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White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC  20500
The White House is the home of the US President
What Is the White House?

One of the most recognizable buildings in the world, the White House has been home to the US President and First Family since it opened in 1800. Second President John Adams and First Lady Abigail Adams were the first presidential couple to occupy the home, moving in toward the end of his presidency while it was still under construction. Every president has lived here since. Originally known as the President’s House or Executive Mansion, it was not formally referred to as the White House until President Theodore Roosevelt’s administration in 1901.

The White House

The White House in Washington, DC from the North Lawn

The White House

The White House in Washington, DC from the South Lawn

The unique home serves multiple purposes. Not only does it provide living quarters for the First Family, it is also the office of the President and some of the staff. It is the scene of important speeches, state dinners, diplomatic receptions, concerts, press conferences, and national security decisions. It is the place of historic events, both joyful and tragic. It is the symbol of the Executive Branch of US government. Yet, despite all the bustling activity, it is carefully maintained as a living American history museum.

Designing the White House

Irish-born architect James Hoban designed and oversaw construction of the White House after winning a design competition that he entered at the encouragement of President George Washington. His plan won over several other entries seen here, including an anonymous drawing submitted by then Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. Washington, who was in charge of building the new federal city in Washington, DC, insisted that the White House be constructed of stone. He wanted it to convey the strength of the new nation, in contrast with the brick palaces built for the British colonial governors. To fulfill his requirement, the builders used sandstone from a nearby quarry in Aquia Creek in Stafford, Virginia, the same stone used to build the U.S. Capitol building. Though plans for the President’s House were originally larger, the limited resources of the fledgling constitutional republic and the backlash from those rejecting the appearance of royalty resulted in a smaller structure which would eventually require expansion.

Dark Days at the White House

Tragically, the original house was all but destroyed in 1814 when the British burned nearly all of the public buildings in Washington DC in the War of 1812. Only part of the outer shell of the house remained. Dolley Madison, who was First Lady at the time, famously ensured the rescue of the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington before escaping from the approaching British troops. Hoban oversaw the reconstruction of the White House in time for fifth President James Monroe to move in during his first year in office in 1817.

Restructuring the White House

Since then, the White House has been modified, restored and modernized several times. The last major reconstruction took place during President Harry Truman’s administration when the entire interior of the house was gutted due to structural deterioration. Other changes were important but less drastic. For example, electric lighting was installed for President Benjamin Harrison in 1891. The first rendition of the West Wing was added during Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency in 1902, and the first Oval Office was added by President William Howard Taft in 1909. The first officially named Rose Garden was added by First Lady Ellen Wilson in 1913, and the modern day Press Room was added by President Richard Nixon in 1970.

The White House Today

The White House currently has 132 rooms on six floors totaling approximately 55,000 square feet. Historic paintings adorn the walls and fine furnishings fill the rooms, creating a museum-like serenity as a backdrop to the revolving door of inhabitants. The State Floor, where the main entrance is located, contains the public rooms, such as the Green, Red and Blue rooms, named for their colorful decor; the East Room, where public receptions and celebrations are held; and the State Dining Room, used for banquets and ceremonies. Living quarters for the First Family are located on the second and third floors. The West Wing houses the Oval Office, Cabinet Room and Press Room; and the East Wing contains the First Lady’s office and her staff. At Christmas, the White House turns into a magical wonderland of trees, decorations, lights and fancy treats.

State Dining Room at the White House

State Dining Room at the White House decorated at Christmas

State Dining Room at the White House

Gingerbread House in the White House at Christmas

Furnishing the White House

First Ladies had traditionally played a large role in caring for the decor and furnishings of the White House, and were free to add and discard them as they liked. Congress had always appropriated funds to furnish the rooms, but it was never enough to outfit this large mansion of public importance. Wear and tear, changing fashions and evolving functions dictated the need to continuously modify the furniture, fine arts and decor. Whatever could not be purchased through appropriations had to be privately donated or covered by auctioning of the contents already in the house. As a result of this and the 1814 fire, many of the White House furnishings had been destroyed or sold.

First Lady Dolley Madison, with the assistance of architect Benjamin LaTrobe, furnished the public rooms with elegant furniture and red velvet curtains, most of which was destroyed during the 1814 British invasion. The Monroes imported 53 pieces of gilded beechwood furniture from France, and almost all was auctioned off by President James Buchanan. The official presidential china from the 19th century had been scattered, broken or sold at auctions before First Lady Caroline Harrison started the effort to restore the collection.

Preserving the White House

Several attempts were made to document the historic origins of the furnishings, such as First Lady Lou Hoover’s effort at cataloging the decorative and fine arts found in the White House. But not until First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy was the process formalized, when she made it her mission to preserve and restore the historic integrity of the mansion. Upon her request, Congress passed a law in 1961 deeming the furnishings of “historic or artistic interest” an “inalienable and the property of the White House,” meaning they could no longer be taken or sold off. To accomplish her vision, Mrs. Kennedy assembled a team of professionals, founding the Office of the Curator, what became the Committee for the Preservation of the White House, and the White House Historical Association. Together with the National Park Service, they continue preserve and enhance the White House building and furnishings to this day.

Mrs. Kennedy and her team of experts began restoring the public rooms of the White House by pulling valuable pieces out of storage and reacquiring lost treasures that had been sold, such as pieces of the Monroe furniture. Her Emmy award winning televised White House tour describing her efforts can be seen here.

To raise funds for acquisitions and restoration projects, the White House Historical Association, a non-profit organization, publishes and sells in-depth books and journals on the history of the White House and grounds, including the White House Guide Book initiated by Mrs. Kennedy in 1962. It also issues the beloved, official annual White House Christmas ornament, which are a favorite collector’s item for presidential history enthusiasts. To purchase these items or to become a member, visit the White House Historical Association’s shop in the Decatur House on Jackson Place in Lafayette Square, or visit their shop online.

Visiting the White House

For a tour of the White House, see instructions from the National Park Service here. Alternatively, you can also visit the White House Visitor Center or download the White House Experience App for a virtual tour.

James Hoban

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