The White House: Keeping Up Appearances

This Presidents Day article is from the book Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Plunges Into the Presidency.

The White House changes with the times and the presidents.

A longtime symbol of American freedom and power, the White House, at its heart, is really just a well-known family home. Each First Family has adapted the building and its furnishings to suit their own needs and tastes. And each family has left its mark on the White House.


The early administrations didn't have much to work with. The executive mansion wasn't even completed when its first resident, John Adams, moved into live out the last few months of his presidency. Since there was no indoor plumbing of any kind, water had to be hauled from nearly a mile away. Abigail Adams couldn't find enough wood to build a laundry line -and she couldn't find laborers to build one anyhow- so she hung the First Family's wet clothes out to dry in the East Room (now one of the most elegant state rooms).

To help the decorating process along, Congress allocated $14,000 (a princely sun in the early 19th century!) for furnishings during Adams' four months in the White House and gave his successor, Thomas Jefferson, $29,000. Much of this money went simply to painting and plastering. Even though Jefferson was only the second resident of the White House, during his stay he had to replace the roof, which leaked almost as soon as it was up. What little furniture the Adamses had contributed had been ruined. Jefferson ended up bringing his own furniture from his estate, Monticello, to decorate the White House. He did temporarily solve the water problem; he smartly set up an attic cistern to catch the DC rainwater.

The first photograph of the White House, 1846.

As the years went on White House residents continued to upgrade their home with modern conveniences and luxuries. In 1833, during Andrew Jackson's second term, pipes were installed to bring in water for bathing. Jackson spent more than $45,000 on elegant additions to the mansion, including china and crystal from France. He rebuilt the East Room to make it impressive and grand. But critics argued that Andrew "Old Hickory" Jackson's cohorts were not suited to such finery. Many rugs were ruined by muddy boots and many curtains damaged by souvenir hunters who cut swatches from the window coverings. (Such rowdiness could have been predicted by the mob scene at Jackson's inaugural celebration, which forced the new president to jump out a White House window to escape).

But the need for sufficient water, heat, and light had not abated. Martin Van Buren put in a basement reservoir for cooking and bathing needs. By 1853, there were bathtubs in the family quarters with hot and cold running water. In 1848, President James K. Polk installed gas lighting, to replace the oil lamps and candles. Millard Fillmore brought in a kitchen stove in the 1850s; before this the cooks had prepared elegant meals at an open fireplace. The first central furnace, a coal-fueled hot water and hot air system, was installed in 1853, after Franklin Pierce moved in. Benjamin Harrison brought in the first electrical lighting -but the Harrisons were afraid to turn the lights on and off for fear of getting shocked.


During the Civil War, while her husband went about the business of saving the Union, Mrs. Mary Todd Lincoln took it upon herself to redecorate the White House. She first supervised scrubbing down the walls and floors, painting, and replastering the entire house. For the first time in years, the White House was actually clean.

The White House in 1860.

Congress had been generous enough to allot $20,000 for new furnishings; the money had to last over the course of four years. This sum was more than four times President Lincoln's salary had been before he took office, and thus it seemed a fortune to Mrs. Lincoln. Nevertheless she managed to spend it -and then some. She traveled to New York and Philadelphia and bought the best and most expensive of everything. Mary concentrated on the family quarters, especially the guest bedroom, which she furnished with what is now known as "the Lincoln bed." (The president, in fact, probably never slept in it.)

Once everything was finished, Mrs. Lincoln's critics approved of the new elegant and refined look. But her husband, not so much. Abe was furious with her overspending and would not (initially) agree to her plan to ask Congress to approve a supplementary appropriation. "It would stink in the nostrils of the American people to have it said that the President of the United States had approved a bill overrunning an appropriation of $20,000 for flub dubs for this damned old house, when the soldiers cannot have blankets." He vowed he would pay the overdraft himself. But eventually Lincoln came to realize that he didn't have sufficient funds (almost $7,000) for this gesture and quietly agreed to let Congress cover the deficiency.


The State Dining Room with Moose Heads under Theodore Roosevelt 1906. (Library of Congress)

The next major restructuring of the White House took place during Theodore Roosevelt's administration in 1902. Congress appropriated $540,641 to remodel the executive mansion, including $65,196 for a "temporary" office building to be known as the West Wing. Teddy Roosevelt was eager to make over the White House in his own testosterone-soaked image and happily declared "Smash the glass houses!" (the conservatories that had been up since James Buchanan's time). He threw out Chester Arthur's Tiffany screens and William McKinley's potted palms and added moose heads and bear rugs. He had the modern West Wing built on the foundation of Jefferson's office buildings, and he added offices for reporters for the first time.

The West Wing went through several more renovations through the years. After a devastating fire on Christmas Eve 1929, the offices needed another overhaul. In 1934 when construction was complete, the newly remodeled White House included three new stories of office space added to the East Building and a secret (at the time) underground bomb shelter in the basement of the Treasury Building, connected by an underground passageway to the White House. During his administration Franklin D. Roosevelt enlarged the West Wing and also arranged for the construction of the East Wing. During World War II military guards were stationed for the first time in the halls, and bulletproof glass was installed in the Oval Office windows.

Structural Renovation circa 1950.

Several years later in 1948, President Harry S. Truman noticed chandeliers swaying suspiciously in the White House and was alarmed when his daughter Margaret's grand piano leg punctured the floor of her room and some of the ceiling beneath. Truman ordered a study of the mansion structure at once. Horrified inspectors proclaimed that the White House was still standing "purely by habit." The First Family was moved immediately to Blair House, across the street on Pennsylvania Avenue. The interior of the White House was gutted and rebuilt, at a cost of $5,761,000; work was completed in 1952.


Style maven Jacqueline Kennedy sought to make the White House the nation's finest showplace, furnished with top-quality American antiques and accented by eighteenth- and nineteenth-century paintings. In 1961 she created the Fine Arts Committee for the White House and the Special Committee of Paintings, and she set about redoing the mansion. In 1962 she conducted a widely-viewed TV tour of the White House, giving many Americans their first glimpse of the newly refurbished executive mansion. By the time of President John F. Kennedy's assassination in 1963, Mrs. Kennedy's committee had restored the state rooms on the first floor and several historic rooms on the second.

(YouTube link)

Thanks to Jackie Kennedy, incoming First Ladies may now furnish and decorate the second- and third-floor residence quarters as they see fit. But the ground floor corridor and main public rooms must be maintained in their museum-like state, according to a law passed by Congress in 1961 to protect and continue the historic restoration begun during the Kennedy administration. Any proposed changes or additions in these public rooms have to be approved by the Committee for Preservation of the White House.

First Ladies can make selections from furniture and artwork already in the White House and from a government warehouse containing pieces used by previous occupants of the executive mansion. If she still cannot find artwork that she likes, she may borrow additional pieces from the National Gallery. The artwork rotates through the executive mansion much like it rotates through a museum: the finest pieces are always on display but often finding new locations. (Presidents have been known to rearrange presidential portraits so that paintings of their partisan soul mates take center stage.)


The State Dining Room featuring the "Reagan Red" China.

Mrs. Kennedy's successors carried her torch and continue to work to make the White House a first-class representation of American style. Lady Bird Johnson appealed for donations of important paintings to the White House. Pat Nixon worked to bring back original American furniture pieces to replace the reproductions that were everywhere. Rosalynn Carter decided to follow in Jackie's footsteps by broadcasting White House concerts on national television so that the many Americans who wanted to visit the White House but could not could still enjoy the People's House. But Rosalynn's successor caused a minor scandal in her efforts to spruce up the place: Even though the Reagans raised more than one million dollars in private funds to redecorate the second- and third-floor family quarters, Nancy Reagan outraged her critics when she ordered new (and expensive!) state china in her favorite color, now known as Reagan Red. It seemed to be an extravagant indulgence given the state of the U.S. economy and the fact that the mansion owned dozens of sets of china by that time.

The Oval Office under the Clinton Administration.

From 1980 to 1992, about forty layers of paint and whitewash were stripped from the facade of the White House, which allowed the decorative trim and scrollwork to show through. Toward the end of this process the Clintons (with private donations) redecorated the Lincoln Sitting Room and the Treaty Room, and the Oval Office was made over in striking golds and reds. The Clinton administration oversaw the final phase of the restoration and redecoration of the Blue Room as well. Hillary Clinton said that in their first few years in the White House, they woke not to alarm clocks but to the sounds of hammers and power tools. President Bill Clinton brought in the internet, and his administration was the first to use online services and to communicate via email. Hillary was the first First Lady to put her foot down about smoking in her home: starting in 1992 the White House was designated a no-smoking building. (President Clinton was known to step outside on the Truman Balcony to enjoy an occasional lit cigar, however.)

Early in George W. Bush's presidency, First Lady Laura Bush redecorated the Oval Office in the subdued southwestern colors of her native Texas. But the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States put a halt to renovations. The biggest changes in the White House during this time have been for security purposes. For more than two years, the White House was closed to the public. In 2004, with added security in place, public tours were again offered -albeit to a restricted number of visitors. The style and creativity of the presidents and first families are again on display, and the White House remains the People's House.


The article above was reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Plunges Into the Presidency.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

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