Monday, February 17, 2014

Building of the Week: The White House

Hoban's original design.

Sitting proudly at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in the District of Columbia, the White House has long been the official residence of the President of the United States and his family. Built between 1792 and 1800, the original structure was designed by James Hoban, an architect of Irish descent.

In 1792, when George Washington was first elected president, he maintained two residences in New York. While plans to build the District of Columbia were being carried out, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania was named the temporary national capital and Washington moved into a house which had been rented for his official use. Meanwhile, Pennsylvanians were busily building a grand presidential mansion in an unsuccessful bid to have Philadelphia remain the capital of the United States. That structure was ultimately purchased by the University of Pennsylvania.

Pierre Charles L’Enfant, who had designed the federal city, had envisioned a magnificent presidential palace for the location on Pennsylvania Avenue. In 1792, a competition was held to select an architect for the executive mansion. Nine people (including an anonymous Thomas Jefferson) submitted plans. Washington selected the design by James Hoban though he wanted many changes to Hoban’s plan. Washington thought Hoban’s design was too small and that the structure was lacking ornamentation and formal reception spaces.

According to Washington’s instructions, Hoban enlarged the planned structure by thirty percent and amended the design of the façade. Some believe that Hoban based his design on Leinster House in Dublin, Ireland. Washington also oversaw the addition of a formal reception room akin to the space he preferred at Mount Vernon and the “bow window” reception area at his Pennsylvania mansion.

After the Fire of 1814
George Munger
Construction of the presidential mansion took eight years. The house was constructed in a Neoclassical Style with Palladian overtones. Built of Aquia sandstone over brick, the mansion and its ornate pediments (both pointed and segmented) and high relief ornamentation were whitewashed with a compound of glue, lead and lime to protect the porous sandstone from the elements. Despite popular thinking, the house was always white and was intended to be white. Some erroneously believe that the mansion was whitewashed after being burned in 1814. However, this is not the case. Originally called, “The President’s Palace,” “The Presidential Mansion” or “The President’s House,” the first written naming of the structure as “The White House” didn’t come until 1811 . Until Theodore Roosevelt took office, the house was officially called “The Executive Mansion.” Teddy Roosevelt changed the official name of the building to “The White House.”
The South Portico in 1846
Over the next two centuries, as America changed, so did the White House. Due to limitations in labor and materials, the original house was only two stories tall. Now, it’s six stories, though it appears to still only be two. On November 1, 1800, John Adams became the first president to take residence in the house being succeeded by Thomas Jefferson who added the two colonnades which now connect the main house to the East and West wings.

In 1814, during the War of 1812, British troops burned much of Washington, D.C., including the White House. After the fire, only the exterior of the building remained. President James Madison resided at The Octagon House while Hoban and another architect, Benjamin LaTrobe, worked on rebuilding the Executive Mansion from 1815-1817. The South Portico with its famously bowed façade was added during the presidency of James Munroe in 1824. The iconic pedimented North Portico (which is the official image of the White House) was added in 1830.

Throughout this time, the mansion was deemed too small and unsuitable for its purpose and many tried to lobby for the erection of a new Presidential Mansion. By the time Lincoln was residing in the White House, the president and his staff had more than outgrown the structure. Yet, the seat of the presidency remained there. Under Chester A. Arthur in the 1880’s, the house was completely remodeled on the inside with designs by Louis Comfort Tiffany. In 1901, Theodore Roosevelt hired celebrated architects McKim, Mead and White to build an expansive addition to the west side of the mansion, connected by Jefferson’s west colonnade. The new section has always been referred to as “The West Wing” and houses the “oval office.”

The central interior during
the Truman Restoration
The Oval Office hasn’t always been in the same location. After a fire in 1929, Franklin D. Roosevelt had the Oval Office moved closer to the rose garden so that he could enter and exit more privately in his wheelchair.

By 1948, the White House was declared structurally unsound. Too many interior changes and the addition of a level in the attic had rendered the mansion in a state of near collapse. Harry S. Truman declared that the White House be gutted. The entire interior was torn out and rebuilt with a steel-framed structure between 1949 and 1951. During this time, two sub-basements were added to increase useable space.

The next major renovation happened during John F. Kennedy’s term. First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy was in charge of the renovation and spent many weeks researching the history of the mansion so that she could restore it with a sense of historical accuracy. You can see Mrs. Kennedy giving a tour of the White House for CBS news in the archival footage below.

Since then, each first family has made some kind of changes to the White House, but the structure has remained fairly much the same. Though some would disagree, it’s a house that’s well-suited to the office of the President of the Unites States. While Classically grand, it’s not too ostentatious and speaks of a solid, persevering, utilitarian mindset. It’s not the rambling palace that L’Enfant had envisioned when he designed the District of Columbia, nor should it be. It’s the perfect symbol of America. 

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