WHITE HOUSE, the residence of every president of the United States since John and Abigail Adams became its first occupants on 1 November 1800. The selection of a site for the president's house in the new federal city of the District of Columbia was made by President George Washington and Major Peter ("Pierre") C. L'Enfant, the French-born planner of the city of Washington. The land they chose was on a ridge north of Tiber Creek (now enclosed in an underground conduit), with a majestic view down the Potomac River. In 1792, the commissioners of the federal city drew up a competition for the design of a house for the president. Among those entering the competition was an anonymous citizen who signed his entry "A.Z." and who was later revealed to be Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. The winning design was the work of James Hoban, an Irish-born architect who modeled his entry after Leinster House in Dublin, Ireland. Hoban's design was built on eighteen acres on the south side of Pennsylvania Avenue, Northwest. The city's commissioners tried unsuccessfully to recruit European craftsmen and laborers to build the White House. Therefore, the White House, like the early Capitol and other federal buildings, was largely built by slaves and free African Americans who worked alongside white workers. It was begun in 1792 and completed in 1800 at a cost of $232,372.
In 1807, during Thomas Jefferson's administration, the East and West Terraces were added to the mansion. In 1824, the South Portico was completed, and, in 1829, the North Portico. The terraces were the work of architect Benjamin Latrobe, and the two porticoes incorporated the designs of both Latrobe and Hoban. In 1948, a balcony was added to the South Portico at the request of President Harry S. Truman. The West Wing of the White House, which contains the offices of the president and his staff, was built in 1902 as a temporary office building. It was expanded over the years until its original size was doubled. The East Wing was completed in 1942, during World War II, to provide more office space; it houses the office of the first lady and her staff. Both wings were constructed at lower elevations than the residence. The West Terrace's swimming pool, built in 1933 for Franklin D. Roosevelt, was covered over in the late 1960s, during Richard Nixon's administration, so that it could serve as a press center.
Until Herbert Hoover's term (1929–1933), visitors were granted easy access to the White House. Americans then insisted on face-to-face contact with their leader and personal attention to their needs. That tradition originated with George Washington, who had begun a popular weekly presidential open house in New York City, the first seat of the federal government. There anyone was free to enter and shake the president's hand. Soon after, an hour was set aside twice weekly for similar receptions. John Adams, the first occupant of the White House, continued the tradition of opening the "people's house" to the public. During his term men seeking political favors could
simply walk in the front doors, go upstairs, and enter the president's second-floor study. Over time, access varied with presidential style. The informal Andrew Jackson held receptions open to all, regardless of protocol. Martin Van Buren insisted on formal protocol, and was the first president to have police screen his well-wishers. The unpretentious Abraham Lincoln, whose study and living quarters were on the second floor of the White House, often woke to find audacious job-seekers loitering in the hall. By the time Herbert Hoover came to the White House in 1929, the tradition had evolved into an hour-long open house six days a week, when anyone could come and shake the president's hand or leave a gift. Meeting the president was as much a part of the tourists' Washington experience as a visit to the Capitol, and Hoover received 1,000 to 1,200 well-wishers daily. On New Year's Day 1930, 9,000 citizens lined up on the mansion's driveways to greet the president. Shortly after, he abolished the daily reception. Visitors still came to the White House, but were limited to the public rooms, which became more museum-like over the years. In times of national emergencies, the public rooms are closed to visitors.
Throughout its history, the White House has undergone extensive interior change and renovation. Only the exterior walls remained standing after the British set fire to the president's house on 24 August 1814, and James Monroe did not move into the White House until December 1817. In 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt commissioned a major refurbishing of the interior, and, between 1948 and 1952, during the Truman administration, the residence was completely gutted and renovated to make it structurally sound and to add two basement level floors.
The precedent for housing the president at government expense was set in 1789, when Congress appropriated funds to rent and furnish a home for President Washington in New York City. Until 1905, presidents often sold aging White House furnishings in order to supplement the government furnishing allowance. Early sitting presidents also used their own funds to buy furnishings, and eventually presidents began raising private funds to refurbish or enhance the collections. In 1961, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy began an extensive program to acquire American antique furnishings and paintings for the White House. Subsequent first ladies continued the practice, giving the White House an outstanding collection of American furniture from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries as well as American paintings and decorative arts from the late eighteenth century to the early twentieth century. In 1979, First Lady Rosalynn Carter supported the establishment of the private, nonprofit White House Preservation Fund to help with new acquisitions and the refurbishment of state rooms. In addition, each new occupant of the White House had the opportunity to furnish the private living quarters and the working offices with pieces from a collection of items used by previous first families. Into the twenty-first century, the White House retained the classical elegance of an early nineteenth-century house and continued to serve as the home and office of the president of the United States and as a symbol of the government of the United States.
Bowling, Kenneth R. The Creation of Washington, D.C.: The Idea and Location of the American Capital. Fairfax, Va.: George Mason University Press, 1991.
Kapsch, Robert J. "Building Liberty's Capital: Black Labor and the New Federal City." American Visions 10, no. 1 (February/March 1995): 8–10.
Monkman, Betty C. The White House: Its Historic Furnishings and First Families. Washington, D.C.: White House Historical Association; New York: Abbeville Press, 2000.
Seale, William. The President's House: A History. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, White House Historical Association, 1986.
White House Historical Association. Home page at www.whitehousehistory.org.
The first official home of the president of the United States was not white but red. When George Washington assumed the presidency in 1789, his official residence was in what was called Government House, a two-story red brick building in lower Manhattan. This was the first of two official residences—the second in Philadelphia—to which Washington was assigned while the new federal city was being constructed on the Potomac.
The Residence Act of 9 July 1790 proposed a Congress and a president's house to be built in what would become Washington, D.C. Inspired by the residence of a Dublin nobleman, Irish-born architect James Hoban based his design on the traditional Palladian palazzo, proposing a large rectangular house much grander than any other mansion in the new nation. The final plan called for several staterooms on the lower story surrounding a distinctive oval room, with space for private family quarters on the two upper floors. The cornerstone was laid on 12 October 1792, and the house gradually took shape over the next eight years.
The nation's second president, John Adams, was the building's first occupant, and when he moved in on 1 November 1800, he found his new home far from finished. Despite a lack of staircases and an abundance of damp, cold rooms, the Adams family soon adapted, making the most of the six livable rooms. Early in 1801 they were finally able to entertain and opened their state rooms to the public. Many marveled at the grandeur of the president's home, but there were detractors who quickly dubbed the residence "the president's palace."
Indeed, when Jefferson superseded Adams, he saw the president's house—which, because of its whitewashed walls, was becoming known as the White House—as an awkward monument to federal monarchicalism. To disassociate the residence from any palatial associations, Jefferson immediately sold the coaches, horses, and silver-mounted harnesses Adams had bought and abandoned the rounds of levees and parties that had made the White House such an important center of polite society. Ever the improver and, besides, pressed for additional office space, Jefferson added the East and West Wings, marked by a matching pair of colonnades designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe.
While it remained for some a reminder of the excesses of federal power, the White House slowly emerged as a symbol of national identity. Certainly this was the understanding of the British commanders who burned the building's interior, along with
the U.S. Capitol, on the night of 25 August 1814, at the height of the War of 1812.
Humiliated but energized, President James Madison pledged to restore the White House. James Hoban returned to supervise reconstruction, adding the north and south porticos. The rebuilding was funded by a $500,000 appropriation from Congress, a sign of the public's growing affection for what was becoming a symbol of the new Republic. Few architectural changes were made following this reconstruction, and the White House passed into Andrew Jackson's hands in a form that would remain essentially unchanged until the 1880s.
Garrett, Wendell, ed. Our Changing White House. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1992.
Seale, William. The President's House: A History. Washington, D.C.: White House Historical Association, 1986.
Richard J. Bell
White House 1. the official residence of the U.S. president in Washington, D.C. ∎ the U.S. president, presidency, or government: the White House denounced the charge. 2. the Russian parliament building.