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The White House—A History in Five Minutes

The White House is a symbol of America, democracy and freedom. While it has changed significantly over the past 215 years, it remains what it has always been, the President’s House. What follows is a brief history.

As the nation’s first president, George Washington lived in three executives mansions, but the White House wasn’t one of them. Indeed, he is the only president NOT to have lived there. Like everything else about his presidency, however, Washington set the precedent for how future presidents would conduct the affairs of state, which was from a house rather than from a palace.

The White House was designed by an Irishman named James Hoban who modeled it after a Georgian-style mansion in Dublin, Ireland. With the exception of a half-dozen Scottish stonemasons and a few journeyman carpenters, it was built entirely by slave labor. The main entrance faced north while the south side faced the Potomac. The second U.S. President, John Adams (1797-1801), moved in before the house was finished, in the fall of 1800. He thought the large two-story house too grand while his wife admitted to getting lost amidst the 22 rooms. The house was lit by candlelight, lacked indoor plumbing (wash basins and chamber pots were de rigueur), and was heated by 39 fireplace hearths located throughout the house. The bathhouse and ice house were located in outside dependency buildings while the kitchen and pantry were located in the basement. Water was carted in from a well five blocks away. The first Oval Office, known as the Yellow Room, was located on the second floor. Servants, most of whom were slaves, were quartered in basement rooms.

Thomas Jefferson (1801-09), our third president, took possession in March of 1801. Being an artist at heart and an amateur architect, he designed colonnades for west and east wings to hide the stables and storage rooms. He had a green thumb and planted a vegetable garden for the kitchen’s needs. Tomatoes and peas were his particular favorite; also grown were lettuce, squash, radishes, cucumbers, and a wide variety of herbs. He preferred taking his bath indoors and brought a portable tub from Monticello and placed it in a room on the first floor. Servants carried hot water up from the basement kitchen.

During the war of 1812, James Madison (1809-17) and all of Washington were forced to flee to the countryside by the advancing British Army. British soldiers dined on the 3 o’clock dinner Dolly Madison laid out prior to dashing out the door, consumed all the wine, then set fire to the house. All that remained standing afterwards was the sandstone walls.

The house was rebuilt by the time James Monroe took office in 1817. He spent a small fortune on new furniture he felt was necessary to match that of the European elite (which, after a great deal of bickering, Congress paid for). Monroe added the South Portico as a shady place to sit and sip juleps while watching the slow-passing Potomac. His presidency was known as “The Era of Good Feelings.”

John Quincy Adams (1825-29) added the North Portico (including the porte cochere) that lent a stately elegance to the main entrance. That, coupled with the South Portico, created the appearance of the White House we know today. Adams did not activity seek the presidency. Quoting Shakespeare, he said: “If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me, without my stir.” Andrew Jackson did actively seek the presidency and swept him from office four years later.

Andrew Jackson (1829-37), the nation’s first populist president, invited the world into the White House on inauguration day, and the world accepted. They tracked mud onto carpets and upholstered furniture, smashed dishes and broke tables and chairs, and wouldn’t leave until Jackson moved the spiked punch outside. Jackson was an activist president who didn’t trust bankers or stock brokers. He paid off the nation’s debt and shut down the Second United States Bank. He had two mini-balls lodged in his chest, the result of several of duels. He threatened to personally hang the first Southerner to openly advocate secession. He wasn’t a complete ruffian. He built a hothouse to grow orchids year round, and had a permanent bathtub installed with a hand pump that drew water from an outside cistern. When he left office, he returned to his Tennessee home aboard America’s newest creation, the passenger train.

Jackson’s hand-picked successor, Martin Van Buren (1837-41), entered office just as the nation’s longest depression set in, which couldn’t be stopped without a lender of last resort (i.e. the Second United States Bank). With the economy in shambles, Van Buren didn’t stand a chance of being reelected. But he did keep warm thanks to the latest White House comfort, a coal-fired central heating system.

William Henry Harrison (1841) lasted but one month in office. Prior to dying of pneumonia, he made his presence known among the dairy farmers of Washington D.C. Harrison set off on foot one morning to see about buying a milk cow. The farmer he met did not believe the man who wished to buy his cow was the President of the United States. Harrison led the man and his cow back to the White House, paid him for the cow, and asked him to stay for breakfast.

John Tyler (1841-45) didn’t make any improvements to the White House, or leave much of a mark on history, but with 15 children he managed to fill all the bedrooms.

Like Andrew Jackson, James K. Polk (1845-49) was an activist president. He extended the nation’s western boundary to the Pacific Ocean with the addition of the Oregon Territory, California, New Mexico and Texas. With the installation of gaslights, he could work longer hours in the Oval Office and get even more done.

Zachary Taylor was another short-term president (1849-50). His successor, Millard Fillmore (1850-53) established the first White House library. Franklin Pierce (1853-57), though considered a failure as president, installed the first hot-water heater and created a second-floor bathroom with hot and cold running water. James Buchanan (1857-61) was yet another failure. He replaced Jackson’s hothouse with a long greenhouse where the West Wing now stands. A bachelor-president, his niece doubled as First Lady.

Abraham Lincoln (1861-65) watched the completion of the Capitol dome while guiding the nation through its first cataclysm. What he needed was a communications center to monitor the war’s progress. What he got was a telegraph office located several blocks from the White House, which he walked to daily to receive and send dispatches. His wife Mary Todd was heavily criticized by Congress for exceeding budgeted household expenditures which she said was necessary because of the poor condition of the president’s house. If we can believe the movie “Lincoln,” she discovered mushrooms growing on the ceiling. Lincoln is the only president to have a room named after him—the Lincoln Bedroom. And he was the first President to welcome free Black Americans into the White House.

Andrew Johnson (1865-69) had a miserable time as Lincoln’s successor, but he never ran out of water. Municipal water service arrived in Washington in1865, and to maintain good pressure Johnson had a 2000-gallon water tank installed in the White House attic, and plumbing routed throughout the house.

Ulysses S. Grant (1869-77) enjoyed the first use of water closets in the White House, which put an end to chamber pots and close stools, no doubt adding to the party atmosphere the Grant Administration was known for.

Rutherford B. Hayes (1877-81) was the first president to have the telephone at his finger tips, which was installed during his first year in office. To ring up the White House you dialed “one.”

James Garfield (1881) was the first president to be shot while in office. He lingered 80 days in bed before expiring. His successor, Chester A. Arthur (1881-85) held the first (and only) White House yard sale.

Grover Cleveland (1885-89 and 1893-97) has the distinction of being the first two-term president not to serve consecutive terms. During his first term, his daughter Ruth had a candy bar named after her (“Baby Ruth”). During his second term, another daughter, Esther, was the first (and so far only) President’s child to be born in the White House.

Benjamin Harrison (1889-93) was the last president to wear a beard. On Harrison’s watch, electric wiring was installed throughout the White House, making electric lights (and electric shavers) possible.


William McKinley (1897-1901) is considered the first “modern president.” He led the winning side of the Spanish-American war, traveled the nation extensively by train, and made the White House the communications center of Washington D.C. by holding regular press conferences thereby shifting the spotlight from Congress to the Presidency. He was assassinated in the first months of his second term. After this, it was no longer possible to stroll the White House grounds or walk through the front door and shake the President’s hand. Those days were over.

When Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909) entered office, the President’s House, as it was known, was one hundred years old. According to Mrs. Roosevelt, the house was dark and dismal and had soot-darkened ceilings. The upstairs bedrooms, she said, were akin “to living over a store.” The overcrowded offices were separated from the living quarters by a glass screen. Pleading cramped space and no privacy, Roosevelt got Congress to appropriate $540,000 to remodel the house and to build the West Wing extension in place of the now-dilapidated Buchanan greenhouse. Roosevelt had the words “White House” printed on presidential stationary which caught on with the press and forever after the house at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue has been known as “The White House.” One afternoon, Roosevelt saw the press standing outside in the rain and invited them in and, as they story goes, they never left. Ever vigorous, Roosevelt was the first president to ride in a car, fly in an airplane, and plunge beneath the sea in a submarine. A lover of the great outdoors, he placed into the public trust 230 million acres of land, creating scores of national parks, forests, and monuments.

William Howard Taft (1909-1913) had a tough act to follow and, some would say, didn’t try. He much preferred his next job, as Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court (1921-30). As president, he enjoyed listening to music on the graphonola, an early version of the record player: arias of Puccini’s operas sung by Enrico Caruso were a particular favorite; he also favored the music of a young upstart named Irving Berlin. He oversaw the purchase of the first motorized presidential limousine and had the carriage house and stables converted into a garage. “(Mine was) a very humdrum, uninteresting administration,” he said later.

Woodrow Wilson (1913-21) was the first and only president with a doctorate degree. Despite having little experience in government, he proved an effective leader. He created the Federal Reserve, set up the Federal Trade Commission, tried and failed to create the League of Nations, and became the first president to deliver the State of the Union in person, rather than in writing, which was the practice. His wife planted a garden that became famous as the White House Rose Garden.

Warren G. Harding (1921-23) was the first president to address the nation by radio. He also suffered the ignominy of the first major presidential scandal—Teapot Dome (after the site of one improperly granted oil-drilling lease). While never personally implicated, Harding never recovered from accusations and passed away while in office.

Calvin Coolidge (1923-29). Silent Cal has the distinction of lighting the first White House Christmas tree, and overseeing the building of the East Wing extension. He is the only president to be sworn into office by his father, a local notary in Vermont, where Coolidge happened to be when he learned of Harding’s death.

Herbert Hoover (1929-33) suffered two calamities while in office: one was a fire that burned down the West Wing, and the second was an economic fire that caused the Great Depression and forced him out office after one term.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1933-45). While leading the nation out of the Great Depression and winning the Second World War, FDR had a swimming pool installed in the West Wing basement, addressed the nation on radio with his weekly “fireside chats,” and redesigned the Oval Office. The Resolute Desk, later made famous by a photo of President Kennedy’s young son John peaking out of an open kneehole panel, was possible because FDR had hinges put on the panel so it would open and close. The desk has been used by a number of presidents since Queen Victoia presented it as a gift to President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1880.

Harry Truman (1945-1953) did not learn of the existence of the atomic bomb until sworn in as president. Later, he learned the second floor of the White House was on the verge of collapse. He, his family and White House staff moved across Pennsylvania Avenue to Blair House while the White House was rebuilt from the ground up. When work was complete, the president’s house had forced-air heating and cooling,132 rooms, 35 bathrooms, 28 fireplace hearths, eight staircases, and three elevators. Truman inaugurated the first televised press conference.

Dwight Eisenhower (1953-61) enjoyed golfing and had a putting green built outside the West Wing. Much to the annoyance of his successor (Kennedy), the spike marks from his golf shoes were still evident on the Oval Office floor in 1961 when JFK took office.

John Kennedy (1961-63). As a result of the Bay of Pigs and Cuban Missile crises, JFK created the Situation Room in the basement of the West Wing, as a communications center where his advisors, the JCS, and CIA directors could meet in times of crisis. Mrs. Kennedy, meanwhile, redecorated the White House and restored the Rose Garden to its former glory.

Lyndon Johnson (1963-69) had telephones installed in the White House bathrooms while the nation was learning to spell “Vietnam.”

Richard Nixon (1969-74) had the basement pool covered over to make room for a bowling alley, visited China, and became the first president to resign from office.

Gerald Ford (1974-77) had the distinction of locking himself out of the White House late one night while out walking his dog, and of pardoning Nixon from prosecution. He also built an outdoor swimming pool.

Jimmy Carter (1977-81) popularized the term “micromanager” and brought the first personal computer into the White House.

Ronald Reagan (1981-89): having seen “Dr. Strangelove,” as president the first thing he wanted to see was the “war room.” He was shown the Situation Room (which was the same thing). Everyone thought he was naive to ask Gorbachev to take down the Berlin Wall, until the Soviet Premier did exactly that.

George H. W. Bush (1989-93) put a hex on broccoli while advocating a gentler, kinder America.

Bill Clinton (1993-2001) was the first president assigned an email address.

George W. Bush (2001-09) was sent aloft Air Force One during the 911 attacks. Until more was known, the presidential jet served both as a safe haven and Situation Room from which to monitor events on the East Coast, across American and throughout the world.

Barak Obama (2009-). While Obama had the distinction of being the first African-American elected president, his wife Michelle planted the first White House vegetable garden since the 1840s.

While living in the White House has lots of perks, residents complain its tantamount to living in a fish bowl. The only rooms that cannot be seen from outside are located in what used to be the attic. Added in 1927, the attic rooms have windows concealed from the street; its where the White House kids and their friends love to hang.

Finally, these words by John Adams written after his first night in the White House: “May none but honest and wise Men ever rule under this roof.”

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