The White House seems like a building that’s just always been there: as long as there’s been a United States, there’s been a White House. But that’s far from the truth. It had to be built like every other building to ever exist and its story is an interesting slice of American history.
Pierre Charles L’Enfant, a former soldier on the American side of the Revolution, was the man originally commissioned to design Washington D.C., the Capitol Building and the White House. His designs were far more ostentatious than the city and buildings we have today, with an executive mansion that was supposed to be built on a ridge overlooking the Potomac and at a scale four times the size of the house we have today. His plans never came to fruition, though, because he was fired in February of 1792 after a fight with the commissioning board.
After L’Enfant’s firing, the design of the house was turned into a contest. Irishman James Hoban submitted the winning design, one that was heavily based on Leinster House, the home of the Irish Parliament in Dublin.
Changes and influences
Things were business as usual in the building until the War of 1812, when the British invasion and successful (at that point in the war) campaign beat American militias and brought the war to the White House’s doorstep. In 1814, the Brits torched the executive mansion, along with the rest of the city. Dolley Madison, James Madison’s First Lady, stayed in the White House up to almost the last minute, outlasting most of the city’s inhabitants, as well as her military guard. Most famously, she’s the one who saved George Washington’s enormous portrait from falling into the hands of the British. After the war, Hoban returned to rebuild the house.
That’s the most impactful event the building’s seen since the Civil War didn’t touch much of DC, despite its proximity to the Confederacy. The rest of the building’s existence has consisted of a handful of presidents and their expansions and renovations. John Quincy Adams added the North and South Porticoes, the Fillmores turned the second floor oval room into a library, and the Arthurs had Louis Tiffany redesign the east, blue, red, and state dining rooms. Taft’s expansion in 1909 created the Oval Office as we know it today, though the room itself was relocated to the southeast corner during FDR’s tenure. Teddy Roosevelt oversaw a major renovation, and it was around the same time that he coined the term “White House.”
The modern White House
The last major renovation happened under Truman’s administration, with the rebuilding and strengthening of the White House’s foundation. That project saw a huge renovation to the building’s interior as well, and Truman gave a televised tour of the results in 1952. Most presidents and their First Ladies will also do some of their own redecorating to make the place feel more like home. After all, it’s theirs for the next four years. Eight if the public likes them.