Sixteen-hundred Pennsylvania Avenue is among the most famous addresses in the United States. The 132-room home and workplace has also been known as the “President’s House” and the “Executive Mansion”, but since 1902 it’s officially been called the White House.
When George Washington was President, government meetings were held in various cities. He and Martha Washington kept two homes in New York and one in Pennsylvania. Seeing the need for a federal city, the President and Congress agreed in 1790 to the Residence Act. This provided for a district “not exceeding ten miles square…on the river Potomac”. The new federal city would be designed by Pierre L’Enfant, and the city planner would hold a blueprints contest for the President’s house.
James Hoban, an Irishman living in South Carolina, won the competition with a classic Georgian design. (Thomas Jefferson was also among the entrants; he competed under a pseudonym.) Hoban based the building on a duke’s palace in Ireland.
Two states, Maryland and Virginia, ceded land for the new federal district. Both were slaveholding states, and slaves broke ground for the home. The work was completed by European immigrants. The new house wasn’t built in time for the Washingtons to move in; John and Abigail Adams were the first to take up residence in 1800.
The building has undergone countless changes since the years of John and Abigail Adams. Interior redecorating and structural changes started with the next resident President, Thomas Jefferson. He ordered French furniture and French wallpaper, and he added space outdoors to conceal stables and storage. Other Presidents would make even larger additions: Theodore Roosevelt — who had six children and required more space – contributed the West Wing; and FDR added the East Wing during World War II to conceal construction of an underground bunker.
Each Administration’s time at the White House brought something new, but here are some of the more notable changes:
* British soldiers burnt the building in 1814 during James Madison’s presidency. Most of the home and its contents were destroyed by fire. A thunderstorm saved outside walls, and Dolley Madison rescued a famous portrait of George Washington. The architect James Hoban was available for renovations.
* The White House needed an extensive washing after 20,000 muddy partiers celebrated Andrew Jackson’s inauguration. Jackson soon installed running water. He also planted magnolia trees and made plans for later landscaping.
* James Garfield installed the first elevator.
* Harry Truman extensively renovated the whole house and added a second porch. He also added basements for wartime safety.
* The White House was made more wheelchair-accessible during FDR’s service. A pool was also added in consideration of his physical challenges.
* Richard Nixon cemented over the FDR pool to create a Press Briefing Room.
* Jacquelyn Kennedy directed the most extensive and historically accurate White House restoration. She also planted a flower garden.
* Rosalynn Carter contributed an “Office of the First Lady.”
Today the White House Complex consists of six stories and 55,000 square feet of space. The Executive Residence spans several floors. Two basement levels also provide storage, service areas, and a bomb shelter for the President’s family. The West Wing holds executive offices including the Oval Office, the Cabinet Room, and the Situation Room. The East Wing is home to offices for the First Lady, White House correspondence staff, and other White House staff members.
Some of the interior is visible to the public, but tours must be pre-arranged by a member of Congress. Visitors might tour the State Floor, where several rooms are simply named by color: the Green Room, Red Room, and Blue Room. The Green Room is named for the moss green silk that lines its walls. It’s used for informal meetings and photo opportunities with foreign political leaders. Famous Green Room paintings depict Benjamin Franklin, John Quincy Adams, and Abigail Adams. The Red Room is decorated like an early-1800s parlor with a marble mantel. The Blue Room is the White House’s most formal setting. It’s shaped like an oval and is furnished with gilded furniture. This is where the White House Christmas tree is traditionally placed. Visitors might also see the Map Room, the State Dining Room, or the famous Lincoln Bedroom.