Building the White House in Washington, D.C.

Executive Mansion Architecture

Sprinklers water the north lawn of the White House
The White House, Washington, D.C. ImageCatcher News Service/Getty Images

The White House wasn't built in a day, or a year, or a hundred years. White House architecture is a story of how a building can be rebuilt, renovated, and expanded to fulfill the needs of the occupant — sometimes in spite of historic preservationists.

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, D.C. 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. All that, but the story begins in New York City.

New York Beginnings

An etching from a painting depicting the Government House in New York, constructed in 1790 to serve as an executive mansion for President George Washington
Government House in Lower Manhattan, 1790. Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images (cropped)

General George Washington was sworn in as the first President of the United States in 1789 in New York City. By 1790 New York State had built a house for the president and his family. Called Government House, the architecture exhibited the neoclassical elements of the day — pediments, columns, and simple grandeur. Washington never stayed here, however. The first president's plan was to move the capital to a more central piece of real estate, and so Washington began surveying swampland near his Mount Vernon home in Virginia. Between 1790 and 1800 the government moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania as it built the young nation's capital in Washington, D.C.

 

Moving to D.C.

historic black and white illustration of washington dc with capitol dome half built and land still swampy
What Washington, D.C. Probably Looked Like in 1861. Fotosearch/Getty Images (cropped)

 

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. It would be connected to the U.S. Capitol building by a grand avenue.

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. Hoban's 1793 elevation drawing showed a neoclassical facade very similar to the mansion in Ireland. Like many home builders even today, the plans were downsized from three floors to two — local stone would have to be allotted to other government buildings.

 

Humble Beginnings

Profile of North and South Porticos from the East Facade of the President's House, the White House by B. H. Latrobe 1807
Proposed East Facade of the President's House by B. H. Latrobe, 1807. Image LC-USZC4-1495 Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division (cropped)

Hoban had tried out a neoclassical design in Charleston, South Carolina, as he was finishing up the 1792 Charleston County Courthouse. Washington liked the design, so on October 13, 1792 the cornerstone was laid for the President's House in the new capital. 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.

Early Floor Plans

floor plan indicating drawing room, hall, public dining room, library, and public audience chamber
Early Floor Plans for the White House Principal Story, c. 1803. The Print Collector/Getty Images


These floor plans for the White House are some of the earliest indications of Hoban's and Latrobe's design. As was the case in many large homes, the domestic duties were carried out in the basement. America's presidential home has seen extensive remodeling inside and outside since these plans were presented. One of the most obvious changes happened during the presidency of Thomas Jefferson between 1801 and 1809. It was Jefferson who began to build the East and West Wings of the White House as service wings for a house growing in importance.

Disaster Strikes the White House

Illustration of the Burning of Washington, DC, in 1814 during the War of 1812
The Burning of Washington, D.C. by the British in 1814. Bettmann/Getty Images (cropped)

Only thirteen years after the Presidents' House was habitable, disaster struck. The War of 1812 brought invading British armies who set the house afire. The White House, along with the partially built Capitol, was destroyed in 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, D.C. With Latrobe's plans, Hoban oversaw the building of the graceful south portico in 1824 and the Greek Revival design of the north portico in 1829. This pediment roof supported by columns transforms the Georgian home into a neoclassical estate. The addition also changed the color of the house, because both porticos were made with red Seneca sandstone from Maryland.

The President's Backyard

Historic black and white photo of south lawn with grazing sheep
Sheep Grazing on White House Lawn c. 1900. Library of Congress/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.

Controversial Remodeling

historic black and white photo of holes drilled into the side of the White House before adding the second balcony on the southern portico
Construction of the Truman Balcony Within the South Portico, 1948. Bettmann/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.

The White House Today

Aerial view of large white mansion, large front portico, extended wings on either side, set within park-like setting with green grass and trees
The White House, Washington, D.C. Carol M. Highsmith/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.

This view of the White House is looking south, toward the Washington Monument, over the North Lawn and Pennsylvania Avenue in the foreground.  A circular driveway leads to the North Portico, considered the front entrance, where visiting dignitaries are greeted. In this photo, because we are looking south, the West Wing is the building on the right side of the photo. Since 1902, the President has been able to walk from the Executive House, along the West Wing Colonnade, around the Rose Garden, to work in the Oval Office located in the West Wing. The East Wing on the left-side in this photo is where the First Lady has her offices.

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 — and painted white.