On July 4, 1776, in a historic move, Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence ceased to remain a mere draft. It was signed and adopted, signaling the official unification of the thirteen American colonies and its departure from British rule. The United States of America was born, a young, newly independent nation. A new government was established and Americans rolled up their sleeves and set to work, rebuilding themselves a new nation. At the center of this was General George Washington, the first President of the United States and he needed a home. Architecture has rarely existed independently. It has always been a response to change, to fit the needs of an evolving society. Post-independence, America saw a shift, not just in governance and politics but also in social structures, ideologies, and culture and it required buildings catering to these needs. The establishment of government buildings was a top priority. Unlike the old administrative buildings, with fragmented leadership in each colony, the newly proposed ones were to be the seat of federal power, responsible for a unified country. Out of these needs arose the White House.

As was the set precedent, monumentalism was synonymous with power. The bigger it was, the more power it held. The White House was a statement, a symbol, exactly what America needed. However, the war had depleted the treasury- the USA owed around $12 million to foreign countries and had spent large amounts on war expenses. It owed a considerable sum of money to its citizens for their contribution to the war. Combining the remaining state debt with foreign and domestic debts, the total national debt of $80 million was estimated by Congress. Making a statement was important but so was staying economical. An interesting challenge, yielding some interesting facts.

1. Location of The White House

The first house, a neoclassical design known as “The Government House” was built in New York. But it was found unsuitable for central governance and was never lived in. The search for a more ideal location ended in Washington DC, now the home of federal power.

This selection was a slightly controversial one, with several leaders suggesting a more northern, commercial location, while southern leaders preferred a more agricultural region, to avoid the concentration of financial and political power- a primary cause of the American Revolution. But Washington was undeterred in his choice. He believed it would one day stand alongside cities like London and Paris. French- American military engineer Pierre Charles L’Enfant was appointed as the chief designer of the upcoming city.

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Views of the Government House Cotton ©nypl.org, Milbourne
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Views of the Government House Cotton ©William Russell Birch (1755–1834) – Birch’s Views of Philadelphia (1800)

2. Designs of The White House

The original proposal for The White House by Pierre Charles L’Enfant was traded in for Irish architect James Hoban’s, selected through an open architecture competition held in 1792. An entry was even made by a future president, Thomas Jefferson.

Although impressed by it, George Washington wasn’t satisfied with Hoban’s initial proposal. it did not, in his opinion, set the level of monumentalism and importance befitting a president and it was revised.

L’Enfant’s design was to be four times the size of Hoban’s.

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Hoban’s plan ©F.D.Owen, 1990 www.loc.gov

3. Principles/Influences

Hoban’s design bears a striking resemblance to the upper storeys of the Leinster House, Dublin. It has also been theorized to be influenced by the French Chateau de Rastignac.

Heavily inspired by Classical and Palladian architecture, the neoclassical building is six storeyed, with 7 staircases, 132 rooms, 32 bathrooms. It has 147 windows, 412 doors, 3 elevators, 28 fireplaces and cost around $232,372 (currently valued at $3,500,613).

Constructed with pale grey sandstone, the structure uses columns to create a sense of height and scale.

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Leinster House ©truwood.ie
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Château de Rastignac ©wikipedia.org

4. White in The White House?

Despite popular belief that white paint was used to cover damages caused by the 1814 fire, the coat of white had existed years earlier. In 1798, the sandstone walls received a white lime whitewash to protect it from freezing during winters, giving the building its signature color.

In 1818, it received a coat of white lead paint. Until 1902, when Theodore Roosevelt officially coined it “The White House “, it was known as “The Executive House”.

5. History made. Made history.

The construction was done by a workforce, the majority of whom were slaves and immigrants. It is interesting to note that Washington DC became the first American city to abolish slavery (through the compensated emancipation act, 1862), almost nine months before the rest of the country.

The cornerstone of the house was laid on 13th October 1792 but it was soon found to be missing. Although attempts were made by several presidents to locate it, it was never found.

The White House also witnessed a historic moment in women’s rights and suffragette history- a 2-year long protest by the “Silent Sentinels”, right outside its gates.

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Silent Sentinels protesting outside the White House Gates ©www.alamy.com

6. Built by one. Used by another

Although George Washington was the first American president and commissioned it, he was the only president not to have resided in the White House. Construction began in October 1792 but was still on-going (completed in November 1800) when John Adams was elected president and he became the first president to move in.

7. Fire burns. Ravages.

In 1814, 14 years after its completion, the White House was burnt to the ground by British forces, leaving only the external walls still standing. Despite suggestions to relocate, President James Madison employed Hoban to restore the building. It was finished in 1817, as per his original designs.

Tragedy struck again in 1929 when another fire gutted out two main floors due to which President Truman was unable to live in the White House for most of his presidency.

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The fire of 1814 ©White House Historical Association

8. Unchanged

Despite the considerable renovations it has undergone, the original design of the White House has remained intact. Some major changes include:

  • The addition of the South portico in 1824, facing the private backyard. (Monroe administration).
  • In 1829, the North portico was added, in Greek revival style, with stately columns and a pedimented portico (Jackson administration).
  • Both were added by British- born architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe, who worked closely with Hoban. Following the overall Neoclassic theme, these porticos were constructed with red Seneca sandstone and created a 2-faced structure. The northern façade, facing the public sets an angular, formal feel while the southern façade is more informal and rounded.
  • 1835 brought with it running water and central heating, while electric lights were added in 1901.
  • The Truman balcony is built within the southern portico. Considered controversial by historical preservationists for breaking the aesthetic verticality created by the columns, there were also concerns of cost and security. Despite objections, it was completed in 1984.
North Portico ©wikimedia.org
South Portico ©Zach Rudisin

9. Inclusive.

In 1921, President Franklin Roosevelt experienced a paralytic illness leaving him paralyzed from the waist down. Hence, during his term, the White House was turned into a wheelchair accessible building. It was one of the earliest government buildings in Washington to do so.

10. Man’s best friends?

The White House has been home to many presidents over the years but it has also seen its fair share of unusual pets. Some of them include:

  • Jefferson- Two grizzly bear cubs (gift) *
  • Van Buren- Two tiger cubs (gift)*
  • Benjamin Harrison- two Opossums- Mr. Reciprocity and Mr. Protection, two alligators.
  • Theodore Roosevelt – garter snake, a small black bear*, laughing hyena (gift), one-legged-rooster.
  • Woodrow Wilson- a flock of 48 sheep.
  • Coolidge- Rebecca, a raccoon, two lion cubs, Tax Reduction and Budget Bureau, a pygmy hippopotamus, a wallaby *, a duiker*, a black bear*
  • W. Bush- Ophelia, a longhorn cow

Nessa Philip is an aspiring architect. Forever frowned upon by professors for having too much text on her sheets, she is finally channelling some of that energy into something readable. She believes that architecture is more than just a series of spaces. It is a loud, colourful amalgamation of stories, ideas and lives intertwining, if one only knows where to look.

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