The White House

Updated on June 14, 2018
The White House as it appears from the north. Photograph by David Lat.
The White House as it appears from the north. Photograph by David Lat.

The White House is the official residence of the President of the United States, located in Washington, D.C. It is on Pennsylvania Avenue facing north onto Lafayette Square. The White House, or Executive Mansion, as it is also called, is surrounded by an 18-acre park, most of which is on its south side. The building, which has 132 rooms, contains the private living quarters of the President and his family, the executive offices, and state rooms for official and diplomatic functions.

The external plan of the White House. The building is situated on more than 15 acres of land, and its major features include: (1) Executive Wing, (2) President's office, (3) swimming pool and gym, (4) main building, (5) movie theater, (6) East Wing,
The external plan of the White House. The building is situated on more than 15 acres of land, and its major features include: (1) Executive Wing, (2) President's office, (3) swimming pool and gym, (4) main building, (5) movie theater, (6) East Wing,

History of the White House

The White House was the first public building to be constructed in Washington, D.C. It was designed by the architect James Hoban for a site chosen by George Washington. The cornerstone was laid on Oct. 13, 1792. Among the early names given to the building were the President's Palace, the President's House, and the President's Mansion. Washington and his wife inspected the gray limestone building in 1799, shortly before his death the same year. In 1800 the government was transferred from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., and President and Mrs. John Adams moved into the White House. At this time the structure consisted only of the central building. A few years later, Thomas Jefferson, assisted by the architect Benjamin Latrobe, added terraces on the east and west sides of the building. Jefferson also commissioned Latrobe to design the North and South porticoes, or porches, of the building.

Rebuilding and Renovation. In 1814, during the War of 1812, the British burned the White House, leaving only the blackened walls standing. Dolley Madison, President James Madison's wife, escaped from the building just before the arrival of the British troops and rescued the famous Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington and several important documents. The White House was rebuilt between 1815 and 1817 under Hoban's supervision, and the whole building was painted white to cover the smoke stains. Although the name "White House" dates from before the fire, the building was officially called the Executive Mansion from 1818 to 1902. In the latter year, President Theodore Roosevelt authorized the official adoption of the name "White House" and had it engraved on his stationery. Two other major 19th-century additions to the White House were the semicircular South Portico, completed in 1824, and the North Portico, with Ionic columns from ground to roof, finished in 1829. The South Portico became the main ceremonial entrance of the building.

The next major renovation took place in 1902, when Theodore Roosevelt, following old prints in the Library of Congress, had the East and West wings rebuilt. The executive offices were moved from the second floor of the central building to the West Wing. A new entrance on the ground floor was placed under the South Portico. In 1927, President Calvin Coolidge had a third floor with 18 rooms added to the central building.

In 1948, nearly 150 years after its completion, the White House was declared unsafe for habitation, and President and Mrs. Harry S. Truman had to move out temporarily. The exterior walls of the building were allowed to remain standing, but the entire interior was rebuilt. When the renovation was completed, in 1952, all the historic rooms of the White House had been reconstructed. New rooms were added only in the private area. Air conditioning was installed, and a bomb shelter with protection against radioactivity and poison gas was built.

During many administrations, especially before 1900, the occupants of the White House redecorated and remodeled its interior. Presidents bought furniture to their liking, and later Presidents sold it at auction. However, some White House families have been interested in preserving its past. President Theodore Roosevelt followed the original plans in the restoration of 1902, and in 1923, Mrs. Calvin Coolidge persuaded Congress to pass a resolution allowing the White House to accept gifts of Early American furniture. Because of Mrs. John F. Kennedy's interest, a law was passed in 1961 making everything in the White House part of a permanent collection. The Fine Arts Committee of the White House, appointed by Mrs. Kennedy, planned the redecoration, using furniture of the best styles of the late 18th and 19th centuries, including, where possible, pieces that had belonged to past Presidents.

Historic Rooms of the White House. The visitors' entrance is through the East Wing of the White House. The South Portico entrance, through the Diplomatic Reception Room, is used by the First Family and their guests. The Gold and China rooms, used as checkrooms, also display historic pieces of china and metalwork. Other rooms on the ground floor include a library, paneled in old White House timbers, the curator's office, a doctor's office, and the kitchen. Tourists also enter on this level to view the historic rooms on the first floor, which are open to the public from 10 A.M. to noon, Tuesday through Saturday.

The Blue Room. Until 1902, visitors often entered through the South Portico directly into this oval-shaped room. It has been used for diplomatic and official receptions as well as for weddings. Originally crimson and gold, the room was decorated in blue in 1837 by President Martin Van Buren. The present colors in the room are blue and white.

The East Room. The largest room in the White House, the East Room, is used for big receptions. Weddings and funerals have also taken place there. Hoban's original design of the East Room was greatly changed by President Ulysses S. Grant, who added false beams and columns to it. In 1902 the room was changed to a simple classical design and was decorated in gold and white.

The Red Room. This room has been traditionally used by the First Ladies. All the furniture is original American or French Empire, a style decided on because of the room's Empire mantelpiece, which has been in the White House since 1817.

The Green Room. The early Presidents used this room as a dining room or as an elegant sitting room. Now used for small receptions, the Green Room is decorated with furniture of the early Federal period, dating from about 1800. This room is probably the closest in furnishings and d├ęcor to the original intention of the architect.

The State Dining Room. The only room whose basic design differs from Hoban's original plan is the State Dining Room. In 1902 a stairway outside the room was removed and the dining room was enlarged. It can seat about 140 people.

Private or Family Rooms. The living quarters for the President and his family are on the second and third floors. This area is not open to the public and may be rearranged and redecorated to suit the family's needs. Several of the rooms, however, such as the Lincoln Bedroom, with President Lincoln's 9-foot (2.7-meter )-long rosewood bed and other personal items, the Rose Guest Room, or Queen's Bedroom, the Treaty Room, and the Oval Room are of historical interest.

In March 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson issued an executive order establishing the Committee for the Preservation of the White House. It is a permanent committee charged with the responsibility of protecting and guiding the historic and artistic heritage of the White House.

White House Rooms

The White House, the official residence of Presidents of the United States, consists of (11) private quarters and (1) a private entrance for the President and his family, as well as numerous rooms for state occasions. Such public rooms on the ground floor include: (2) the Diplomatic Reception Room, oval in shape, from which President Franklin D. Roosevelt broadcast his fireside chats; (3) the China Room; (4) the Gold Room, or Vermeil Room; and (5) the vaulted-arch hallway used by tourists. Among the most famous rooms on the first floor are (6) the State Dining Room, decorated with carved oak paneling and containing G.P.A. Healy's famous portrait of Abraham Lincoln; (7) the Red Room, used as a parlor and furnished in the French Empire style of 1810-1830; (8) the Blue Room, a drawing room containing portraits of seven Presidents; (9) the Green Room, also a parlor, famous for its paintings; and (10) the East Room, which is often used for entertainments of a musical or theatrical nature following formal White House dinners and which also serves as a reception room on state occasions. The second floor is noted for (12) the Oval Room, employed both as a sitting room and as a reception room; (13) the Treaty Room, so named because many treaties have been signed in it; (14) the Lincoln Bedroom, in which President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and which is now used as a guest room for distinguished male visitors; (15) the adjoining Lincoln Sitting Room; and (16) the Rose Guest Room, which has been occupied by five visiting queens and which is also used for notable female guests. The Sun Room (17) is on the third floor.

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