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A History of the White House: The US President’s Home

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A photograph of the White House taken from the front lawn, via The White House

 

In medieval Europe, kings and other lords were frequently known for the impressiveness and strength of their castles. Today, we colloquially refer to executive administrations of nations by their headquarters, such as “the White House,” “the Kremlin,” “10 Downing Street,” or “Buckingham Palace.” While most Americans know that “the White House” refers to the president’s administration, many may know little about this famous mansion’s history. Did America always have the White House, and has it always looked the way it appears today? Was it always a highly-secured fortress? Here’s a look at the history of the country’s most famous residence and its growth from a simple house to a vast office complex capable of running the nation.

 

Before the White House: Creating the Presidency

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A portrait of George Washington, the first President of the United States, via the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC

 

The United States was not created with the position of president! For the first five years of independence from Britain, beginning in 1783, the US only had a Congress under its original governing document. This document, the Articles of Confederation, had no position of chief executive. After the republic almost crumbled during Shays’ Rebellion (1786-87), many people wanted to reform the Articles to provide more executive power to maintain order and security. George Washington, the hero of the American Revolutionary War, agreed to preside over this convention when it met in Philadelphia during the summer of 1787.

 

This convention became the Constitutional Convention of 1787, which quickly replaced the Articles of Confederation with the new United States Constitution. This governing document created a new position: president. This chief executive would also serve as commander-in-chief [of the military], chief diplomat, and chief legislator. A group of wise leaders, the Electoral College, would select this president. To help guarantee public support, this Electoral College unanimously picked George Washington himself to be the first president. This election, and Washington’s since re-election in 1792, are the only times when one candidate received the vote from all electors.

 

Setting the Stage: Building a National Capital

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A 1792 plan for Washington DC, which was built to serve as the United States capital and avoid locating the capital within any one state, via Washington DC

 

However, the first president George Washington did not live in the White House. The entire city of Washington DC did not exist in 1789, when Washington took office. Unlike most nations, the United States specifically created a federal city that existed independently, outside of any state, to be the national capital. Washington DC was designed and created to be the nation’s capital and not be beholden to, or provide a special advantage to, any state. Inside this new city, a residence was created to be the seat of the executive branch and serve as the living quarters and office of the chief executive.

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The city of Washington DC (District of Columbia) was established on July 16, 1790, with the site chosen by inaugural president George Washington. Designer Pierre Charles L’Enfant created the map for the new city using inspiration from existing European cities like London, Paris, Madrid, and several cities in Italy. At the time, Washington DC was considered the geographic epicenter of the United States, though this would change during the lengthy era of Westward Expansion. The plans included the location for the future White House, the Capitol to house Congress, and the National Mall.

 

Building the White House

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A drawing of the White House by architect James Hoban in the 1790s, via National Public Radio (NPR).

 

In October 1792, construction began on the president’s house, which was set on an 82-acre preserve. Although Washington DC designer Pierre Charles L’Enfant designed the president’s house, architect James Hoban finalized a more conservative design. Hoban had won a competition among nine submissions to design the White House, receiving a gold medal. George Washington himself selected the exact site of the house within the city, symbolically choosing a spot near where the Capitol would be. The first president to live in the White House was John Adams, the second president and first vice president (serving under George Washington), whose family took up residence in 1800.

 

In 1805, upon winning re-election, Thomas Jefferson held the first Inauguration open house at the White House, allowing the public to enter. Presidents are allowed to renovate the White House to fit their personal needs, as well as those of their families. The White House was rather unique in that it was designed to be both a private residence for the nation’s chief executive and a public house that citizens could visit free of charge. At the time, the mansion was not typically called the White House but rather the “President’s House” or “Executive Mansion.” It received its formal title of “White House” in 1901 by President Theodore Roosevelt.

 

White House Down: War of 1812 & Burning of Washington

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A painting of British troops burning the White House on August 24, 1814 during the War of 1812 (1812-15), via Morehead State Public Radio

 

In 1812, war erupted between the United States and Britain over trade disputes and the impressment of American sailors into the Royal Navy. Under fourth president James Madison, who famously wrote most of the US Constitution and Bill of Rights, the US invaded British Canada, hoping to make quick territorial gains. Unfortunately for Madison, British forces in Canada repelled the American invasion. Then, Britain struck back the following year with an invasion of America’s coast.

 

August of 1814 saw British raids along America’s coast, with the Brits emboldened by their recent defeat of Napoleon in Europe and a desire to keep the United States focused away from Canada. On August 24, the British defeated the Americans at the Battle of Bladensburg and then moved on to Washington DC. In retaliation for the American burning of York, Ontario the previous year, the British forces set fire to the White House, the Capitol, and other government buildings. Fortunately, Madison and his government had escaped and avoided capture.

 

A Simple White House (1815 – early 1900s)

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A photograph of the White House circa 1880, via the Wellcome Collection

 

The White House was rebuilt after the War of 1812. Original architect James Hoban returned to rebuild the White House, and the federal capital functions were temporarily moved to Cincinnati. By 1817, the White House repairs were completed. The mansion was expanded in the 1820s, with the South Portico added by Hoban in 1824 and a North Portico added by the same architect in 1829-30. The South Portico, or porch, gives the White House its distinctive look today.

 

Running water was added to the mansion in 1833, including a pump to get water to the second floor. The 1840s saw additions of natural gas to the White House, providing centralized heat and replacing candles with gas lights. Electricity was added in 1891, replacing gas lights with light bulbs. Aside from the porticos, the main building of the White House remained largely unchanged until 1902.

 

Modernizing the White House: Security Features

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A photograph of members of the US Secret Service uniformed division at the White House, via the United States Secret Service

 

Prior to 1823, the White House had no guards. The first guards served as tour guides during the day, and only in 1830 were the first formal guards stationed outside the mansion during public events. In 1837, the White House finally received its first full-time guard, with multiple guards only becoming standard in the 1840s. Security expanded considerably during the US Civil War (1861-65) but relaxed afterward. Not until the 1890s did security begin to seal off open access to the White House grounds. A sentry box, or security guard post, was added in 1894 for the first time.

 

The US Secret Service, created to fight counterfeiting, only began protecting the president in 1901, making it the only federal law enforcement agency with a distinct dual mandate. Every president, beginning with Theodore Roosevelt, has received Secret Service protection, with Roosevelt having a two-agent guard. In 1922, a uniformed protectorate was created for the White House, and in 1977 it was renamed the Secret Service Uniformed Division.

 

Growth of the West Wing Complex

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A map of the West Wing of the White House, originally built in 1902 and expanded periodically since, via the National Park Service

 

The West Wing office complex was built in 1902, allowing the president to move his office out of the executive residence to a more professional environment. It includes modernizations like the Situation Room, which is staffed 24 hours a day to keep the president updated on crucial events around the world. The Cabinet Room has a large mahogany table where the president can meet with his entire cabinet of 15 cabinet-level secretaries, such as the Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, Secretary of the Treasury, and Attorney General (Secretary of the Justice Department).

 

In 1909, the famous Oval Office was built inside the West Wing. Twenty-five years later, it was moved to the southeast corner of the building, overlooking the Rose Garden. Despite the building being modernized for innovations like the Internet and Wi-Fi, most presidents since 1880 have used the Resolute desk, which was given as a gift by Queen Elizabeth from the wood of the H.M.S. Resolute. The ship had been rescued and given back to Britain by the United States. Incoming presidents typically redecorate the Oval Office according to their individual tastes, often selecting historic artifacts from previous administrations to reinstate.

 

Public Space and the Executive Residence

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A 3-D rendering of the Executive Residence, or central part of the White House complex, which is what most people call the White House, via the National Park Service

 

While most presidential work is done in the West Wing, the traditional view of the White House that many Americans hold, with the South Portico, is of the Executive Mansion. Although the exterior has remained similar since the completion of the North Portico in 1830, the mansion’s interior was totally renovated between 1948 and 1952 under President Harry S. Truman. The Executive Mansion has 132 rooms, including 35 bathrooms, spread over six levels.

 

The ground floor of the Executive Mansion is used for events and is “public space.” The second and third floors are the executive residence, where the president lives with their family. In 1927, the attic of the Executive Mansion was expanded and became its third floor. Similar to their Oval Office, presidents have been allowed to renovate parts of the Executive Mansion and executive residence. Many presidents with children have installed playground equipment on the White House grounds and held events and receptions like prom parties and wedding receptions at the mansion.

 

Does the Vice President Live in the White House?

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A photograph of the Naval Observatory, which is the official residence of the US vice president, via the United States Navy

 

Some people might wonder if the US vice president also lives at the White House. Until the 1900s, the vice president actually lived at his private residence, which was not unexpected due to the few duties of the position. Until the 1920s, for instance, vice presidents were not even invited to attend Cabinet meetings. Only in 1974 did Congress decide to make the Naval Observatory, a residence built in 1893 for the superintendent of US Naval Operations (USNO), the residence of the vice president. However, only in 1977 did Vice President Walter Mondale (under President Jimmy Carter) use the Naval Observatory as a primary residence for the first time.

 

The vice president’s offices are in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building (EEOB), built on the White House grounds between 1871 and 1888. Originally, the building was meant for the State Department and other offices, but expanding duties of the White House led more and more White House functions to be moved into the building. In 1949, the entire building was formally given to the Executive Office of the President. Fifty years later, it was renamed after former president Dwight D. Eisenhower. Like both the White House and Naval Observatory, the EEOB is also on the National Registry of Historic Places, having received the honor in 1969.

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