Building the White House
Construction of the White House began with the laying of the cornerstone on October 13, 1792. Over the next century-and-a-half, it would face wartime destruction in the form of the British burning it during the war of 1812 and constant re-building.
The wear and tear of it all!
There were hurried renovations and additions of new services and technologies. In 1927 a third floor was added. Elevators, electricity and central heat were added. Earlier systems that became obsolete, such as old water pipes, gas pipes for lights, and forced air heating ducts, were abandoned in place, adding significant weight to the building. All on inadequate foundations that caused the Executive Residence of the White House Complex to almost collapse.
Enter the Truman Family
When the Trumans moved into the executive mansion in 1945, they found it badly in need of repair. Twelve years of neglect during the war, and the Depression depression before it had taken its toll.
The mansion’s creaking floors had been known to White House staff and First Families for many years. Government agencies had expressed concern about the condition of the building.
In a 1941 report from the Army Corps of Engineers warned of failing wood structure, crumbling masonry, and major fire hazards. The report was dismissed by then President Roosevelt.
By 1947 Floors no longer merely creaked, they swayed.
The Public Buildings Administration was asked to investigate the condition of the White House, but no action was taken until January 1948.
The commissioner of the Public Buildings Administration, which had responsibility for the White House, was attending a crowded reception at the White House’s Blue Room. He noticed the chandelier swaying over the crowd below. The next day he and the White House Architect conducted their own on-site investigation. They discovered split and gouged-out beams supporting the ceiling and second floor above.
He reported: “that the beams are staying up there from force of habit only.” The number of occupants on the second floor was restricted, temporary fixes were made to some of the beams, and scaffolding-type supports were erected throughout the First Family’s second floor living quarters.
The president of the American Institute of Architects and the president of the American Society of Civil Engineers were asked to make a study of the situation. Their one-day investigation concluded with a report issued that same day which said the second-floor structure was a fire hazard and was in danger of collapse. They recommended that the second floor should be reconstructed as soon as possible, electricity use be cut to a minimum and that further investigations be undertaken.
Congress provided $50,000 for a more thorough investigation and additional engineers and other professionals were engaged from the private sector. Walls, ceilings, and floors were opened up to provide access to the investigators. It was estimated the cost or repair might be around $1 million dollars.
In June 1948 a leg of Margaret Truman’s piano crashed through the floor in her second floor sitting room and through the ceiling of the Family Dining Room below. This should have cause concern for immediate action, but that year was an election year and the president feared that news of the collapsing White House would provide an undesirable metaphor for his administration.
Truman is Re-elected
Upon returning to the White House the day after winning the election, the president was informed that the Federal Works Agency was about to do what his political opponents could not: remove him from the White House.
The Truman family departed town. It took two weeks to empty the White House of all of the furnishings. Furniture, staff and the First Family moved into the White House guest house across Pennsylvania Avenue.
By late 1948 three main options were considered for replacement of the White House:
– Demolish and rebuild the interior, keeping the exterior walls intact.
– Demolish the building entirely and construct a new executive mansion.
– Demolish the building entirely, salvage the exterior walls and rebuild them and a new interior.
They chose the first option.
On December 13, 1949, construction work began on site.
The scope of the project involved the complete removal of the interior of the White House, except for the Third Floor, and included salvage and storage of critical interior elements, excavation of new basement levels, and construction of new foundations, steel and concrete structure, masonry interior walls with plaster finish and wood paneling, custom plaster moldings, refurbished and replacement windows, and new heating, ventilation, air conditioning, plumbing, electrical, and communications systems.
The rooms of the State Floor were reconstructed with few significant changes. The Second Floor rooms were adjusted to provide built-in closets and additional bathrooms but otherwise were rebuilt largely as they had been. The Third Floor was expanded and the rooftop solarium replaced. Two new basement levels were added under the Ground Floor.
The biggest change during construction was announced on August 1, 1950, when the president authorized a separate and highly secret project. Project 9 was officially described as “certain protective measures” to be added to the new basement: an underground shelter to resist attack from an atomic bomb. Inside the mansion, a heavily reinforced concrete tunnel to connect the West and East Wings was added through the middle of the new basement, which complicated and delayed the main construction.
The First Family returned to the White House on the evening of March 27, 1952. It was ready for its residents, but the work was not complete. Deficiencies included the main kitchen not being operable in time for a state visit; some rooms without electrical outlets; drafty fireplaces rendering rooms unfit to sleep in; and kitchen sinks were found to be too small for the dinner service. Neither the Commission nor the president was content with the work of the general contractor. The President wrote in his dairy “With all the trouble and worry it is worth it – but not 5 1⁄2 million dollars! if I could have had charge of the construction it would have been done for half the money and in half the time!“