The Hidden White House


When he assumed the presidency after the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1945, Harry Truman faced a deeply broken world. World War II had shattered both Europe and Japan, while at home, inflation and other domestic troubles complicated America’s return to a peacetime footing. In a challenge that seemed to symbolize the political disrepair here and abroad, Truman also discovered, shortly after taking office, that the very home he had inherited at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue was falling apart.

A huge chandelier quivered during a White House reception for the Daughters of the American Revolution, signaling a ceiling so weak that it was poised to give way and plunge the president, who was bathing overhead, into the middle of the party, bathtub and all. The ceiling held, but other mishaps told Truman that much of the White House was, as one expert concluded, standing up “purely from force of habit.” A piano belonging to the president’s daughter, Margaret, slid partially through the floor of her sitting room. A marching honor guard of Marines made the old house quake, endangering members of Truman’s Cabinet. After summoning architects and engineers to assess Washington’s most famous residence, Truman learned that the White House was so unsound that a building inspector would probably declare it uninhabitable. Fearing for their safety, the first family moved across the street to Blair House.

In The Hidden White House, Robert Klara reveals how Truman guided the massive repair of a great symbol of democracy, a renovation that involved gutting a national landmark and remaking it for the twentieth century. Although Truman gets top billing, Klara makes the point that the White House’s structural problems spanned numerous administrations, intensifying as a series of chief executives tried to modify what had started as a gracious eighteenth-century home to handle evolving needs. The original builders had positioned the house on swampy ground, with a poor foundation; as subsequent occupants installed  plumbing, gas, electricity, and other features, the sheer weight of added amenities further destabilized the already shaky mansion.

While other presidents make cameo appearances in Klara’s story — William Howard Taft’s enormous bathtub, for example, figures as a perilous strain on the home’s  interior — the author  focuses on Truman, a figure obviously close to his heart. In doing so, Klara stays close to the historical period he explored in his earlier, widely acclaimed book about Truman’s predecessor, FDR’s Funeral Train. Klara once more shows himself deft at the engaging turn of phrase; lovely brushstrokes of prose shimmer from almost every page. He captures the diplomatic personality of Lorenzo Winslow, an architect whose work on the White House obliged him to tread lightly through political quagmires, by saying that Winslow had “drawn fine lines, and he’d walked them, too.”

Sometimes, Klara  seems to channel Truman’s plainspoken vernacular, not always to good effect. A few of his sentences can seem self-consciously colloquial, as when he describes an administration victory by saying that “Team Truman had its plays down.” That kind of strained hipness seems beside the point in a narrative that, despite its historical grounding, still powerfully resonates with contemporary themes. Klara’s account of congressional dithering on White House renovations, for instance, is sadly in keeping with today’s headlines about Capitol Hill deadlock.

The story’s abiding theme – human folly, and the sometimes heroic efforts to correct it — is a timeless one. Klara’s quote from preservationist Richard Nickel could well be the book’s motif: “Great architecture has only two natural enemies: water and stupid men.”