What is the difference between the White House of President Abraham Lincoln and the White House of President Barack Obama? To help with the comparison, I will describe what we commonly call the White House, where the first family lives and major receptions are held, as the Residence. The Residence is the same size, on the same foundation and the same exterior walls as it was when completed in 1800, except for the front and rear porticos. It is the building that is seen throughout the world as the symbol of America. It has been known as the “President’s Palace,” the “President’s House” and the “Executive Mansion.”
The name “White House” was not used officially until President Theodore Roosevelt had it engraved on his stationery in 1901. Many changes have been made to the structure over the past 213 years. President George Washington helped select the site and construction began in October, 1792 when Washington laid the first cornerstone. Eight years later, and after spending $232,372, President John Adams moved into the still-not-complete President’s House on Nov. 1, 1800. Adams did not remain in the mansion very long however, because newly elected President Thomas Jefferson took office and moved into the Residence in March, 1801. Among his first acts was to have proper toilets constructed near the bedrooms on the second floor to replace the outdoor privy. A President does need his privacy!
During the War of 1812, much of Washington City was burned by British troops. The Residence was gutted by fire in 1814, leaving only the exterior walls standing. President James Madison restored it to its original condition by 1817. During this restoration, the smoke-stained gray stone exterior walls were painted white. The front and rear porticos were added to the Residence in 1825 and 1830, replacing wooden porches and platforms. Running water was installed in 1833, central heating in 1837, gas lamps replaced candles and oil lamps is 1848 and running hot water was first piped into the first family’s second floor bathroom in 1853. The Tiffany glass windows were added during the 1890s. Electric lights began replacing the gas lamps in 1891. Since the first floor of the Residence was used for formal receptions and meeting rooms, all of the executive offices as well as the first family’s living quarters were still on the second floor.
President Theodore Roosevelt began a large renovation project in 1902 that moved the executive offices off the second floor and into a building of their own. This new West Wing was a one-story office building that was connected to the Residence by a colonnaded gallery. In the original design, the “President’s room” was rectangular and was located in the center of the West Wing, where the Roosevelt Room now exists. The first East Wing, also constructed in 1902, became the entrance for formal and public visitors. It served mainly as an entrance for guests during large social gatherings when it was necessary to accommodate many cars and carriages. In 1942 it was replaced by today’s East Wing. In 1909, President William Howard Taft enlarged the West Wing, remodeled the interior and created the Oval Office. When Franklin Roosevelt became President, he added the second floor to the West Wing and moved the Oval Office from its original location to its present location in the southeast corner, adjacent to the Rose Garden.
In 1948, President Harry Truman added the balcony to the South Portico at the second-floor level. During this addition, the Residence was found to be structurally unsound. The old interior was dismantled, leaving the Residence as a shell. It was rebuilt using concrete and steel beams in place of its original wooden joists. All of the exterior walls were reinforced on the inside, but the exterior stone walls are the same ones that were first put in place when the White House was constructed two centuries ago. The current White House, including both Wings has 132 rooms, 35 bathrooms, 28 fireplaces, eight staircases and three elevators.
In my next column, I will describe the condition of the Residence when the Lincoln’s moved in, and the “expensive” changes made by first-lady Mary Todd Lincoln in 1861. I will then illustrate how the “people’s house” was indeed inhabited by the people on a daily basis during the Lincoln administration.