This Old (White) House

The White House was gutted in the early 1950s for an emergency renovation  (

One day in 1948 as First Lady Bess Truman was entertaining  in the Blue Room of the White House, the chandelier began to sway.  She sent someone upstairs to find the cause, who reported it was the butler, Alonzo Fields, walking across the room to get “the boss” a book (he was taking a bath).  This was enough to threaten collapse of the ceiling over the heads of members of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

The next year, the legs of Margaret Truman’s piano punctured the private dining room floor and the ceiling below.  That did it: Congress made a study of the 150 year-old structure, and it was promptly condemned.  The Trumans, evicted from their home, moved to Blair House across the street for a few years while the massive work was done.

Robert Klara writes a most interesting story in The Hidden White House: Harry Truman and the Reconstruction of America’s Most Famous Residence (Thomas Dunne Books, 2013).  The future home of the Presidents of the United States of America was begun in 1792 after George Washington put down the cornerstone on loamy, marshy soil.   John and Abigail Adams were the first first couple to move in, in November of 1800.  It was not quite finished.

Architect James Hoban’s drawing of the executive mansion.  Hoban also helped with rebuilding after the British burned it during the War of 1812 (Library of Congress).

Andrew Jackson began adding pipes for running water in the 1830s;  James K. Polk installed pipes for gas lights during the next decade.  These improvements put a great deal of extra weight on floors and their wooden support structure.

An early photograph of the executive mansion, 1868 (

The house was redecorated often enough, but Theodore and Edith Roosevelt carried out a major overhaul in 1900 which moved offices from the second floor to a new west wing and reworked family living spaces.  The firm of McKim, Mead and White, limited by time, stabilized with steel beams.  It turned out to be triage leading to the time of the Trumans.

The Blue Room in 1902.  TR officially changed the name from Executive Mansion to White House, and added buffalo heads to walls here and there (

President Truman thought he heard ghosts walking through the hallways and knocking on doors when he first stayed there (Bess and Margaret were back home in Missouri).  It turns out at least some of the commotion came from old Virginia pine snapping as the air cooled at night.  When floor beams were examined, they were also found to have many five-inch notches, deliberately cut at an undetermined time.

Some thought the 132 rooms should be torn down and redesigned.  The president disagreed.  When its restoration was complete, the White House stood over a poured concrete basement and bomb shelter, and had new central air conditioning and heating.  The grand staircase was moved to adjoin the entryway.  Missing, though, was a substantial part of the former interiors, which the author reports could have been saved.  Truman had had foundation beams sawed into paneling for several rooms, but some materials were carried across the Potomac River to be used in army bases.  All the work had cost $5,700,000 in contrast to the home’s $230,000 original price tag.

Also in Klara’s fascinating saga are how furnishings and art were stored, which piles of rubbish turned into souvenirs, and the sordid politics among people involved.  The name of the head contractor was deleted from the official renovation report.Mr. Truman's Renovation: White House Key

President and Mrs. Truman return to reside in a safer White House in 1952 (

Subsequent commanders-in-chief and their wives have improved the heritage of the White House, replacing the reproduction tables and chairs of 1952 (some likened them to hotel furniture) with authentic antiques.  Jacquelyn Kennedy took the case to private organizations with stunning results, as shown in her nationally televised tour of the rooms.

But it was Harry who saved the place.  For all of us.

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Mrs. Kennedy’s program was not the first televised tour of the White House.  On YouTube may be seen a charming 12 minute video of President Truman leading the public, and a very young Walker Cronkite, through his reno.

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