This is it – The President’s House.
Standing silently and stolidly, this graceful house is synonymous with the presidency of the United States of America. During the time a president is in this house, the term “The White House,” embodies the policies and the accomplishments of his administration. At the same time, it represents the stable, seamless transition of power from one president to the next – so important in American democracy.
What you see from this vantage point is the South Façade. It’s the best view there is. This is actually the back of the house. The stately main entrance, the North Façade of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue – the most famous address in the world – is on the walking tour (Site #17)
There is more to the White House Complex than what is visible from here. Artfully obscured by trees to the left is the West Wing; to the right is the East Wing.
The West Wing houses the Oval Office, the office of the President, offices of the President’s senior staff, the Cabinet Room, the Situation Room and the Press Briefing Room. The office of the First Lady and her staff, as well as offices of the social secretary and correspondence staff, are in the East Wing.
What you see here, the focal point of the complex – the historic Residence – is the home of the President and his family. Their private quarters are on the 2nd floor. Additional bedrooms, sitting rooms, workout rooms, game rooms and offices are on the 3rd floor.
The external double staircases on either side of the columned South Portico lead to the first floor, the State Floor, whose elegant rooms are used for receptions, ceremonial occasions, and for entertaining dignitaries. The oval Blue Room, situated behind the curved portico, is flanked by the delicately hued Green Room and the gilded, color-drenched Red Room. The East Room and the large formal State Dining Room are on each end of the first floor, connected by Cross Hall.
The oval Diplomatic Reception Room, the MAP Room, the China and Vermeil Rooms, and the main kitchen are all on the ground floor.
The trees around the periphery of the property provide shade and privacy to the pool and tennis courts used by the First Family. Some of the larger trees, including the magnolias on either side of the South Portico, were planted by President Andrew Jackson.
The famous South Lawn, stretching between the fountain and the Residence, has been used by Presidents and First Ladies to host events, many involving children. The annual Easter egg roll is a White House favorite. Parades for visiting dignitaries are sometimes held on the South Lawn. It’s also the landing spot for Marine One, the presidential helicopter, a familiar television image.
The timeless composition beyond the fence has not always looked this way. Its graceful balance has evolved through two centuries of alterations, additions, rebuilding and renovations, including a complete interior gutting and reconstruction
Although presidents and their families are but transitory caretakers of this historic home, from the moment they arrive it takes on their character and style.
Beginning with George Washington, who never lived in the President’s House but was involved in its architectural design, Presidents and their First Ladies have left something of themselves behind, each adding another layer to the history of this remarkable house.
The area was rural at first. Master planner L’Enfant’s intent was to have the President’s House situated in a large area he called President’s Park which included the land just to the north, now Lafayette Park (Site #18).
However, when Thomas Jefferson moved in, he disliked the grandiose implications of the huge lawn. He reduced it in size by having a new stretch of Independence Avenue cut between the White House and what is now Lafayette Park.
Construction on both the President’s House and the Capitol began in 1792, seven years before the government actually moved to the new city. Both were constructed from soft Aquia Creek sandstone, readily available and easy to transport by barge from nearby Virginia.
Over time, much of the Capitol was changed to marble (see East Mall Waking Tour App), however, the exterior of the White House is the original fragile material. While sandstone has a gray/beige hue, the building has always been white – achieved by whitewash in the early years; lustrous layers of white paint in later years.
The original neoclassic Federal-style design – a balanced, rectangular mass – was grand yet austere, a reflection of both the period and personal background of architect James Hoban.
The nation’s 2nd president, John Adams and his wife, Abigail, were its first residents, moving in the unfinished building on November 2, 1800. The significance of the President’s House, undoubtedly felt by all those chosen to occupy it, was expressed by John Adams in a letter to his wife which was later engraved on the mantel of the State Dining Room during the administration of 32nd president, Franklin Roosevelt:
“I pray Heaven to bestow the best of blessings on this house and all that shall hereafter inhabit it, may none but honest and wise men rule under this roof.”
Thomas Jefferson, who succeeded Adams, found the house to be a “very agreeable country residence,” but far too big and lacking in the design feature he believed to be fundamental element of architectural design – the Roman order of columns.
He sketched plans for graceful columned pavilions on each side of the main building to soften its appearance. However, it was famed architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe who designed the pavilions and other additions to the grand house, including the distinctive South Portico, whose smooth columns of Doric order were so elemental to Jefferson.
During the War of 1812, the British torched the President’s House. Only a thunderstorm kept it from being totally destroyed. The ruined interior was gutted and restored as it was by the original architect, James Hoban. During that reconstruction, between 1814 and 1819, President James Madison and his wife Dolley Madison lived in the Octagon House (Site #36), the first residence in the neighborhood.
A few years later, in 1824, Hoban added the grand, curved South Portico, based on Latrobe’s design. The North Portico was added five years later. The next additions: running water in 1833; natural gas lighting in 1848; electric lighting in 1891.
President Ulysses Grant left his mark with an ornate, high Victorian interior renovation which included Tiffany glass everywhere. He added the circular pools centered by fountains on the South and North Lawns. In keeping with Victorian decorative excess, the south fountain at the time featured classical fish figures spouting water. Large glass conservatories – indoor gardens – in vogue at the time, were added to the east and west sides of the house.
Theodore Roosevelt was the next president to make changes – major ones. He had Grant’s Victorian décor removed and returned the interior to a more Federal style, as it was initially. In 1902 he replaced the huge glass conservatories with the West Wing addition to meet the expanding needs of the Executive Branch. It is linked to the Residence by a colonnaded gallery walkway – Thomas Jefferson’s graceful west pavilion.
The first Oval Office was built in 1909 by William Howard Taft, but not in its present location. The much photographed Oval Office of today was added to one side of the West Wing in 1934 by Franklin Roosevelt. It overlooks the familiar Rose Garden, a lovely backdrop for White House ceremonies, which had been created in 1913 as an outdoor extension of the West Wing.
The East Wing is separated from the Residence by the Jacqueline Kennedy Gardens. The East Wing was initially built as an elegant entrance for formal White House functions. The building, as it stands today, was added to the White House in 1942 to act as cover for the secret construction going on below – a war time underground bunker. It is connected to the Residence by the glass-enclosed East Colonnade, created from the east Jefferson pavilion.
Time, use, and weight-bearing additions weakened the timber-framed sandstone building so much that in 1948, during the tenure of Harry Truman, the Residence was declared uninhabitable. The only way to fix the crumbling structure was to completely gut the interior, leaving only the exterior shell.
Newer, load-bearing steel framework was constructed inside, maintaining the plan of the interior rooms as they had been. Unfortunately, much of the historic interior finishes were lost along with the crumbling plaster and had to be reproduced.
Throughout this major renovation, the Trumans lived across the street in the Blair House. (Site #32)
During John Kennedy’s presidency, Jacqueline Kennedy spearheaded a major interior restoration to bring a museum grandeur to the historic house. With funds from private donors, the interior design elements of many of the rooms were researched, restored, refinished. Rooms were re-decorated with antiques, art and artifacts, many original pieces that had once been in the house.
Since Mrs. Kennedy’s amazing effort, subsequent First Ladies have worked with curators to enhance and expand her work.
Address: 1600 Pennsylvania Ave NW, Washington, DC