Peggy Keener: America’s first house … that white one

Published 5:21 pm Friday, April 19, 2024

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Toward the end of the War of 1812, when James Madison was president, the British burned “our house” to the ground. The building was already an icon so there was no question that it had to be rebuilt.

Since then the rebuilding of the White House has never ceased. For the past two hundred and ten years, each president has left his mark on it. For instance, the mansion was subjected to various Victorian embellishments during the 19th century. Then in 1902, Theodore Roosevelt hired the famous architects McKim, Mead and White to renovate the building while still maintaining its original neoclassical style.

A third floor was recreated with guest rooms while a series of giant glass conservatories were torn down. These had previously been used as a place to grow fruits and flowers for the first family. This renovation paved the way for the expansion of the West Wing where Roosevelt created his office. Howard Taft, his successor, added the Oval Room completing it in 1909.

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But the building was still in poor condition. By the Truman administration, the roof was literally caving in. America’s First House was in danger of collapsing! Indeed, conditions had deteriorated so dramatically that one afternoon while Mrs. Truman was in the Blue Room hosting a tea for the Daughters of the American Revolution, the chandelier above them (the size of a large refrigerator) began swaying menacingly. Thankfully, the guests were not aware of the danger overhead. So, what was going on with the chandelier, you ask? Well, above the gathering up on the second floor, the president was taking a bath!

But, this was not all that the Trumans had to contend with. The leg of one of daughter Margaret’s pianos actually plunged through the rotted floor of her sitting room during one particularly ferocious practice session. Enough was enough! Harry replaced the mansion’s original wood framing with a new steel structure. Additionally he added a second-floor outdoor space where he could overlook the South Lawn. It was named “the Truman Balcony” and is still a favorite spot of every president since.

Still, nobody, but nobody did a true renovation until Jackie O. moved in. Aghast at the condition in which she found the house, she launched a public effort to restore it. Her aim was to make the building “the most perfect house” in the USA. The first change was to Mrs. Eisenhower’s pink, white and pale blue Rose and East Gardens. (One has to wonder—had such a thing been possible—what changes Jackie would have made to Mamie’s bangs?)

Along with the White House staff, Mrs. Kennedy brought in top interior decorator Sister Parish to help with the restoration. Together they combed the house for treasures while jettisoning the horrors. “If there’s anything I can’t stand,” blurted out Jackie, “it’s Victorian mirrors—they’re hideous! Off to the dungeons with them! And furthermore, from now on, everything in the White House must have a reason for being here.”

Within only a month of moving into the mansion, Jackie had created The White House Fine Arts Committee. Its members were tasked with the job of searching out museum quality pieces from around the country. And that was not all. The committee also had to convince the owners of those masterpieces to donate them to the White House!

In addition, Jackie established the Curator’s Office which ensured that the furnishings and artwork would be properly inventoried and cared for. How could we forget the first-ever televised tour of the mansion in 1962, where a thirty-two-year-old breathless Jackie treated eighty-million people to a first hand look at her new home? The peek inside helped to make her one of the country’s most popular first ladies. Undaunted, she transformed the building’s drab rooms into fashionable displays while blending historical sensitivities with contemporary elegance.

Food, as well, was uppermost in Mrs. Kennedy’s mind. She hired the renowned chef Rene Verdon as the official cook and appointed Oleg Cassini as the official couturier. Moreover, the old downstairs family dining room felt much too formal for her young family, so Jackie took Margaret Truman’s old second-floor bedroom and made it over into the family’s kitchen and cozy dining room.

Ask any White House staff and they will delight in telling you about every inch of the mansion—its little known corners and historical secrets. For example, there are underground locker rooms where the butlers keep their crisp tuxedos, and maids store their uniforms (pastel shirts and white pants), only a short distance from a bomb shelter in the East Wing that was built for President Franklin Roosevelt during WWII. Currently this space has been updated to be the President’s Emergency Operations Center, built to withstand a nuclear detonation. The tube shaped bunker is where the President would be taken in case of an attack.

The Ground Floor Map Room was once a billiards room before it was renovated into the President’s top secret planning center during WWII. Few people were ever granted a glimpse inside this room. When the maids came to clean it, the security guards would cover the maps with a cloth, then stand on duty while the floor was mopped. It was in that room that Roosevelt planned the invasion of Normandy. Many years later, Bill Clinton used the space to give his televised grand jury testimony during the Lewinsky affair (an invasion of a different kind into the country’s delicate sensibilities). Today it is used as a holding area for holiday party guests as they await their turn to be photographed with the President and First Lady in the Diplomatic Reception Room next door.

Stories abound over how the White House rooms have been used over the centuries. Abigail Adams used the very grand, but very drafty East Room (the largest space in the house at that time with ceilings more than twenty-feet high), as the perfect place to hang her laundry!

This same room was later used as a temporary home for soldiers during the Civil War. It is now the setting for most of the presidential press conferences. (Alas … political interplay and strife have not improved in all that time.)

The Green Room, which is currently a formal sitting room on the State Floor, was originally Jefferson’s bedroom and breakfast room. Then James Monroe came along and converted it into a card parlor. Regretfully, it was even used when Abraham Lincoln’s beloved eleven-year-old son, Willie, died. There he was embalmed, candles illuminating his face and camellias placed in his hands.

On the second floor is the small Victorian-style room called the Lincoln Sitting Room. In the late 19th century, it was used as a telegraph room. But most notably, Richard Nixon used it to isolate himself during the darkest days of Watergate. There he sought refuge amid its heavy drapes and dark furnishing, spending hours with music blasting and a fire blazing in the fireplace while the air conditioner was cranked up as high as it could go.

A sanctuary on the third floor is hidden from view on the roof of the South Portico. There one has a 180-degree view of the Mall and the Washington Monument. First Lady Grace Coolidge designed this space, calling it her “Sky Parlor.” The airy hideaway is now known as the Solarium and serves as the first family’s family room. Caroline Kennedy attended kindergarten there while Ronald Reagan recuperated after the assassination attempt on his life. Then Sasha and Malia Obama moved in and hosted their girlfriends there for giggly overnight sleepovers.

The White House is unquestionably one of America’s greatest treasures, a national home of which we can all be proud. The staff speaks of it with great reverence. As one worker explained, every time he shows the building to his friends, he tells them to look around and soak it all in. They are, after all, walking on the same floors, down the same halls and surrounded by the same walls as every president since John Adams.