A Brief History of White House Renovations and Near-Demolitions
Under This Roof, by Paul Brandus, peels back the White House wallpaper to tell the almost operatic story of the building and its occupants. The entire book is historical trivia lovers' paradise, and what he reveals about some of America’s more notorious presidents (Warren Harding gambling away the White House china, for example) is nothing next to the wild history of the building itself. Perhaps the most astonishing part of the White House's story is how often people wanted to tear it down and start over.
THE REDCOATS ARE COMING. AGAIN.
First there were the British. They had lost the Revolutionary War, but weren't quite ready to let go of old grudges, choosing instead to frustrate the nascent U.S. by blocking American trade ships and supporting American Indian tribes who wanted to halt U.S. expansion westward. The British also had a nasty habit of kidnapping U.S. sailors abroad, and forcing them to serve in the Royal Navy. Finally, James Madison had enough and asked Congress to declare war, which they did.
The following year—1813—the U.S. seized modern-day Toronto and burned down the Parliament building. This didn't go over well in Britain, as you might imagine. Until then, the British government was only half-hearted in its efforts to deal with the American declaration of war. Instead, the British were saving their real firepower for Napoleon's army, which, unlike the U.S., was an actual threat. Once the French were defeated, however, it was payback time for the former colonies. They set a goal of seizing Washington D.C. and causing the American government to collapse entirely.
The American military never saw it coming. They knew an attack was on the way, but pretty much everyone figured that Baltimore was the target. After all, Washington was a cluster of buildings and a lot of swampland. There was no military value in burning it to the ground. President Madison wasn't so sure—he thought that it might be a perfectly spiteful act by the British, and that it would be a moral victory for them.
He was right on both counts. The British Navy invaded and easily routed the virtually non-existent American militia presence. They marched into town and headed for Pennsylvania Avenue. Before the Redcoats could burn down the White House, however, the residents of Washington had a go at it. Paul Jennings, Madison’s servant, wrote at the time: "A rabble, taking advantage of the confusion, ran all over the President's House, and stole lots of silver and whatever they could lay their hands on."
When the British finally arrived, they took a grand tour of the White House and even pulled up chairs in the State Dining Room, having a large dinner and uncorking the best of the president’s wine. Only after feasting and toasting the president's health did they fill sacks with loot, light torches, and burn the place down. Wrote one British officer of the Royal Navy's superb job at smashing White House windows and lighting fires: "Our sailors were artists at work."
Along with the White House, the Capitol, the Library of Congress, the Treasury Building, War Department, and State Department were ransacked and destroyed. The British didn’t bother occupying the city, and eventually the nation’s capital and our relations with the British returned to normal. The message had been sent.
THE NEXT WHITE HOUSE
The second White House was built on the same foundation as the first. The remaining exterior walls were torn down and new ones were erected, and the building’s façade was completed within two years. The entire reconstruction effort was completed one year later, in 1817, by many of the same men who had built it the first time, including James Hoban, the building’s original architect. The speed of the construction job was quite an achievement; the first time around, it took nearly a decade to complete.
James Monroe, the new president, had previously served as ambassador to France, and leveraged his ties to have 93 crates of supplies from that country sent to Washington to restock and refurnish the White House. He and the First Lady moved into the building in 1817. The house he occupied would be difficult to identify today—the North and South Porticoes were far cries from what would eventually be built. Added to the design, however, were armed guards and an iron fence. It would be another century until the modern Oval Office would be built in the White House.
UNFIT FOR HABITATION
Less than 50 years later, according to Brandus, Benjamin Brown French, the commissioner of federal buildings in Washington, declared the White House “unfit for habitation and in need of replacement.” From the outside, the building was in pristine condition, so this was a shock to some. Inside, however, things had fallen into disrepair. The president’s house simply no longer met modern building standards. Among those who supported the commissioner was Mary Lincoln, wife of the president. And so the hunt was on for where to build a new, better White House. The plan at the time was to remove the mansion from the chaos of city life. A cliff in in Rock Creek was considered. So, too, was a 200-acre estate called Harewood, which had the roads and basic infrastructure improvements necessary to begin construction immediately.
It didn’t happen right away, and after President Lincoln’s assassination, the issue fell to President Johnson, who was opposed. The football was punted, and by the time President Grant assumed the office of the presidency, the plan was dropped entirely. Grant did, however, manage to secure a $25,000 check from Congress to give the mansion a much-needed upgrade. Carpets were replaced, staircases rebuilt, and new rooms and sitting areas installed.
But maybe that wasn’t enough, because by the time Chester Arthur assumed office in the 1880s, the Army Corps of Engineers, much to his delight, wanted to demolish the White House and put an office building in its place. They planned to move the president’s residence into a separate building. Arthur supported this plan, but Congress refused to pay for it. Instead, a massive renovation effort was mounted.
WHITE HOUSE 2.5
Though the building would never again face the threat of outright demolition, its interior would remain ever at risk of bulldozers, sledgehammers, and axes. When Harry Truman assumed office in 1945, the building was in such a state of disrepair that the White House usher was embarrassed to give the new president the grand tour. “The White House,” writes Brandus, “could best be described as shabby. Walls sported dust and grime. Draperies were rotting, carpets and rugs were rutted by years of being trampled upon.” The mansion looked, in the words of the usher, like an “abandoned hotel.” There were, in fact, legitimate fears that the building was on the verge of collapse, and a strict limit of 15 people was imposed for the oval study. Meanwhile, pianos fell through floors, crushing ceilings below, and bathtubs fell into rotting flooring. The president’s bedroom was sinking. According to W.E. Reynolds, the public buildings commissioner, “The White House wouldn’t pass the safety standards of any city in the country.”
Suitable renovations required gutting the building’s interior down to the steel girders and muddy foundation, and all but starting from nothing. During this, the Trumans moved into Blair House, where they would remain for 3.5 years. During construction, a shelter capable of withstanding a nuclear bomb was installed.
The rebuilding of the White House carefully respected the spirit and intent of the original design by James Hoban, and an effort was made to reuse as much of the original building as possible—molding, doorknobs, and the like. It took 1222 days, but at last the Trumans could return home, on March 27, 1952. The exterior was unchanged, but the inside was at last worthy of the most powerful person on the planet, its rooms doubled to 132, its staircases widened and elevated to something now stately and majestic. According to the architect, Lorenzo Winslow, the White House renovations should last another 500 years.
Still, Jackie Kennedy hated the décor, and when she moved in with her husband, immediately set about applying her exquisite taste to the building’s furnishings and adornments. “Oh, God,” she said on first sight of her new home, “it’s the worst place in the world. So cold and dreary. A dungeon … I have never see anything like it. I can’t bear the thought of moving in. I hate it, I hate it, hate it.” She stated that it appeared to have been “furnished by discount stores.”
As Brandus describes it, “The White House, Jacqueline Kennedy felt, should not just appear grand—it must be authentically so. She vowed not to redecorate it but to restore it.” And restore it she did, mounting a nationwide effort to have returned to the White House furniture, artwork, and decorations that previously belonged to the nation’s founders. Her connections in high society (who naturally possessed all such priceless treasures) delivered—and quickly. The White House we know today—one of grandeur, history, and power—is largely her doing.
Under This Roof is, of course, more than an exploration of architecture. It is also a behind-the-scenes look at the impossible decisions presidents have had to make from the most famous mansion in the world. Paul Brandus’s work is a fascinating volume in a series of books that will hopefully continue needing to be written for centuries to come.