North America, Sightseeing

The Construction of the White House from the First Brick Till Today

The White House is an American icon. From its classicly clean french doors to the stately interior, it is immediately recognizable. However, few know details about its construction and several reconstruction projects. Initial construction began on the famous building in 1792, and a mere eight years later, President John Adams was the first to live inside it. Since then, the White House has had several major reconstruction projects, including the following:

1. Initial Construction

An artist's interpretation of the construction in 1792. Credt: Smithsonian Institution

An artist’s interpretation of the construction in 1792. Credt: Smithsonian Institution

On October 13, 1792, the White House cornerstones were laid, marking the beginning of construction. The building was largely constructed by slaves and inexpensive laborers, such as freed African-Americans and immigrants. Due to shortages and funding issues, the original blueprints were downsized to create a building that was only one-fifth of the size for the planned mansion. Along with the budget cuts, the plan for ornamental brick was changed to an inexpensive brick that was whitewashed. It cost the nation $232,371.83 to build the White House, and it was declared ready for the president on November 1, 1800.  

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2. Fire

File Photo of White House Under Construction. Credit: National Archives

File Photo of White House Under Construction. Credit: National Archives

During the War of 1812, British troops set the White House on fire along with other important buildings in Washington. By the time the fire was extinguished, almost nothing remained of the building. President James Madison directed the reconstruction, which began in 1815 and ended in 1817. The new White House was built to be similar to the first one.

3. Interior Renovation

President Chester Arthur began major interior renovations in 1881. He sold 20 wagon-loads of historical items from the White House at a public auction, losing much of the artwork and furniture that had accumulated since it was rebuilt. He re-painted much of the building, and added gold leaf to ceilings. With an expensive taste but a small budget, he also constructed imitation marble columns.

4. Expansion of the West Wing

Construction of a new third floor and roof began in 1927. Steel beams provided new support for the eighteen guest and service rooms that were added in the expansion. In this image, a chute clears away debris from the construction. Credit: National Archives

Construction of a new third floor and roof began in 1927. Steel beams provided new support for the eighteen guest and service rooms that were added in the expansion. In this image, a chute clears away debris from the construction. Credit: National Archives

In 1901, President Theodore Roosevelt declared a case of severe overcrowding. He expanded the west wing and moved the offices into it. This left more room for the family apartment, and he expanded his living area. Just a few years later, President William Taft expanded the west wing further, adding the Oval Office to it. In 1929, a fire damaged the wing, requiring it to be rebuilt again.

5. Reconstruction

white_house_reconstruction

The White House as seen today.

After years of poorly-planned additions and a lack of general maintenance, the White House grew unstable. During President Harry Truman’s administration, it was decided to be ready to collapse around its wood frame. Out of necessity, President Truman moved out of the White House in 1949 to the Blair House residence and reconstruction began. The construction team installed new load-bearing walls and a steel frame, which required complete reconstruction of the rooms. At the same time, central air conditioning was installed, as were storage and bomb shelter spaces. The project took only three years to complete, and cost $5.7 million.

Preservation for the Future

Since the Truman reconstruction project, no significant work has been done to the White House. Almost every new presidential family redecorates and makes other minor changes to the family apartments, but major projects must be accepted by the Committee for the Preservation of the White House. This standard ensures that the White House will stand in its historical glory for future generations. Of course, renovations are necessary in every building, but the committee exists to preserve the White House as it is today.

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