If you walked into The White House today, you might think you were entering the mansion whose construction began in the 1790’s under the supervision of President George Washington. But in fact, except for the four exterior walls, today’s presidential residence is almost entirely a 1952 imitation of the original.
In 1947, the White House was in danger of internal physical collapse. One day, while President Harry S. Truman took a bath upstairs, a great Blue Room chandelier threatened to crash down on his wife, Bess, and her guests from the Daughters of the American Revolution. The president later joked that he might have unexpectedly dropped through the ceiling naked on the ladies below, and he confessed that the incident made him nervous. The upstairs floor, he noted, “sagged and moved like a ship at sea.”
Upon investigating the situation, Truman was told that hasty renovations, demanded by various impatient presidents in the past, had led to the weakening or removal of load-bearing walls and other supporting structures. Beams were “staying up from force of habit only,” he was informed, and the mansion had become a firetrap. Truman later wrote that with so many thousands of visitors and presidential guests, “My heart trembles when I think of the disasters we might have had.”
The following year, his daughter Margaret’s piano broke through the floor of the family quarters. In August, Truman recorded in his diary that with his wife away, he had been “moved into the Lincoln Room — for safety — imagine that!” He wrote to his sister that the White House was “about to fall in.” That November, after the president won a full term over Thomas E. Dewey, the first family was whisked across Pennsylvania Avenue to reside in the presidential guest quarters called Blair House.
Had someone other than Truman been president, there might be almost nothing left of the original White House today. The cheapest, most efficient solution was to build a whole new presidential mansion. Some even suggested a different Washington location on a tract of land larger than the current 18 acres, as would befit the commanding new post-World War II stature of the United States.
As one of the most voracious readers of history ever to serve as president, Truman recoiled from that prospect. He also felt that witnessing the old White House being torn to the ground would wound Americans’ psyches. He instead approved a plan to shore up the outer walls, tear out everything inside and install a new internal steel superstructure (“of skyscraper strength,” The Washington Evening Star said) above a large new, poured-concrete basement. (The basement included a shelter from nuclear attack, where President George W. Bush was taken on the evening of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.)
The historian in Truman consoled himself with the expectation that after the gut renovation, much of the original mansion — paneled walls, hardwood floors, ceiling fixtures and other decorations — could be grafted onto the new steel skeleton so that the White House would remain authentically historic.
After he took the nation to war in Korea in June 1950, costs for building materials and labor shot up and threatened to overrun the project’s budget, which was more than $5 million — nearly $50 million in today’s dollars. As Robert Klara writes in “The Hidden White House” (Macmillan, 2013), some artifacts and building elements taken out of the old White House and stored offsite during the renovation were sold off, given away or even taken to a trash dump.
Most of the important rooms in today’s White House are a simulation — although in many cases, a near exact one — of the rooms that John Adams and Abraham Lincoln knew. The result is that, as history, the executive mansion can be considered roughly akin to some of the buildings in the old Virginia capital, Colonial Williamsburg, whose restoration began in the late 1920s. They are historic in the sense that they conform to early blueprints and use some portions of the early structures, even though, in some cases, much of their construction took place in the 20th century.
Economics undermined Truman’s historical ambitions for the newly recreated White House in another way. As late as the mid-20th century, the mansion lacked much of a permanent collection of paintings and furniture connected to American presidents or vital moments in their history. As fashions changed in interior decoration, the old treasures had been dispersed.
With his renovation over the original budget, Truman and the commission that ran the project made a deal with the New York department store B. Altman & Company to fill the empty rooms — “at absolute cost” — with reproductions. As for other spaces of the mansion, ones away from public scrutiny, little effort was made to disguise the fact that they were completed in 1952. When Jacqueline Kennedy toured the mansion in December 1960 after her husband’s election victory, she became distraught. Referring to a dreary chain of city convention hotels, she observed that the ambience of the reconstructed White House was “early Statler.”
As Mrs. Kennedy pointed out, the White House is “the setting in which the presidency is presented to the world.” Thus she obtained expert help and appealed for donations of money and historical artifacts to help make the building, or at least its public floors, a treasure chest of American history. Her efforts were so successful (and enhanced by the work of later first families) that it is no wonder that someone visiting today’s White House might presume that the mansion has always been meticulously redolent of early American history.
But Mrs. Kennedy’s restoration left some backstage spaces in the White House untouched, and to this day those spaces look much as they did when created during the Truman renovation.
For example, adjoining the second-floor Treaty Room — which presidents from George H. W. Bush through Barack Obama have used as a home office — is a small, brightly lighted bathroom with exposed plumbing and a green-and-white checkerboard tile floor that looks as if it belonged to a 1952 hotel.