The President of the United State’s famous mansion at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC, stands out in part because its white facade contrasts brilliantly with the well-tended, green grounds that surround it. But while the appearance is certainly aesthetically pleasing, it’s really just a serendipitous side effect—the real reason that the White House was painted white is a little more utilitarian.
In 1791, then-President George Washington chose the site for the estate, and construction began the following year. By 1798, the year after Washington had completed his second and final presidential term, workers had finished erecting the sandstone walls of the building. Instead of painting it with traditional paint, they used whitewash, a lime-based liquid that would prevent water from leaking into the porous stone and freezing.
Reader’s Digest reports that the mansion’s first resident was John Adams in 1800, and it wasn’t long before people stopped referring to it as “the President’s House” and adopted a nickname that alluded to the place’s eye-catching exterior: the White House.
“There is much trouble at the white house, as we call it, I mean the President’s,” Massachusetts congressman Abijah Bigelow wrote to his wife on March 18, 1812 [PDF]. As The White House Historical Association points out, this was just three months before the United States would declare war against Britain.
In August 1814, British troops actually set fire to the White House, giving rise to the still-prevalent rumor that the White House was painted white to cover up the damage, but the whitewashing that took place after the disaster was really just a continuation of the years-long tradition. In 1818, the maintenance staff finally switched to using white lead paint (a whole 570 gallons of it) to keep the White House in gleaming condition.
The nickname remained informal for the next 80-odd years, until President Theodore Roosevelt made it the official name of the residence in 1901. It wasn’t the only lasting impact Roosevelt had on the place—the following year, he launched a major renovation project that included relocating the president’s offices to what’s now known as the West Wing.
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