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The White House for Kids
A History of a Home, Office, and National Symbol: With 21 Activities
By Katherine L. House
Chicago Review Press Incorporated Copyright © 2014 Katherine L. House
All rights reserved.
Biography of a Building
Lights glowed at dusk from the ground floor of the White House. A small crowd gathered on the front steps, eagerly awaiting the arrival of someone important. Earlier that day, workers had planted a blossoming cherry tree. At 6:15 PM on March 27, 1952, a black limousine pulled up to the mansion's north entrance.
Out stepped President Harry Truman, tanned, relaxed, and trim in his three-piece suit, accompanied by his adoring wife, Bess. Cameramen waited to snap their picture. White House ushers smiled, and the longtime doorkeeper took the president's coat. The Trumans had arrived home, but this was no ordinary homecoming. For the first time in more than three years, the president and his wife would be living in the White House.
The home they were returning to looked virtually the same from the outside. But inside, construction workers had made many changes — both visible and invisible. The goal? To keep an old, dilapidated building from falling down and to make it more modern. In fact, the aging White House had become downright dangerous.
Ceilings sagged, a chandelier swayed under the weight of the level above it, and a piano leg fell through a floor, causing the plaster ceiling in the room below to crash to the floor. "It's a thousand wonders it didn't fall down around our ears," Truman's daughter, Margaret, wrote later.
The entire project cost nearly $6 million (about $56 million in today's money). In fact, it would have been cheaper to tear down the building and construct a new one. Harry Truman didn't want that. By the fall of 1948, when the Trumans moved out, the White House was more than a home. It was an important symbol and historic site.
Every president except George Washington had lived there. Many of the country's most important decisions had taken place within its walls. Treaties and important bills had been signed there. Indian chiefs, kings, queens, and everyday people had walked through its rooms. Slain presidents had been mourned there. It had even survived the British army's attack on Washington during the War of 1812.
No, said the plain-talking president from Missouri, the country must figure out how to fix the White House. And that's exactly what happened, although the job proved monumental. While the Trumans moved into a house across the street, bulldozers and construction crews moved into the White House. Workers tore out the floors and interior walls of the most famous home in the United States. They built a sturdier foundation and added a steel skeleton to the old house. They added closets, installed air conditioning, and updated the kitchen and laundry facilities.
The president explained the work in his diary. "They took the insides all out," he wrote. "Dug two basements, put in steel and concrete like you've never seen in the Empire State Building, Pentagon or anywhere else." When the Trumans returned, the White House boasted 132 rooms, compared to 68 when they left. Amazingly, the state floor — where the president entertains world leaders — looked almost the same as it did when the White House was built.
George Washington achieved many "firsts," but he never slept in the White House. He died in 1799 before the building was finished. Even so, Washington played an important role in selecting the location of the city named for him, as well as the site of the President's House, as it was known at the time. (Before Washington, DC, became the capital, Philadelphia and New York had both had the honor.) Washington also worked closely with the city's planners and the architect who designed the home.
Determining what a president's house should look like was not an easy task. After all, the idea of a "president" was a new one. If the house appeared too plain, the president — and the young country — might not earn respect. If it were too ornate, it would remind people of kings and queens, which would also send the wrong message. After all, the Founding Fathers had rebelled against a king in England.
How could the young government interest the best architects in designing a home for the president? With a design contest! The winner would receive $500 (a generous sum), or a medal worth that much. George Washington urged an Irish-born architect named James Hoban to enter. The first president also provided input on the design. Hoban's simple yet dignified plan won. City planners liked several elements of the design, including its flexibility. They knew that if necessary, it would be easy to add on to the home later.
The cornerstone of the building was laid October 13, 1792, but construction moved slowly. Kilns were built on the site so handmade bricks could be fired. Stone was dug from a quarry several miles south of Washington and had to be sent up the Potomac River by boat. The new country was short of funds, and it was hard to attract laborers to the sparsely settled city for the project. As a result, some of the people involved in planning the new city loaned slaves to the project. The slaves, of course, weren't paid. Instead, their masters received compensation for the slaves' work. It also took time for skilled stonemasons to travel from Scotland. The crews chiseled intricate carvings on the outside of the building that can still be seen today.
Despite many delays, workers could not ignore a big deadline set by Congress. The government needed to be located in the new city by December 1, 1800. With little time to spare, second president John Adams moved into the unfinished building on November 1. His wife, Abigail, joined him about two weeks later.
At the time, not a single room in the President's House was finished. The main stairwell hadn't been built, and there were no bells for calling servants. Inside, it was damp and cold. Trees were plentiful but firewood was not. No one was available to saw and cut the logs. Residents had to go outside to use the bathroom, where workers' shacks cluttered the grounds. The important home did not have a yard or fence.
Without a place to hang her laundry, Abigail Adams resorted to hanging it up in the room known today as the East Room. It didn't matter. The large "audience room," as the first lady called it, was not finished enough to allow entertaining. "I had much rather live in the house at Philadelphia," she wrote. At the same time, she seemed to see the potential in the building, believing "it was built for ages to come." The large structure turned out to be the biggest house built in the young nation until after the Civil War.
The Adamses didn't have to deal with these inconveniences long — less than four months. Adams's vice president, Thomas Jefferson, defeated him in the election of 1800 and moved into the house in March 1801. Jefferson quickly added two indoor toilets. He also had a stone wall built and began landscaping the grounds.
One of Jefferson's ideas influenced the look of the White House as we know it today. He designed low-lying wings with flat roofs and covered walkways supported by a row of columns that extended from the east and west sides of the house. He used the wings for offices and storage. Elements of his west wing survive and form part of the West Colonnade. Jefferson's east wing was torn down in the 19th century but later rebuilt.
The War of 1812
All morning on August 24, 1814, Dolley Madison peered through a spyglass searching for her husband. The young country was at war with the British. President James Madison had left the President's House to check on American troops in nearby Maryland. Dolley waited for him, hoping her beloved "Jemmy" was not in danger. He had warned her to be prepared to flee at a moment's notice, in case the British army marched toward Washington.
For the most part, she was ready to go. Official papers — as many as would fit — were pressed into a trunk. Other valuables of the young government had been placed in a wagon. As the afternoon wore on, she could hear distant cannons. Meanwhile, workers scurried around preparing a mid-afternoon meal. About 3 PM, a messenger sent by Mr. Madison arrived. "Clear out!" he urged. The Americans had been defeated in a nearby skirmish and were retreating.
Two men, one of whom was a family friend of the Madisons', dropped by the president's home offering to help. Still, Mrs. Madison wasn't ready to leave. Not yet. Not until she knew that a large portrait of George Washington would be safe. It was painted by American artist Gilbert Stuart and had been hanging in the President's House since 1800. Workers, including the Madisons' slave Paul Jennings, struggled to get the portrait off the wall. Finally, when they succeeded, Mrs. Madison agreed to depart. The two men carted off the painting for safekeeping, and it was returned to the government a few weeks later.
The first lady fled the city and managed to meet up with her husband eventually. Although the Madisons had escaped the British, the city of Washington did not. At 7:30 that evening, British soldiers and sailors arrived in the nearly deserted capital. They had one mission: to destroy the city. Earlier in the war, American forces had burned the city of York, which was the capital of Upper Canada, part of the British Empire. Now it was payback time.
First the troops set fire to the unfinished Capitol building. Then they marched down Pennsylvania Avenue toward the President's House. After entering, British officers drank some wine and savored food prepared for that day's big meal. In the meantime, sailors piled furniture and other belongings in the center of each room for fuel. They broke windows; outside air would help fan the flames.
With their work inside complete, about 50 sailors gathered around the outside of the building. They lighted balls of rags attached to the end of poles. On command, the men hurled their poles into the ransacked home at the same time, with spectacular results. "The whole building was wrapt in flames and smoke ... and the heavens reddened with the blaze," one spectator remembered.
After the British left, the President's House was in horrible condition. The roof and windows were gone. So were interior walls, furniture, draperies, and the first family's personal belongings. With few wagons available in the city before the attack, Dolley had not had room to pack the Madisons' own possessions. The president and first lady could not move back in. Instead, they lived in the nearby Octagon House, a private home.
In March 1815, James Hoban was hired to rebuild the home he had designed. During the process, he discovered that the building had been damaged more than first thought. Parts of the exterior walls, including the entire west wall, had to be replaced. On the inside, Hoban saved time by using wood where brick walls had originally stood. This shortcut weakened the building and contributed to the need for the renovation in Truman's day.
The Madisons would never live in the White House again. James Monroe won the election of 1816 and moved into the nearly finished building in the fall of 1817. Monroe's impact on the White House is still visible inside and out. He used government money to buy 93 crates of furniture and accessories from France. Some of those items are on display today, including chairs in the Blue Room.
The fifth president also added a semicircular portico, or covered porch, to the back of his home. The South Portico looks out over the South Lawn; its majestic columns rise to the top of the White House. From 1829 to 1830, President Andrew Jackson oversaw the construction of the North Portico. When the work was finished, the outside of the President's House looked a lot like it does today.
The Need for Space
In the early years, some presidents used a room on the first floor of the President's House for their office. Others chose a location on the second floor. Starting with the presidency of John Quincy Adams, the nation's sixth chief executive, the president's office was located on the second floor for the rest of the 19th century. This meant that the president and his aides now worked on the same floor where the first family lived.
As the young nation grew, so did the job of the president — and the need for other people to help him. Eventually, the offices of the president and his staff took up one entire end of the second floor, limiting the space available to the first family. Beginning with Andrew Jackson's presidency, doors separated the offices from the living quarters. Despite the doors, visitors sometimes wandered through the first family's private quarters.
It wasn't only the lack of privacy that cramped the first family's style. Space remained precious for other reasons, too. Extended families joined the president in the White House more often than they do today. Plus, the building was smaller than it is now. Today's third floor was then only an attic.
At various times, first families complained about their lack of space — and privacy. First Lady Caroline Harrison worked with an architect, who drew up plans to expand the home. Congress did not approve the money, and she had to settle for funds to redecorate the interior instead.
In the fall of 1901, Theodore Roosevelt moved in. Suddenly, the cramped second floor seemed much smaller. After all, the Roosevelt clan boasted the president, first lady, six lively children, and several pets. In addition, the old house was showing its age. Parts of the first floor had to be shored up with wooden supports whenever the president entertained.
Congress budgeted nearly half a million dollars to fix up and redecorate the house. One of the most noticeable changes took place on the main floor. The State Dining Room was enlarged to fit 140 people. Some of the guests at large dinners would no longer need to eat in the hallway! The work, including major redecorating, took place in a few months. The tight time frame led to more construction shortcuts that had to be fixed when Truman was president.
In a separate move, Congress approved money for what was called a "temporary office building" at first. The first family would now regain use of the entire second floor. The small office building became the basis for what we call the West Wing today. A small east wing was built to serve as an official entrance and to provide bathrooms and a coatroom.
Roosevelt did some paperwork in his new office, but he continued to greet visitors in the main part of the White House. It wasn't until 1909 that an oval-shaped office was built for the president in a larger West Wing. The president's office was moved to its current location in the 1930s, when the office building was doubled in size. The current East Wing was built in the 1940s.
Other first families helped expand the home's living space. First Lady Edith Wilson had some rooms carved out of the attic. Then in the late 1920s, inspectors realized the building's roof was in danger of collapsing. The Coolidges moved out for a few months. When they returned, the White House had a new flat roof and a full third floor, with bedrooms, bathrooms, and storage rooms where the attic had once been. President Truman added a second-floor balcony to the South Portico in the 1940s. Its construction was controversial at the time, but the outdoor living space quickly became a favorite retreat for first families.
The interior of the modern White House also owes a lot to First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. She worked hard to learn the history of the building and its furnishings. She retrieved antiques from White House storerooms and placed them where everyone could enjoy them.
The White House Today
Today's White House complex consists of the original building, called the Residence, as well as the West and East Wings. The wings are different sizes and shapes and are connected to the main building by colonnades on either side. TV cameras often capture the president walking along the open passageway of the West Colonnade toward the Oval Office. The East Colonnade is enclosed with large windows.
The White House itself has six levels, if you count its two-story subbasement. It boasts 132 rooms, 35 bathrooms, and 12 chimneys. The president and his family live mainly on the top two floors. Only family members, invited guests, and employees have the privilege of seeing those floors.
The main floor, or state floor, is generally used for entertaining. Below it is the ground floor. This level is nearly invisible from the front, or north side, of the house, which was built into a small hill. From the south side, this floor opens to the South Lawn. When the White House is open for public tours, visitors can see parts of the state and ground floors.
Here are some highlights:
The most famous room is the Solarium. First families have relaxed here since the late 1920s. It started out as a small "sky parlor" on top of the South Portico and was later expanded. Mrs. Coolidge escaped to this space to listen to her beloved Boston Red Sox on the radio. In the early 1960s, the space became a schoolroom for Caroline Kennedy, complete with desks and a blackboard. President Reagan recovered from gunshot wounds here following an assassination attempt.
The third floor also includes a small kitchen, a workout room, bedrooms, and storage rooms.
The president and his family live and sleep on this level. They can also eat and cook in a private dining room and adjacent small kitchen. Generally, first families don't do a lot of cooking. They don't need to. White House chefs — working in a larger kitchen on the ground floor — can prepare anything the first family wants to eat whenever they want it.
Over the years, first families have used rooms on this floor in different ways. A study for one president might be turned into a guest room or child's bedroom four years later. The most well-known rooms are the:
* Yellow Oval Room: First families often use this fancy space to mingle with other leaders before state dinners. Its south-facing doors lead outside to the Truman Balcony. From this porch, there's an impressive view of the city and its many monuments.
Excerpted from The White House for Kids by Katherine L. House. Copyright © 2014 Katherine L. House. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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