The history of the White House

There are few properties in the world which reflect the growth of a nation as much as the White House in America which has become symbolic with the US and the Democratic movement in the country. However, the White House has changed dramatically over the years and with a history stretching beyond two centuries there is much to know about the most famous residence in the USA.  The history of the White House is very chequered but what more would you expect from the residency of the US President?

The original idea of the White House

The White House is commonly known as the official residence and workplace of the president of the United States of America and is located at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW in Washington DC. The White House itself has a history goes back to 1792 when the first US president George Washington commissioned a competition which attracted nine proposals, one of which was by Thomas Jefferson although this was submitted anonymously.

Legend has it that George Washington very quickly chose the submission by James Hoban, an Irish descendant living in Charleston, South Carolina. Even though Hoban’s design was accepted by the president, George Washington later gave orders to increase the size of the house by 30% by adding a large reception hall and the current day East Room.

The design is said to be based upon Leinster House in Dublin, Ireland which later became the seat of the Irish parliament although many have cited French influences for the design and layout of the Georgian style White House.

The building of the White House

Building work began on 13 October 1792 when the cornerstone of the structure was laid although surprisingly there was no formal ceremony and no high-ranking officials were in attendance. The residence itself was built by enslaved and free African-American labourers although there was also a strong European contingent to the workforce who were employed through the designer. History suggests that much of the work on the White House in later years was performed by illegal immigrants although details on this particular angle are fairly sketchy.

As well as a strong American contingent on the workforce, Scottish immigrants were used specifically to erect the famous sandstone walls as well as much of the decoration around the residence and above the northern entrance to the White House. Irish and Italian workers were used to lay the bricks and complete the plasterwork on the property with the first phase of the building of the White House taking eight years to complete (ready for the president on 1 November 1800). The cost of the White House, prior to the first of many phases of expansion, is noted at $232,371.83 which equates to around $2.5 million in today’s market.

Changes to the original plan

Originally there had been plans for three floors to the property but due to a shortage of material and labour at the time this was scaled back to just two floors. The White House gets its name from the materials used to coat the exterior sandstone walls which were a mixture of lime, rice glue, casein and lead.

The property was severely damaged by a fire in 1814 which was started by the British Army during the so-called “burning of Washington” and at the time only the exterior walls remained although many of these had to be removed and the structure was effectively built again from scratch.

After the fire of 1814 there were concerns about the location of the White House and the fact it was close to a canal and swamplands which many deemed to be perfect breeding grounds for conditions such as malaria. While there was a move to have the White House relocated this was rejected by Congress and in 1891 a number of new extensions were added to the structure such as the West Wing and the now infamous Oval office.

Ongoing repairs to the White House

While much of the original plasterwork dating back to 1814 remains in the property there was a major rebuild in 1948 after constant expansion of the original structure placed too much pressure on many areas of the original White House. The original timber frame was deemed unsafe and president Truman was forced to move out of the residence for a short time while the property was effectively stripped to the bone and rebuilt using the latest construction technology and load-bearing information.

While there have been many changes since the rebuild in 1948, these have tended to be personal and subtle changes by the array of new presidents, predominantly to their personal living spaces. Congress and the US people have been very protective of the original structure which has been retained as far as possible with no major adjustments since 1948.

Facts about the White House

The White House complex of today is substantially larger in size from that which was first designed back in 1792. The complex today includes an executive residence, East Wing and West Wing as well as a number of other buildings used to house the ever-growing army of government officials. In all there are six stories to the White House of today, 55,000 ft.² of floor space, 132 rooms, 35 bathrooms, 412 doors, 147 windows, 28 fireplaces, eight staircases, three elevators, five full-time chefs and the property is said to receive around 5,000 visitors per day.

Guests of the president also have access to a tennis court, bowling alley, movie theatre, jogging track, swimming pool and a putting green.

Thomas Jefferson was said to have had a Mockingbird pet within the White House which was allowed to fly freely unless official guests were in residence.

William Henry Harrison was president of the USA for just 32 days after he caught pneumonia and died as a result of hours in the freezing cold during his inauguration.

George Bush regularly invited tennis champions to a game on the famous White House tennis court as he was known to be a keen tennis player.

Gerald R Ford was a keen swimmer and it was even rumoured that he once gave a press conference while swimming his many daily laps in the White House swimming pool.

Dwight D Eisenhower was the first ever US president to use a helicopter to take off and land on the White House lawn although this is now a common occurrence at the White House of today.

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