The Architectural History of the White House

The countdown to Independence Day has begun! Only 3 days until we come together for family barbecues, parades, concerts, and setting off fireworks in the backyard. Of course, these are activities we only get to enjoy because of the freedoms we were granted on that historic day in 1776. The Fourth of July is a federal holiday commemorating the adoption of the Declaration of Independence by the Continental Congress, declaring that the thirteen American colonies regarded themselves as a new nation, the United States of America, and were no longer part of the British Empire.

When you think about the United States of America, what is the first building that comes to mind? The White House, right? That’s the first building that pops into my head! I remember my first trip to Washington D.C. when I was only 7 or 8 years old. My family did the public tour of the White House. I saw Socks, the Clintons tuxedo cat! It was so neat to be in the same room where so many great presidents had been before. So, in honor of the upcoming Fourth of July, I want to explore the history of our great Nation’s famous White House.

The White House is the official residence and primary office space for the President of the United States. It is located at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave NW in Washington D.C. It has been the residence of every U.S. president since John Adams was in office in the year 1800.

jamesWhile on his “Southern Tour” in May of 1791, President George Washington visited Charleston, SC and saw the under-construction Charleston County Courthouse designed by James Hoban. The President met with Hoban and summoned him to Philadelphia (the nation’s capital at the time). In 1972, Washington met with the federal city (aka Washington D.C.) commissioners to make his judgment in the architectural competition that had been established. He selected Hoban’s design but requested that the design is changed to a two-story home with an 11-bay facade.

The White House was built between 1792 and 1800. It was built with white-painted Aquia Creek Sandstone and inspired by the neoclassical style. Neoclassical architecture is an architectural style produced by the neoclassical movement that began in the mid 18th-centurty. In its purest form, it is a style principally derived from the architecture of classical antiquity, and emphasizes the wall rather than contrast and maintains separate identities to each of its parts. This form of architecture came to life because of a desire to return to the purity of the arts of Rome and Ancient Greece.

Thomas Jefferson moved into the White House in 1801. Architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe and Jefferson added low colonnades on each wing that concealed stables and storage. Today, Jefferson’s colonnades link the residence with the East and West Wings.

fireIn 1814, during the War of 1812, the White House was set ablaze by British troops during the Burning of Washington. Only the exterior wall remained, and even they had to be torn down and mostly reconstructed because of weakening from the fire and subsequent exposure to the elements (except for portions of the south wall). After the fire, both architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe and Hoban contributed to the design and oversight of the reconstruction, which lasted from 1815 to 1817.

As the years went by, and new Presidents lived in the White House, many things were changed. Theodore Roosevelt had all work offices relocated to the newly constructed West Wing in 1901. Eight years later, William Taft expanded the West Wing and created the first Oval Office, which was eventually moved as the section was expanded. Under Harry S. Truman, the interior rooms were completely dismantled and a new internal load-bearing steel frame constructed inside the walls.

The modern-day White House complex includes the Executive Residence, West Wing, East Wing, the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, and the Blair House (guest residence). The term “White House” is often used as a metonym (substitute) for the Executive Office of the President of the United States and for the president’s administration and advisors in general, as in “The White House has decided that…” The property is a National Heritage Site owned by the National Park Service and is part of the President’s Park. In 2007, it was ranked second on the American Institute of Architects list of “America’s Favorite Architecture,” behind the Empire State Building.