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Washington Didn't Sleep Here: A White House FAQ

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It was 216 years ago today that George Washington laid the cornerstone of the White House. Of course, poor George is the only president who didn't live in it; he left office before the house was finished. A lot has happened in the house since then, both good and bad. But let's put that aside and focus on the building itself.

How big is it?
The White House, at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW in Washington, D.C., has 132 rooms (including 35 bathrooms), 412 doors, 147 windows, 28 fireplaces, 8 staircases, and 3 elevators spread out over six floors, which have a combined area of 55,000 square feet. The house is 170 feet wide, not including the porticos, and 70 feet tall at its highest point. It takes 570 gallons of paint to cover the outside surface. It is owned by the National Park Service.

How was it built, and what major changes have been made?

In 1791, George Washington and Pierre L'Enfant, the civil engineer who planned the District of Columbia, chose a site for the president's mansion and a competition was held to find the right design. There were nine submissions—one of which was from Thomas Jefferson, using a pseudonym. The design by Irish-born architect James Hoban was chosen by Washington, with two suggestions: the house would be enlarged by thirty percent and include a large reception hall. Construction began on October 13, 1792, when Washington laid the cornerstone, and the house was finished eight years later at a total cost of $232,372.


James Hoban's White House design.

Thomas Jefferson began the expansion of the original house when he moved in. Working with architect Benjamin Latrobe, he added colonnades on the east and west sides of the house to conceal a stable and storage areas.

During the War of 1812, the White House was burned by British troops. Only the exterior walls survived the fire, and even these had to be torn down and reconstructed because of fire damage and exposure to the elements. Latrobe and Hoban both contributed to the reconstruction and added the north and south porticos.

When Theodore Roosevelt moved in with his wife and six children, the White House got a little too crowded to be used as both a residence and an office, so Roosevelt had the mansion renovated and added the East and West wings. The East Wing was used as a guest entrance and the West Wing provided office space for the president and his staff.

The West Wing was damaged by a fire in 1929, but was rebuilt and expanded by a second floor and a basement. Roosevelt's original East Wing was replaced by a bigger structure in 1942 to balance the larger West Wing and to hide the construction of an underground emergency bunker. Today, it houses the offices of the First Lady and her staff, as well as the visitor entrance and lobby.

In 1948, Harry Truman began a large reconstruction project that involved the complete dismantling of the interior space of the house, the construction of a load-bearing concrete and steel frame within the shell of the exterior walls, and the rebuilding of the original interior space.

The last major change made to the White House was the redecoration carried out by Jacqueline Kennedy, who brought in a number of antiques, paintings and historical artifacts. Mrs. Kennedy chose different periods of world history as themes for various rooms in the house and funded the redecoration with sales of the first White House guide book.

Some improvements made to the White House over the course of its history include:

Wheelchair accessibility modifications made during Franklin Roosevelt's presidency.

A wheelchair ramp in the East Wing, to provide access for visitors, was approved by Hillary Clinton.

A telephone, added during Rutherford B. Hayes presidency, was rarely used because there were so few telephones in Washington (for a while, the White House telephone number was "1.")

"¢ Benjamin Harrison was the first president to enjoy electricity in the house.

A telegraph was installed by Andrew Johnson in the room next to his office.

"¢ Warren G. Harding had a radio in his study.

"¢ Jimmy Carter took a baby step toward going green when he installed solar heating panels on the roof of the West Wing, which were later removed.

"¢ George Bush sent the first presidential email in 1992.

Why is the White House white?

Legend would have us believe that the house was painted white to mask the damage from the fire in 1814, but it had been white since it was built. The exterior of the building was constructed with Aquia sandstone, and was covered with a lime-based whitewash near its completion to keep the porous stone from freezing.

It wasn't known as the White House from the start, though. For close to a century, the building was referred to as the "President's Palace," the "Presidential Mansion," the "President's House" and, in official contexts, the "Executive Mansion." Teddy Roosevelt had his name for the building, the White House, engraved on the presidential stationery in 1901, and this stuck as the official name.

Why is the Oval Office oval?

The Oval Office during the Reagan years.

The West Wing featured a "temporary" Executive office when Teddy Roosevelt had it added to the building. When Taft took office, he held a competition to find an architect make an enlarged, permanent office for the president to work in. Nathan C. Wyeth, an architect from Washington, D.C., won with a design modeled after the house's original oval-shaped Blue Room.

And why was the Blue Room shaped like an oval? That room's design was inspired by the oval form of a room in George Washington's temporary presidential house in Philadelphia, which Washington had ordered rebuilt in a semi-circular form to better suit a formal reception, a concept borrowed from the English court.

What have the White House's occupants thought of the place?
"¢ Gerald Ford once said the White House was "the best public housing I've ever seen."

"¢ Harry Truman referred to the house, at various times, as a "glamorous prison," and "great white sepulcher of ambitions."

"¢ Ronald Reagan thought of it as an "eight-star hotel," according to his wife.

Who was the White House's strangest guest?
Roger Clinton and Billy Carter put together probably couldn't top the weirdness of Winston Churchill's 1941 visit to the White House. Churchill stayed for 24 days, wore a one-piece jumpsuit most of the time and was often found lounging in the nude by servants who went to his room to serve him brandy.

If you've got a burning question that you'd like to see answered here, shoot me an email at flossymatt (at) Twitter users can also make nice with me and ask me questions there. Be sure to give me your name and location (and a link, if you want) so I can give you a little shout out.

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10 Memorable Neil deGrasse Tyson Quotes
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Neil deGrasse Tyson is America's preeminent badass astrophysicist. He's a passionate advocate for science, NASA, and education. He's also well-known for a little incident involving Pluto. And the man holds nearly 20 honorary doctorates (in addition to his real one). In honor of his 59th birthday, here are 10 of our favorite Neil deGrasse Tyson quotes.


"The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."
—From Real Time with Bill Maher.


"As a fraction of your tax dollar today, what is the total cost of all spaceborne telescopes, planetary probes, the rovers on Mars, the International Space Station, the space shuttle, telescopes yet to orbit, and missions yet to fly?' Answer: one-half of one percent of each tax dollar. Half a penny. I’d prefer it were more: perhaps two cents on the dollar. Even during the storied Apollo era, peak NASA spending amounted to little more than four cents on the tax dollar." 
—From Space Chronicles


"Once upon a time, people identified the god Neptune as the source of storms at sea. Today we call these storms hurricanes ... The only people who still call hurricanes acts of God are the people who write insurance forms."
—From Death by Black Hole


"Countless women are alive today because of ideas stimulated by a design flaw in the Hubble Space Telescope." (Editor's note: technology used to repair the Hubble Space Telescope's optical problems led to improved technology for breast cancer detection.)
—From Space Chronicles



"I knew Pluto was popular among elementary schoolkids, but I had no idea they would mobilize into a 'Save Pluto' campaign. I now have a drawer full of hate letters from hundreds of elementary schoolchildren (with supportive cover letters from their science teachers) pleading with me to reverse my stance on Pluto. The file includes a photograph of the entire third grade of a school posing on their front steps and holding up a banner proclaiming, 'Dr. Tyson—Pluto is a Planet!'"
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit


"In [Titanic], the stars above the ship bear no correspondence to any constellations in a real sky. Worse yet, while the heroine bobs ... we are treated to her view of this Hollywood sky—one where the stars on the right half of the scene trace the mirror image of the stars in the left half. How lazy can you get?"
—From Death by Black Hole


"On Friday the 13th, April 2029, an asteroid large enough to fill the Rose Bowl as though it were an egg cup will fly so close to Earth that it will dip below the altitude of our communication satellites. We did not name this asteroid Bambi. Instead, we named it Apophis, after the Egyptian god of darkness and death."
—From Space Chronicles


"[L]et us not fool ourselves into thinking we went to the Moon because we are pioneers, or discoverers, or adventurers. We went to the Moon because it was the militaristically expedient thing to do."
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit


Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at:
Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at:

"Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life."


A still from Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Universal Studios
"[I]f an alien lands on your front lawn and extends an appendage as a gesture of greeting, before you get friendly, toss it an eightball. If the appendage explodes, then the alien was probably made of antimatter. If not, then you can proceed to take it to your leader."
—From Death by Black Hole
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40 Fun Facts About Sesame Street
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Now in its 47th season, Sesame Street is one of television's most iconic programs—and it's not just for kids. We're big fans of the Street, and to prove it, here are some of our favorite Sesame facts from previous stories and our Amazing Fact Generator.

Sesame Workshop

1. Oscar the Grouch used to be orange. Jim Henson decided to make him green before season two.

2. How did Oscar explain the color change? He said he went on vacation to the very damp Swamp Mushy Muddy and turned green overnight.

3. During a 2004 episode, Cookie Monster said that before he started eating cookies, his name was Sid.

4. In 1980, C-3PO and R2-D2 visited Sesame Street. They played games, sang songs, and R2-D2 fell in love with a fire hydrant.

5. Mr. Snuffleupagus has a first name—Aloysius

6. Ralph Nader stopped by in 1988 and sang "a consumer advocate is a person in your neighborhood."

7. Caroll Spinney said he based Oscar's voice on a cab driver from the Bronx who brought him to the audition.

8. In 1970, Ernie reached #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 with the timeless hit "Rubber Duckie."

9. One of Count von Count's lady friends is Countess von Backwards, who's also obsessed with counting but likes to do it backwards.

10. Sesame Street made its Afghanistan debut in 2011 with Baghch-e-Simsim (Sesame Garden). Big Bird, Grover and Elmo are involved.

11. According to Muppet Wiki, Oscar the Grouch and Count von Count were minimized on Baghch-e-Simsim "due to cultural taboos against trash and vampirism."

12. Before Giancarlo Esposito was Breaking Bad's super intense Gus Fring, he played Big Bird's camp counselor Mickey in 1982.

13. Thankfully, those episodes are available on YouTube.

14. How big is Big Bird? 8'2". (Pictured with First Lady Pat Nixon.)

15. In 2002, the South African version (Takalani Sesame) added an HIV-positive Muppet named Kami.

16. Six Republicans on the House Commerce Committee wrote a letter to PBS president Pat Mitchell warning that Kami was not appropriate for American children, and reminded Mitchell that their committee controlled PBS' funding.

17. Sesame Street's resident game show host Guy Smiley was using a pseudonym. His real name was Bernie Liederkrantz.

18. Bert and Ernie have been getting questioned about their sexuality for years. Ernie himself, as performed by Steve Whitmere, has weighed in: “All that stuff about me and Bert? It’s not true. We’re both very happy, but we’re not gay,”

19. A few years later, Bert (as performed by Eric Jacobson) answered the same question by saying, “No, no. In fact, sometimes we are not even friends; he can be a pain in the neck.”

20. In the first season, both Superman and Batman appeared in short cartoons produced by Filmation. In one clip, Batman told Bert and Ernie to stop arguing and take turns choosing what’s on TV.

21. In another segment, Superman battled a giant chimp.

22. Telly was originally "Television Monster," a TV-obsessed Muppet whose eyes whirled around as he watched.

23. According to Sesame Workshop, Elmo is the only non-human to testify before Congress.

24. He lobbied for more funding for music education, so that "when Elmo goes to school, there will be the instruments to play."

25. In the early 1990s, soon after Jim Henson’s passing, a rumor circulated that Ernie would be killed off in order to teach children about death, as they'd done with Mr. Hooper.

26. According to Snopes, the rumor may have spread thanks to New Hampshire college student, Michael Tabor, who convinced his graduating class to wear “Save Ernie” beanies and sign a petition to persuade Sesame Workshop to let Ernie live.

27. By the time Tabor was corrected, the newspapers had already picked up the story.

28. Sesame Street’s Executive Producer Carol-Lynn Parente joined Sesame Workshop as a production assistant and has worked her way to the top.

29. Originally, Count von Count was more sinister. He could hypnotize and stun people.

30. According to Sesame Workshop, all Sesame Street's main Muppets have four fingers except Cookie Monster, who has five.

31. The episode with Mr. Hooper's funeral aired on Thanksgiving Day in 1983. That date was chosen because families were more likely to be together at that time, in case kids had questions or needed emotional support.

32. Mr. Hooper’s first name was Harold.

33. Big Bird sang "Bein' Green" at Jim Henson's memorial service.

34. As Chris Higgins put it, the performance was "devastating."

35. Oscar's Israeli counterpart is Moishe Oofnik, whose last name means “grouch” in Hebrew.

36. Nigeria's version of Cookie Monster eats yams. His catchphrase: "ME WANT YAM!"

37. Sesame's Roosevelt Franklin ran a school, where he spoke in scat and taught about Africa. Some parents hated him, so in 1975 he got the boot, only to inspire Gob Bluth’s racist puppet Franklin on Arrested Development 28 years later.

38. Our good friend and contributor Eddie Deezen was the voice of Donnie Dodo in the 1985 classic Follow That Bird.

39. Cookie Monster evolved from The Wheel-Stealer—a snack-pilfering puppet Jim Henson created to promote Wheels, Crowns and Flutes in the 1960s.

40. This puppet later was seen eating a computer in an IBM training film and on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Thanks to Stacy Conradt, Joe Hennes, Drew Toal, and Chris Higgins for their previous Sesame coverage!

An earlier version of this article appeared in 2012.


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