the most recognizable part of the White House and is the actual “house” part of the building. There are four main floors to the residential part of the White House. A kitchen, library, reception room, map room, grand hall and staircase, and a variety of other entertainment rooms can be found in this part of the White House. There is also a separate “private apartment” on the second floor that is used exclusively for the first family.
Redecorating the White House
Every first family has the right to update, redecorate and make the White House their home for the time they’re there.
North and South Portico of the White House
Why was the White House Built?
The White House was built for mainly political reasons and is linked to the founding of Washington, DC. Although the United States was officially founded by the Founding Fathers on July 4, 1776 with the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the Revolutionary War continued on for a few more years. At the time Philadelphia was being used as the American Capitol but this was set to change.
Founding Washington DC
With the Revolutionary War going on, there was pressure from both Northern and Southern states to move the capital to a more impartial place. The North, led by Alexander Hamilton, wanted the new federal government to help take on some of the debts created by the war. The south and Thomas Jefferson wanted a U.S. Capitol that was located in a more accessible and friendly location for those in the south with agricultural and slave-holding interests. Unfortunately, this was a reality of the time.
The official founding of the District of Columbia took place on July 16, 1790 when Maryland and Virginia both gave the government parcels of land to be carved out for an all-encompassing capital; Washington, DC was born.
Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s map of Washington. Image borrowed from Smithsonian Magazine.
President George Washington was the one who decided on the location between the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers. He enlisted the work of Pierre Charles L’Enfant to plan the city. The District of Columbia was designed to include awe-inspiring streets, grand walkways, beautiful parks, and a planned grid system with The Capitol building right in the center.
Philadelphia continued to act as a “placeholder” capital while construction started.
A Home Fit for a President
The White House was designed specifically to act as both a living and workspace for the President of the United States. President Washington created a contest open to architects for the design of the building. The winner of this contest was James Hoban – an Irish architect whose work Washington had admired in the past. In fact, President George Washington personally invited James to Philadelphia in 1792 to enter the contest.
Later that year, on October 13, 1792 President George Washington laid the first stone of what would become the White House.
Construction of the White House
The original design of the White House was slightly longer and a few stories taller than the final design. It was at President George Washington’s request that the building was to be built completely out of stone instead of the traditional red brick used in most buildings. Aquia Creek Sandstone was used for the construction.
There were a number of European – more specifically Scottish – masons that were brought over to American to assist in the construction. Sandstone is notoriously porous but, thankfully, the Scottish masons knew a solution to the possible problem. Once the building was complete, they used a thick whitewash to help seal the stone. It was part of what started to make the building look white – giving it its notorious nickname, the White House. Today, the White House is painted almost every year to maintain the famous white facade.
The White House and Slavery
The original plan was to mainly employ Europeans for the White House project. Congress was tasked with recruiting Europeans to come over to America to help with construction. However, recruitment was much lower than expected. Washington, DC at the time was in the middle of nowhere and no one wanted to go.
They had nowhere near enough workers. With both Maryland and Virginia being slave-owning states at the time, their influence played a big part in the acquisition of labores. A large majority of the contractors on the project were enslaved and freed African Americans. Managers and commissioners on the project owned slaves and this played into the decision as well. The other part of the workforce was mainly immigrants which included the Scottish masons.
Michelle Obama addressed this in a powerful speech she delivered at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in July of 2016. She addressed both the progress made by African American people in the United States as well as women in power.
This is the unfortunate reality of the building and it is important to recognize the role of African American slaves in the construction of many historical buildings in the US.
The sandstone was taken from a stone quarry that the government purchased in 1791 which was located a few miles inland from the Potomac River. It was ideal because the stone could be easily transported by boat up to the construction site. The same stone was also used to construct the Capitol Building. Wood from both Maryland and Virginia forests were felled and used for flooring and roof timber.
Some historical study of the stone used to build the White House indicates that it was sawed to size. Much of the work would have been done by hand with wooden scaffolding providing a working platform as the project grew. It’s a good indication as to why the project took ten years to build.
Construction took place from October 13, 1790 and finished on November 1, 1800. Since then, a number of updates, additions, reconstructions and renovations have taken place. President George Washington never actually lived in the White House and President John Adams was the first to ever reside inside the building. Since then, every president in United States history has lived inside this iconic building.
Reconstruction of the White House
The White House as we know it today is not the same one that was built in the 1790s. That first construction project was mainly just the Residence. President after president added and renovated the building until it resulted in what we recognize today. The notorious semi-circle South and North Portico were built in 1824 and 1829 respectively. An expansion of the West Wing added the Oval Office.
One of the more notorious reconstruction jobs was in 1815 after the British army set the building ablaze on August 24, 1814 during the war of 1812. James Hoban was brought back to lead the reconstruction at this time.
In 1990 during a course of restoration of the building, some of the white paint was removed. At this time, contractors uncovered some scars left on the building during the 1914 raid – proof that history literally lives with this building.
The design of the building was created with what James Hoban knew at the time in 1790. Steel was not seen very often as a structural material so he relied a lot on archways to help support and hold up the building. When President Truman did an overhaul renovation of the White House in the 1940s, he added steel to the structure. Plaster and mouldings were used to recreate the original design of the building.
Scars from the 1814 fire appeared 176 years later, in 1990, when white paint was removed from the walls in the course of restoration. Image borrowed from White House History.
The White House Gardens
For many people the White House is more than the building itself. The grand lawns, rose gardens and adjacent parks play a big part in making the house what it is. One of the most iconic gardens and beloved public spaces of the White House is the Rose Garden.
Bordering the Oval Office and the West Wing, the White House Rose Garden began to be formed in 1902 by Edith Roosevelt – First Lady of the White House at the time. Before, this part of the grounds held stables to house horses and coaches. As times changed, however, the need for such things dissolved. Her idea was to create a “proper colonial garden” instead of building a conservatory in the space. In 1913, First Lady Ellen Louise Axson Wilson planned and planted the Rose Garden which replaced the Colonial Garden. Ever since, this part of the White House landscape has been known as the Rose Garden.
Through the years, many updates, changes and renovations have also taken place in the Rose Garden.
The White House Today
As of January 20, 2021, Joe Biden is the 46th president of the United States and the 45th to live in the White House. To live or even visit this building is to stand in history. There’s no doubt that the White House is a physical representation of all the challenges, changes, evolutions and growth that has happened in America over the past 220 years.