Washington Didn't Sleep Here: A White House FAQ

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It was 216 years ago today that George Washington laid the cornerstone of the White House. Of course, poor George is the only president who didn't live in it; he left office before the house was finished. A lot has happened in the house since then, both good and bad. But let's put that aside and focus on the building itself.

How big is it?
The White House, at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW in Washington, D.C., has 132 rooms (including 35 bathrooms), 412 doors, 147 windows, 28 fireplaces, 8 staircases, and 3 elevators spread out over six floors, which have a combined area of 55,000 square feet. The house is 170 feet wide, not including the porticos, and 70 feet tall at its highest point. It takes 570 gallons of paint to cover the outside surface. It is owned by the National Park Service.

How was it built, and what major changes have been made?

In 1791, George Washington and Pierre L'Enfant, the civil engineer who planned the District of Columbia, chose a site for the president's mansion and a competition was held to find the right design. There were nine submissions—one of which was from Thomas Jefferson, using a pseudonym. The design by Irish-born architect James Hoban was chosen by Washington, with two suggestions: the house would be enlarged by thirty percent and include a large reception hall. Construction began on October 13, 1792, when Washington laid the cornerstone, and the house was finished eight years later at a total cost of $232,372.

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James Hoban's White House design.

Thomas Jefferson began the expansion of the original house when he moved in. Working with architect Benjamin Latrobe, he added colonnades on the east and west sides of the house to conceal a stable and storage areas.

During the War of 1812, the White House was burned by British troops. Only the exterior walls survived the fire, and even these had to be torn down and reconstructed because of fire damage and exposure to the elements. Latrobe and Hoban both contributed to the reconstruction and added the north and south porticos.

When Theodore Roosevelt moved in with his wife and six children, the White House got a little too crowded to be used as both a residence and an office, so Roosevelt had the mansion renovated and added the East and West wings. The East Wing was used as a guest entrance and the West Wing provided office space for the president and his staff.

The West Wing was damaged by a fire in 1929, but was rebuilt and expanded by a second floor and a basement. Roosevelt's original East Wing was replaced by a bigger structure in 1942 to balance the larger West Wing and to hide the construction of an underground emergency bunker. Today, it houses the offices of the First Lady and her staff, as well as the visitor entrance and lobby.

In 1948, Harry Truman began a large reconstruction project that involved the complete dismantling of the interior space of the house, the construction of a load-bearing concrete and steel frame within the shell of the exterior walls, and the rebuilding of the original interior space.

The last major change made to the White House was the redecoration carried out by Jacqueline Kennedy, who brought in a number of antiques, paintings and historical artifacts. Mrs. Kennedy chose different periods of world history as themes for various rooms in the house and funded the redecoration with sales of the first White House guide book.

Some improvements made to the White House over the course of its history include:

Wheelchair accessibility modifications made during Franklin Roosevelt's presidency.

A wheelchair ramp in the East Wing, to provide access for visitors, was approved by Hillary Clinton.

A telephone, added during Rutherford B. Hayes presidency, was rarely used because there were so few telephones in Washington (for a while, the White House telephone number was "1.")

"¢ Benjamin Harrison was the first president to enjoy electricity in the house.

A telegraph was installed by Andrew Johnson in the room next to his office.

"¢ Warren G. Harding had a radio in his study.

"¢ Jimmy Carter took a baby step toward going green when he installed solar heating panels on the roof of the West Wing, which were later removed.

"¢ George Bush sent the first presidential email in 1992.

Why is the White House white?

Legend would have us believe that the house was painted white to mask the damage from the fire in 1814, but it had been white since it was built. The exterior of the building was constructed with Aquia sandstone, and was covered with a lime-based whitewash near its completion to keep the porous stone from freezing.

It wasn't known as the White House from the start, though. For close to a century, the building was referred to as the "President's Palace," the "Presidential Mansion," the "President's House" and, in official contexts, the "Executive Mansion." Teddy Roosevelt had his name for the building, the White House, engraved on the presidential stationery in 1901, and this stuck as the official name.

Why is the Oval Office oval?
oval-office2.jpg

The Oval Office during the Reagan years.

The West Wing featured a "temporary" Executive office when Teddy Roosevelt had it added to the building. When Taft took office, he held a competition to find an architect make an enlarged, permanent office for the president to work in. Nathan C. Wyeth, an architect from Washington, D.C., won with a design modeled after the house's original oval-shaped Blue Room.

And why was the Blue Room shaped like an oval? That room's design was inspired by the oval form of a room in George Washington's temporary presidential house in Philadelphia, which Washington had ordered rebuilt in a semi-circular form to better suit a formal reception, a concept borrowed from the English court.

What have the White House's occupants thought of the place?
"¢ Gerald Ford once said the White House was "the best public housing I've ever seen."

"¢ Harry Truman referred to the house, at various times, as a "glamorous prison," and "great white sepulcher of ambitions."

"¢ Ronald Reagan thought of it as an "eight-star hotel," according to his wife.

Who was the White House's strangest guest?
Roger Clinton and Billy Carter put together probably couldn't top the weirdness of Winston Churchill's 1941 visit to the White House. Churchill stayed for 24 days, wore a one-piece jumpsuit most of the time and was often found lounging in the nude by servants who went to his room to serve him brandy.

If you've got a burning question that you'd like to see answered here, shoot me an email at flossymatt (at) gmail.com. Twitter users can also make nice with me and ask me questions there. Be sure to give me your name and location (and a link, if you want) so I can give you a little shout out.

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October 13, 2008 - 9:32am
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