12 White House Facts You May Not Know

Engraving of the south portico and west colonnade of the White House, with a view of the adjacent gardens, Washington D C
White House South Portico circa 1800-1850. Archive Photos/Getty Images (cropped)

Construction of the White House in Washington, D.C., began in 1792. In 1800, President John Adams was the first president to move into the Executive Mansion, and it's been rehabilitated, renovated, and rebuilt ever since. The White House is recognized around the world as the home of America's president and a symbol of the American people. But, like the nation it represents, America's first mansion is filled with unexpected surprises.

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Torched by the British

Painting of large white rectangular mansion with burned out windows but largely with an in tact exterior
The President's House After the British Burned It, Painting by George Munger c. 1815. Fine Art/Getty Images (cropped)

During the War of 1812, the United States burned Parliament Buildings in Ontario, Canada. So, in 1814, the British Army retaliated by setting fire to much of Washington, including the White House. The inside of the presidential structure was destroyed and the exterior walls were badly charred. After the fire, President James Madison lived in the Octagon House, which later served as headquarters for the American Institute of Architects (AIA). President James Monroe moved into the partially reconstructed White House in October 1817.

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West Wing Fire

black and white photo of firefighters climbing a ladders into the second story of a heavily smoking building
The White House on December 26, 1929. H.E. French Library of Congress/Getty Images (cropped)

On Christmas Eve 1929, shortly after the United States fell into a deep economic depression, an electrical fire broke out in the West Wing of the White House. The fire gutted the executive offices. Congress approved emergency funds for repairs, and President Herbert Hoover and his staff moved back in on April 14, 1930.

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Once America's Largest House

pen and ink elevation drawing of two story mansion with basement windows, hipped roof and porticos, one-story wings on each side
Proposed South Porch for the White House by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, c. 1817. VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images (cropped)

When architect Pierre Charles L'Enfant drafted the original plans for Washington, D.C., he called for an elaborate and enormous presidential palace. L'Enfant's vision was discarded and architects James Hoban and Benjamin Henry Latrobe designed a much smaller, more humble home. Still, the White House was grand for its time and the biggest by far in the new nation. Larger homes weren't constructed until after the Civil War and the rise of Gilded Age mansions. The largest home in the United States is one from that period, the Biltmore in Asheville, North Carolina, completed in 1895.

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A Twin in Ireland

Engraving of 1792 mansion with 4 engaged columns on the 2nd story rising to a center pediment
Leinster House, Dublin, Ireland. Buyenlarge/Getty Images (cropped)

The White House cornerstone was laid in 1792, but a house in Ireland may have been the model for its design. The mansion in the new U.S. capital was built using drawings by Irish-born James Hoban, who had studied in Dublin. Historians believe Hoban based his White House design on a local Dublin residence, the Leinster House, the Georgian style home of the Dukes of Leinster. The Leinster House in Ireland is now the seat of the Irish Parliament, but before that it likely inspired the White House.

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Another Twin in France

two-story mansion, protruding portico with 6 ionic columns, ballustrade across flattened roof with chimneys
The Château de Rastignac in France. Jacques Mossot, MOSSOT via Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0) (cropped)

The White House has been remodeled many times. During the early 1800s, President Thomas Jefferson worked with British-born architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe on several additions, including the East and West Wing Colonnades. In 1824, architect James Hoban supervised the addition of a neoclassical "porch" based on plans that Latrobe had drafted. The elliptical south portico appears to mirror the Château de Rastignac, an elegant house constructed in 1817 in Southwest France.

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Slaves Helped Build It

An Original Copy of a Monthly Payroll ledger, names written and boxes checked
Monthly Payroll for Laborers at the President's House, December 1794. Alex Wong/Getty Images (cropped)

The land that became Washington, D.C., was acquired from Virginia and Maryland, where slavery was practiced. Historic payroll reports document that many of the workers hired to build the White House were African Americans—some free and some slaves. Working alongside white laborers, the African Americans cut sandstone at the quarry in Aquia, Virginia. They also dug the footings for the White House, built the foundations, and fired bricks for the interior walls.

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European Contributions

Stone Ornaments Above the White House Entrance
Hand-Crafted Ornamentation. Tim Graham/Getty Images (cropped)

The White House could not have been completed without European artisans and immigrant laborers. Scottish stoneworkers raised the sandstone walls. Craftsmen from Scotland also carved the rose and garland ornaments above the north entrance and the scalloped patterns beneath the window pediments. Irish and Italian immigrants did brick and plaster work. Later, Italian artisans carved the decorative stonework on the White House porticoes.

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Washington Never Lived There

Painting of the Washington family sitting in a room overlooking the Potomac River in Washington, studying an architectural plan for the future grand construction of the capitol city
Oil on Canvas c. 1796, the Washington Family by American Artist Edward Savage. GraphicaArtis/Getty Images (cropped)

President George Washington selected James Hoban's plan, but he felt it was too small and simple for a president. Under Washington's supervision, Hoban's plan was expanded and the White House was given a grand reception room, elegant pilasters, window hoods, and stone swags of oak leaves and flowers. But Washington never lived in the White House. In 1800, when the White House was almost finished, America's second president, John Adams moved in. Adams' wife Abigail complained about the unfinished state of the presidential home.

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FDR Made It Wheelchair Accessible

white man dressed in suit sitting in wheelchair holds a black Scotch Terrier Dog, Fala, While Talking with Ruthie Bie, the daughter of the Hyde Park caretaker
President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Corbis Historical/Getty Images (cropped)

The original builders of the White House didn't consider the possibility of a president with a disability. The White House didn't become wheelchair accessible until Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office in 1933. President Roosevelt lived with paralysis due to polio, so the White House was remodeled to accommodate his wheelchair. Franklin Roosevelt also added a heated indoor swimming pool to help with his therapy. In 1970, the swimming pool was covered over and used as the press briefing room.

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Truman Saved It From Collapse

black and white photo of scaffolding and construction worker near the New Steps of the South Portico During White House Renovation
South Portico Renovation circa 1950. Smith Collection National Archives/Getty Images (cropped)

After 150 years, wooden support beams and exterior load-bearing walls of the White House were weak. Engineers declared the building unsafe and said that it would collapse if not repaired. In 1948, President Truman had the interior rooms gutted so that new steel support beams could be installed. During the reconstruction, the Trumans lived across the street at Blair House.

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Additional Monikers

a painted portrait of dolley madition
Gilbert Stuart/White House Historical Association.

The White House has been called many names. Dolley Madison, wife of President James Madison, called it the "President's Castle." The White House was also called the "President's Palace," the "President's House," and the "Executive Mansion." The name "White House" didn't become official until 1901, when President Theodore Roosevelt officially adopted it.

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Gingerbread Version

multi-story house made of cake and candy with Christmas decorations
The White House Christmas Gingerbread House in 2002. Mark Wilson/Getty Images (cropped)

Creating an edible White House has become a Christmas tradition and challenge for the official pastry chef and team of bakers at the White House. In 2002 the theme was "All Creatures Great and Small," and with 80 pounds of gingerbread, 50 pounds of chocolate, and 20 pounds of marzipan the White House was called the best Christmas confection ever.

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It Wasn't Always White

detail close-up photo of maintenance worker Washes Windows at the White House
White House Maintenance. Mark Wilson/Getty Images (cropped)

The White House is made of gray-colored sandstone from a quarry in Aquia, Virginia. The north and south porticos are constructed with red Seneca sandstone from Maryland. The sandstone walls weren't painted white until the White House was reconstructed after the British fires. It takes 570 gallons of white paint to cover the entire White House. The first covering used was made from rice glue, casein, and lead.