The White House in Washington DC

Aerial view of the White House, Washington, D.C.
Aerial view of the White House, Washington, D.C. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge Archive Photos/Getty Images
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Humble Beginnings

Profile of North and South Porticos from the East Facade of the President's House, the White House by B. H. Latrobe
East Facade Side of the President's House, the White House by B. H. Latrobe. Image LC-USZC4-1495 Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division (cropped)

Many an American president has battled for the privilege to live at the nation's most prestigious address. And, like the presidency itself, the home at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC has seen conflict, controversy, and surprising transformations. Indeed, the elegant porticoed mansion we see today looks very different from the austere porch-less Georgian-style house designed over two hundred years ago.

Originally, plans for a "President's Palace" were developed by the French-born artist and engineer Pierre Charles L’Enfant. Working with George Washington to design a capital city for the new nation, L'Enfant envisioned a majestic home approximately four times the size of the present White House.

At George Washington's suggestion, Irish-born architect James Hoban (1758-1831) traveled to the federal capital and submitted a plan for the presidential home. Eight other architects also submitted designs, but Hoban won the competition—perhaps the first instance of the presidential power of executive preference. The "White House" proposed by Hoban was a refined Georgian mansion in the Palladian style. It would have three floors and more than 100 rooms. Many historians believe that James Hoban based his design on the Leinster House, a grand Irish home in Dublin.

On Oct. 13, 1792, the cornerstone was laid. Most of the labor was done by African-Americans, some free and some slaves. President Washington oversaw the construction, although he never got to live in the presidential house. 

In 1800, when the home was almost finished, America's second president, John Adams and his wife Abigail moved in. Costing $232,372, the house was considerably smaller than the grand palace L'Enfant had envisioned. The Presidential palace was a stately but simple home made of pale gray sandstone. Over the years, the initial modest architecture became more stately. The porticoes on the north and south facades were added by another White House architect, the British-born Benjamin Henry Latrobe. The stately rounded portico (left side of this illustration) on the south side was originally designed with steps, but they were eliminated.

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Disaster Strikes the White House

Illustration of the Burning of Washington, DC, in 1814 during the War of 1812
Illustration of the Burning of Washington, DC, in 1814 during the War of 1812. Photo by Bettmann / Bettmann Collection / Getty Images (cropped)

Only thirteen years after the Presidents' House was completed, disaster struck. The War of 1812 brought invading British armies who set the house afire.The White House, along with the Capitol, was destroyed by 1814.

James Hoban was brought in to rebuild it according to the original design, but this time the sandstone walls were coated with lime-based whitewash. Although the building was often called the "White House," the name did not become official until 1902, when President Theodore Roosevelt adopted it.

The next major renovation began in 1824. Appointed by Thomas Jefferson, designer and draftsman Benjamin Henry Latrobe (1764-1820) became "Surveyor of the Public Buildings" of the United States. He set to work completing the Capitol, the presidential home and other buildings in Washington DC. It was Latrobe who added the graceful portico. This pediment roof supported by columns transforms the Georgian home into a neoclassical estate.

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Early Floor Plans

Early Floor Plans for the White House Principal Story, c. 1803
Early Floor Plans for the White House Principal Story, c. 1803. Photo by The Print Collector/Hulton Archive Collection/Print Collector/Getty Images

These floor plans for the White House are some of the earliest indications of Hoban's and Latrobe's design. America's presidential home has seen extensive remodeling inside and outside since these plans were presented.

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The President's Backyard

Historic black and white photo of south lawn with grazing sheep
Sheep Grazing on White House Lawn c. 1900. Photo by Library of Congress / Corbis Historical VCG / Getty Images (cropped)

It was Latrobe's idea to build out the columns. Visitors are greeted at the north facade, with stately columns and a pedimented portico—very Classical in design. The "back" of the house, the south side with a rounded portico, is the personal "backyard" for the executive. This is the less formal side of the property, where presidents have planted rose gardens, vegetable gardens, and constructed temporary athletic and play equipment. In a more pastoral time, sheep could safely graze.

To this day, by design, the White House remains rather "two-faced," one facade more formal and angular and the other rounded and less formal.

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Controversial Remodeling

Construction of the Truman Balcony Within the South Portico, 1948
Construction of the Truman Balcony Within the South Portico, 1948. Photo by Bettmann / Bettmann Collection / Getty Images (cropped)

Over the decades, the presidential home underwent many renovations. In 1835, running water and central heating were installed. Electric lights were added in 1901.

Yet another disaster struck in 1929 when a fire swept through the West Wing. Then, after World War II, the two main floors of the building were gutted and completely renovated. For most of his presidency, Harry Truman was not able to live in the house.

President Truman's most controversial remodeling may have been the addition of what has become known as the Truman Balcony. The second floor private residence of the chief executive had no access to the outdoors, so Truman suggested a balcony be built within the south portico. Historic preservationists were alarmed at the prospect of not only aesthetically breaking the multi-story lines created by the tall columns, but also at the cost of construction—both financially and the effect of securing the balcony to the second floor exterior.

The Truman balcony, overlooking the south lawn and the Washington Monument, was completed in 1948.

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The White House Today

Sprinklers water the north lawn of the White House
Sprinklers water the north lawn of the White House. Photo by ImageCatcher News Service / Corbis News / Getty Images

Today, the home of America's president has six floors, seven staircases, 132 rooms, 32 bathrooms, 28 fireplaces, 147 windows, 412 doors and 3 elevators. The lawns are automatically watered with an in-ground sprinkler system.

Despite two hundred years of disaster, discord, and remodelings, the original design of the immigrant Irish builder, James Hoban, remains intact. At least the sandstone exterior walls are original.

Learn More:

  • The Domestic Architecture of Benjamin Henry Latrobe by Michael W. Fazio and Patrick A. Snadon, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006
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  • LEGO White House Construction Set
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  • Nanoblock White House
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