The White House, Washington, D.C.
The White House is the oldest public building in Washington, D.C. and serves three purposes. The building is the office of the highest elected official in the land, the private home of the U.S. president and family, and, as part of the National Park Service, a historic site and museum open to visitors.
George Washington along with his city planner, Pierre L’Enfant (the French-born civil engineer and architect who had served in Washington’s army during the Revolutionary War), sponsored a contest to find a builder for the president’s house.
James Hoban, an Irishman that had emigrated from County Kilkenny, won the prize. The son of a tenant farmer or laborer, Hoban was a carpenter who had, probably through the patronage of the estate owner, studied architecture at the Royal Dublin Society. Hoban’s design of a neoclassical mansion was expanded (including the addition of an east and west wing and extensive internal modernization and changes) over the years, but the familiar D.C. landmark looks surprisingly much like his original drawings.
Although Washington helped choose the building’s site and style as well as overseeing its construction, he did not live there. John Adams was the first president to move into the still-unfinished building in 1800 (and Abigail Adams did, indeed, hang the family’s laundry to dry in the East Room).
The “President’s House” or “Executive Mansion” (“The White House” became its official name in 1901 during Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency) has survived two fires; the first in 1814 and the second in 1929. As Washington D.C.’s superintendent of all public works—a position he was awarded in 1798—Hoban helped rebuild both the president’s mansion and the U.S. Capitol after British troops set fire to most of the city during the second war that the young United States fought with England.
A major renovation was begun in 1948 because of significant structural problems (an inspector said that the building “was standing up purely from habit.”) President Harry Truman traveled each day to the West Wing for work, but lived and entertained guests at Blair House until March 1952 while workers laid a new foundation and constructed a steel beam skeleton for the White House, whose original walls were maintained.
L’Enfant had envisioned the president’s mansion as a grand palace. His European sensibilities wanted a building that was four to five times larger than the house that was originally built. Perhaps he would be happy to see the White House today. Located on 18 acres, the White House has 132 rooms, and people use eight staircases and three elevators to move about it. Its amenities include a tennis court, a swimming pool, a jogging track, a bowling lane, a putting green, and a movie theater. The garden, which has been cultivated and redesigned many times based on the desires of different presidents as well as different first ladies, owes much of its current layout to the work of landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., who was hired during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first term.
Thanks to writer and producer Aaron Sorkin, the television-viewing public may have a little better idea of what happens in the three main sections of the White House. The Executive Residence is home to the first family and the site of official ceremonies and entertaining. The West Wing is the work area for the president and senior staff; it includes the Oval Office, the Cabinet Room, the Roosevelt Room, the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room, and the White House Situation Room. The East Wing, which was added in 1942, houses the offices of the first lady and the White House social secretary.
Visiting the White House
With a little advance planning, you can tour Washington D.C.’s best-known address—at least the few rooms that are open to the public.
Tours of the White House must be requested through your representative or senators and are available from 7:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. (Be aware that special events may cause tours to be canceled.)
The White House Visitor Center (located at the southeast corner of 15th and E Streets) is open daily and no advance passes are required.
The center shows a video about the White House (it last 30 minutes and runs continuously throughout the day) and displays pictures, cartoons, and artifacts focused on those who called 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue “home.” You should allow between 20 minutes to one hour to view these exhibits
The White House Visitor Center also provides a free guide and is the place to begin a walk on either of two trails through President’s Park.
After learning about the Executive Branch of the United States Government at the White House you may want to proceed to the Judicial Branch at the Supreme Court or the Legislative Branch in the Capitol Building (House of Representatives and Senate).
by Katie Calvert