Travel – The United States Capitol

US Capitol Building

The U.S. Capitol is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Washington, D.C.  In this Travel Post I will discuss the history of the building and give a brief description of the various interior areas, such as the Rotunda where several Presidents have laid in state prior to their funerals, the Crypt which was originally instead as the burial site of the first President George Washington and the National Statuary Hall which holds numerous statues of prominent Americans.  To end this post, there is some fun trivia about the U.S. Capitol building.

A brief history of the U.S. Capitol

Once the permanent location of the Federal City (later to be known as Washington, D.C.) of the newly formed United States of America was determined, the site for the U.S. Capitol building was chosen to hold the legislative branches of the Federal Government, U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, and the judicial branch, the Supreme Court.  In 1792 the planning commission decided to hold a competition for the best building design and the winner was done by Dr. William Thornton, a Scottish physician living in the British West Indies.  Since Thornton an inexperienced architect, the construction would be directed by James Hoban, the designer of the President’s House (later to be known as the White House)

On September 18, 1793 the U.S. Capitol cornerstone was laid by President George Washington in an elaborate ceremony, a special commemorative metal plate also buried according to masonic traditions.  The festivities also included a parade, marching bands speeches and a pig barbecue for all those in attendance.  Special Notes: In the Cox Corridors of the House Wing of the U.S. Capitol Building there is a mural depicting the cornerstone laying ceremony, as shown in the photo above.

Capitol Cornerstone Ceremony Mural

The north wing of the Capitol was completed and the first session of Congress was held in the new building on November 17, 1800.  By 1803, construction on the south wing was started under the direction of Benjamin Henry Latrobe and when it was completed in 1813 a temporary wooden covered walkway connected the two wings.

US Capitol 1814

Then during the War of 1812, on August 24, 1814 British troops entered the city and set fire to many of the buildings of Washington, D.C. including the White House and the U.S. Capitol, luckily a sudden rainstorm prevented the city from being completely destroyed.  Repairs on the Capitol after the war ended and the anticipated plan was to join the two separate wings of the building with a domed center section in an architectural style that would be cohesive.

Special Note:  Held within the Capitol building was the small library which was for the special use of the members of U.S. Congress and the Supreme Court.  In 1802, President Jefferson signed legislation to establish a permanent building for the Library of Congress.  Unfortunately, before it could be built, the library was destroyed with other parts of the Capitol building.  Ultimately, Thomas Jefferson donated his personal book collection to replace the destroyed library and a permanent building was eventually completed in 1897.  (For more information on the Library of Congress, please click on the first of the three part series.

Meanwhile, since the number of US senators and representatives was increasing with the expanding size of the United States additional extensions were planned for both the north and south wings of the Capitol.  With these proposed renovations the height of the dome would appear out of proportion and plans were made to alter the size of the dome.  In 1856, the old dome was removed and work began on an updated replacement dome made of cast-iron that would be fireproof.  Then, with the onset of the Civil War in 1861, construction work on the Capitol extensions and dome were suspended while the building was used for military barracks and a hospital.  But a year later, President Lincoln firmly believed that the Union would ultimately survive and the construction on the Capitol resumed and were completed in 1868 after the end of the war.

Capitol - dome completed before statue

Over the following years, the Capitol building was periodically renovated and both the East and West Fronts were expanded, terraces were constructed and the surrounding grounds were landscaped by the famous Frederick Law Olmsted.  The Capitol measures 751 feet 4 inches in length from north to south, the width measure 350 feet in length and the height from the base of the east front to the top of the Statue of Freedom measures 288 feet.  There are six Congressional office buildings constructed in the immediate surrounding area which make up the Capitol extended complex on the appropriately named Capitol Hill.  As of 2014, a major restoration project was started on the Capitol dome and a massive scaffolding was erected, it is scheduled for completion in 2017.

U.S. Capitol Visitor Center

Visitors to the U.S. Capitol start their tours at the Capitol Visitor Center located in the area at the East Front of the Capitol.  The Visitor Center opened in December 2008 and it is an underground 580,000 square foot facility where all visitors are processed through a strict security checkpoint.  While visitors are waiting for their tours to start there are exhibits and displays, including a 10 foot model of the Capitol Dome, and an interesting view from overhead windows.  Also located in the Visitor Center Emancipation Hall is a plaster model of the Statue of Freedom which seats on the top of the Capitol Dome.  Before starting the tour of the Capitol, visitors will see a 13 minute film about the history of the U.S. Capitol and Congress.  The 450 seat Congressional theater as the Capitols venue for full-media governmental screenings and was designed for the joint session of Congress and special Library of Congress presentations.

Capitol Visitor Center - interior  Capitol Visitor Center - interior 2

Tours are available for free and tickets can be acquired in one of two ways.  Limited tickets are available at kiosks on the East and West Fronts of the Capitol or at the Information Desk at the Visitor Center.  Visitors can also book tickets in advance at www.visitthecapitol.gov or by contacting their local House of Representative or State Senator’s office or by phone at (202) 226-8000.  To watch Congress in Session, visitors can request House or Senate Gallery tickets through their Representative or Senator’s office.

A tour of the U.S. Capitol

The United States Capitol was built in a distinctive neoclassical style with a white exterior; the east front has an extended terrace which is the official reception area for dignitaries and visitors.  The Capitol is considered the center of Washington, D.C. and from the Rotunda the Senate chambers are to the north and the House of Representative chambers are to the south.

US Capital building - east front

The East Front

At the East Front of the Capitol are the 17 foot tall bronze doors known as the Columbus Doors.  The doors depict Christopher Columbus and his journey in discovering America; the doors were designed by Randolph Rogers and were cast in Munich in 1860.

Columbus Door

House of Representatives Chamber

The House of Representatives Chamber is the largest room in the Capitol and is located in the south wing where both the House and the Senate hold joint meetings.  Most visitors will recognize this room from the televised Presidential State of the Union addresses with the President standing at the podium on the raised dais, the Vice President seated behind on the left and the Speaker of the House seated on the right, the Chamber has 448 permanent seats arranged in a semicircle facing the Speaker’s rostrum and there is an upper gallery which surrounds the room and is where visitors and the press sit.  The Chamber has a Daniel Webster quote etched in the marble surrounding the walls, there are also twenty-three relief portraits of famous lawmakers throughout history.

Capitol House Chamber

National Statuary Hall

The National Statuary Hall is located in the south wing of the Capitol and was the original House Chamber.  Around the perimeter of the semicircular high-ceiling room are several large Breccia marble columns, quarried from the nearby Potomac River, and each is topped with white marble Corinthian capitals which were carved in Italy.  In a niche above the colonnade is an Enrico Causici plaster statue, Liberty and the Eagle and in the frieze below that is an eagle sandstone relief figurine.  Above the door leading into the Capitol Rotunda is a large marble sculpture which depicts Clio riding the chariot of Time with the wheel of the chariot containing the Chamber’s clock.

National Statuary Hall - Liberty the eagle and the serpent  National Statuary Hall - Car of History

In 1976, the National Statuary Hall underwent an extensive restoration in preparation for the Nation’s bicentennial celebrations.  Based on the 1822 Smauel F.B. Morse painting, The House of Representatives which currently hangs in the nearby Cororan Gallery of Art, the room received new reproduction chandeliers, sconces and deep red draperies.  Bronze markers were placed on the black and white marble patterned floor marking the locations were former presidents sat when they served in the House.

National Statuary Hall - right  National Statuary Hall - left

The highlights of the room are the numerous statues which were originally donated by each of the fifty states which initially submitted two statues to honor their notable historical citizens.  Throughout the years, additional statues were added to the collection and ultimately Congress authorized that the statues could be displayed in other areas of the Capitol, such as the Emancipation Hall and the Hall of Columns.  Recently two more statues joined the collection; the statue of former President Ronald Reagan in 2009 which sits in the Capitol Rotunda and the Rosa Parks statue in February 2013 which sits in the National Statuary Hall.  Special Note:  The King Kamehameha I statue was donated by the state of Hawaii; it is the largest statue in the collection.  The bronze statue is 9.5” tall and placed on a 4.5”granite base, the combined weight of both is approximately 15,000 pounds.

The Rotunda

The Rotunda is situated in the center of the Capitol building, the circular room measures 96 feet in diameter and soars to a height of 180 feet from the floor to the interior of the dome.  The interior dome features the “Apotheosis of Washington” mural painted by Brumidi.  The first President of the United States is depicted as a seemingly Roman or Greek god ascending to the heavens surrounded by 13 goddesses.  At the base of the dome is a frieze depicting the history of United States arranged in chronological order, such as Christopher Columbus “discovering” America, the Pilgrims, Pocahontas and the first flight the Wright Brothers.   In the Rotunda there are also several notable paintings, on the west side is the “Declaration of Independence”, the “Surrender of Lord Cornwallis”, and the “George Washington Resigning His Commission”.  The “First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation by President Lincoln” hangs over the west staircase leading to the Senate wing.

Great Rotunda  Capitol Dome - Apotheosis of George Washington

The Rotunda is also the location where eleven former Presidents, several Senators and Supreme Court Justices have been granted the highest honor to be laid in state, the last president to lay in state was Gerald Ford in 2006.  Exceptions have been made and with Congressional approval citizens such as Rosa Park was allow the privilege in October 2005.

The Capitol Dome

The Capitol Dome is located on the exterior of the Rotunda with the Statue of Freedom set on top.  The Dome was constructed between 1855 and 1866 and although it appears to be made of stone it is made of 8,909,200 pounds of cast iron and painted to match the stone of the building.  The architect of the Dome, Thomas Walter, based his design on several other famous domes, St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.  The Dome is constructed as two structures, the exterior dome which rises to the height of 288 feet and the interior dome which measures 180 feet from the Rotunda floor, as shown in the drawing below.

Capitol Dome drawing

The bronze statue at the top is known as the Statue of Freedom and the Dome plans had to be altered to hold the weight of the statue which is 15,000.  The statue is 191/2 feet tall and depicts a female figure wearing a military helmet with points tipped with platinum and a crest of eagle feathers, in her right hand is a sheathed sword in her right hand and a laurel wreath and shield is in her left hand.  The statue is set on a cat iron globe with the national motto E pluribus Unum (Out of many, one)

Capitol dome lantern - exterior

Through the years, the Capitol Dome has undergone several restorations; the most recent is an extensive restoration which started with scaffolding being erected around the Dome in November 2014.  The project will involve both interior work to the Rotunda and the exterior of the Dome to repair the iron structure, repainting the exterior Dome and the installation of new lighting.  The restoration is schedule to be completed and the scaffolding removed in time for the 2017 presidential inauguration.

Old Senate Chamber

The Old Senate Chamber was used by the U.S. Senate from 1819 until 1859 when the larger Senate Chamber was built as part of the Capitol extension and then the room was used by the U.S. Supreme Court from 1860 until 1935 when the Supreme Court Building was built nearby on Capitol Hill.  Today, the 75 foot diameter semi-circular room is used as a museum.

Old Senate Chamber

Senate Chamber

The Senate Chamber has been continuously used by the U.S. Senate since 1859 and is located in the north wing of the Capitol.  The two story rectangular room is 80 feet by 113 feet and holds 100 desks (one for each Senator) are arranged in a semicircle facing the dais; the Democratic Senators sit to the right and the Republican Senators to the left.  Items of note are the white marble busts of the former Presidents of the Senate (a position held by the Vice Presidents of the United States)

Senate Chamber

Brumidi Corridors

Located on the first floor of the north wing of the Capitol is the beautiful vaulted Brumidi Corridors.  Constantino Brumidi designed the elaborately decorated hallways with murals depicting various people and events in the history of the United States; such as Benjamin Franklin and the Cession of Louisiana.  The walls are beautifully painted with animals, insects, plants and flowers indigenous to the United States.  Later, additional moments in US history have been added; such as the voyage of the Spirit of St. Louis, the Moon landing by Apollo 11 and the crew of the “Challenger” Space Shuttle.

Brumidi Corridors 2

The Crypt

Located on the basement floor directly under the Rotunda is the Crypt.  This area of the Capitol was originally intended to be the final resting place of the first President of the United State, George Washington, but according to his wishes as stipulated in his will be is buried at Mount Vernon.

Capitol Crypt

The West Front

The West Front of the Capitol is located facing the Mall area of Washington D.C., the Lincoln Memorial is located at the opposite end of the Mall.  The West Front has become the location of the presidential inaugurations which is traditionally held every four years on January 20 (or the 21st if the 20th is a Sunday).  The first inauguration ceremony to take place at the West Front of the Capitol was the 1981 inauguration of Ronald Reagan; his second term inauguration took place the Rotunda of the Capitol due to cold weather.

Capitol - inaguration day

U.S. Capitol Grounds

Capitol Hill is the location of the U.S. Capitol; in addition to the Capitol building and Capitol Visitor Center there are six Congressional office buildings, the Supreme Court building, the Library of Congress three buildings and the U.S. Botanic Garden and Conservatory.  The Capitol Grounds cover approximately 274 acres are were designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, planted from 1874 to 1892 with more than 100 varieties of plants and trees and an impressive array of seasonal flowers.  The U.S. Botanic Garden and Conservatory and the admission is free and a wonderful place to visit at any time of the year, for more visitor information please click on the link to their website www.usbg.gov/

Interesting U.S. Capitol facts and trivia

  • The National Capitol Columns were originally used at the old East Portico and removed during the Capitol expansion in 1958, the old quarry identification marks are still on some of the columns.   Twenty-two of the original 24 Capitol Columns were relocated to the National Arboretum and placed in the Ellipse Meadow 1984 (the other two columns were placed at the top of Mount Hamilton, both were damaged and had neither a base or a capitol).  The stone foundation for the Columns was originally used as the steps on the east side of the Capitol with flowing water that runs down a channel into a small reflecting pool.

Capitol Columns

  • The US Capitol has a private subway station; it was built in 1909 to link the Russell Senate Office Building to the Capitol and requires a Capitol staff ID.  An additional subway line takes the Senators, Representatives and Capitol staff to the Hart and Dirksen buildings.

Capitol subway

  • The Congressional Chapel was opened in the Capitol in 1955 and is located near the Rotunda, it is available for the use of members of Congress who seek a quiet place for meditation or prayer and not open to visitors.  The Chapel is a non-partisan design so that it could be used by any Senator or Representative regardless of his or her faith.  The room’s main feature is a stained glass window of President George Washington kneeling in prayer, with the words from Psalm 16:1, “Preserve me, O God, for in thee do I put my trust,” and also included are the words, “This Nation under God”, from President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

Capitol chapel

  • Back in 1859, most of the members of Congress lived in boarding houses with no running water, so the decision was made to install several bathtubs as well as a barbershop.  The bathtubs were carved from a single piece of marble and shipped from Italy.  After the installation of modern plumbing throughout Washington, the bathtubs were no longer needed or used and currently the water supply has been cut off.

Capitol bathtubs

  • At any given time, several United States flags fly over the Capitol building and the flags have been flown continuously day and night since World War I.  Two flagpoles are located at the base of the Capitol Dome on both the East and the West sides.  Two other flagpoles are located above the North Wing (the Senate side) and the South Wing (the House side) and are flown only when the Congress is in session.  There are also several additional flagpoles located west of the Dome and are not visible from the ground, these flagpoles are used to meet the congressional requests for flags flown over the Capitol.  Special Note: U.S. flags flown over the Capitol can be order through your local Congress member to commemorate specific events, such as the death of a veteran.  Personal Note: When we visited in Washington D.C. in 2002 we ordered a flag flown on the day we would be visiting the U.S. Capitol, it makes a wonderful and relatively inexpensive souvenir!

Capitol with flag

Travel – The Washington Monument

Washington Mounument - aerial view

In honor of George Washington’s birthday in February, this Travel post will be about the Washington Monument located on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.  The Washington Monument was built to commemorate the first President of the United States and it measures 555 feet 5 inches tall making it the world’s tallest obelisk.

Shortly after his death in 1799, Congress authorized the building of a memorial to George Washington in the newly built national capital.  The public greatly admired Washington for his military service during the American Revolution and for his political service to the newly formed country that had recently fought for their independence from Britain.  Washington was such a strong force in the Federalist Party and the Democratic-Republican Party, which had gained control of the Congress in 1801, opposed building the monument.  Eventually in 1832 the project started to move forward when the Washington National Monument Society was formed.  By 1836 funds were raised and a design competition was announced.  The architect chosen was Robert Mills and the design he proposed was an obelisk, a four sided tall pillar, with a flat top.  Surrounding the structure would be a circular colonnade which would be topped with a majestic statue of Washington standing on a chariot and in addition there would be 30 more statues of Revolutionary War heroes.  It was an ambitious plan and the elaborate memorial would be a very expensive to construct so the committee decided to start by building only the obelisk.

Washington Mounument - original design

The original site of the monument was moved when the area proved to be unstable and could not hold the weight of the finished structure.  Construction on the monument started in 1848 with the laying of the cornerstone at the northeast corner of the memorial in a special Fourth of July ceremony.  The 24,500 pound marble cornerstone measures 2.5 feet high by 6.5 feet square and was set into the foundation in a solemn ceremony using George Washington’s Masonic gavel.  Within the cornerstone was a hole which was large enough for a zinc case that was filled with special memorabilia pertaining to both George Washington and the city of Washington, D.C.  There were 73 items such as the design plans for the memorial, 71 newspapers and other publications, several sets of coins, and a bible.

Washington Mounument - laying the cornerstone

Unfortunately, the construction of the memorial came to a halt in 1854 due to problems with the committee, lack of funds and the start of the Civil War.  At that time the monument had only reached a height of 152 feet when the project was abandoned for the next few years.  When construction resumed after the war, there was a distinctive difference in the shading of the marble of the obelisk.

Washington Mounument - construction 1860

During the course of the building of the monument all 50 states, several individual cities,  foreign countries, organizations and even some individuals contributed almost 200 memorial stones that have been incorporated into the east and west interior walls of the structure.  The memorial stones are made of a variety of materials; such as marble, granite, limestone and sandstone.  Some more unique materials include one made of copper from Michigan, petrified wood from Arizona and jade from Alaska.  The memorial stones also range in size from small 1.5 feet square blocks to larger ones measure about 6 feet by 8 feet.  (Travel Note: The memorial stones can be viewed from various locations within the Washington Monument)

The monument was completed in 1884 and the top design was changed from a flat one to a pointed one.  The uppermost top piece (the pyramidion or captstone) is made of 100 ounces of aluminum which acted as the original lightning rod for the monument, at the time aluminum was a rare metal which was as valuable as silver.  The four panels of the capstone are etched with several different inscriptions, one of them reads “Laus Deo” meaning Praise be to God.  A wide copper band encircles the bottom of the uppermost top piece and holds eight vertical lightning rods.  The capstone also has a large hole at the base where a 1.5 inch diameter copper rod can be attached as part of the lightning rod system.

Washington Monument 1884    Washington Mounument - capstone with lightning rods

Located at the base of Washington Monument and evenly spaced around the 260 foot diameter circle are fifty 25 foot tall aluminum flag poles which fly the American flags and represent the 50 states.  In the past, the flags were removed and stored overnight but since 1971 the flags remain on display 24 hours a day.

Washington Mounument - flags

Most recently, in August 2011 the Washington Monument sustained damage from an earthquake that had an epicenter in nearby Virginia.  Engineering firms were brought in to assess the monument and the decision was made to close access until the extent of the damage could be determined.  The pyramidion was dislodged and there was a 4 foot long crack, several pieces of stone and mortar had fallen within the interior, the elevator was damaged and not functioning properly and there were additional cracks on the exterior of the monument.

In July 2012, the National Park Service announced the monument closure for extensive repairs that would take two years to complete.  A portion of the plaza at the base of the monument was removed to allow better access to build scaffolding around the exterior for the renovation project.  The NPS reopened the Washington Monument when the repairs were completed in May 2014.

View of the Lincoln Memorial from the top of the Washington Monument

View of the Lincoln Memorial from the top of the Washington Monument

View of the White House from the top of the Washington Mounument

View of the White House from the top of the Washington Monument

View of the Capitol Building from the top of the Washington Monument

View of the Capitol Building from the top of the Washington Monument

The Washington Monument is one of the most popular sites for visitors to Washington, D.C.  Visitors have come to climb the 898 stairs for spectacular views over the city and eventually the service elevator, which was originally used to carry building materials during the construction of the monument, now carries visitors to the top.  The monument was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on October 15, 1966.  The National Park Service administrates the Washington Monument as well as other historic sites within in the city of Washington, D.C.  For more detailed information about planning a visit to the Washington Monument, including ticket information, please see the National Park Service website at www.nps.gov/wamo

Travel – The White House (Part Three)

Previously, in Part One of the three part series on the White House I discussed the history and the construction of the White House.  Part Two gave a tour of the various rooms of the State Floor of the White Floor, such as the East Room and Blue Room.  In this post I will give a tour of some of the rooms on the second floor of the White House where the famous Lincoln Bedroom is located and the West Wing which is where the Oval Office is located.

Throughout the years constant changes have been made to both the interior and exterior of the White House.  One of the most significant changes to the White House was in 1902 when an addition was built to accommodate separate offices for the President and his staff.  The three story building known as the West Wing is located adjacent to the White House and this directly caused a significant change to lives of the President within the White House.  By moving the presidential offices outside the main building it allowed the second floor of the White House to become the private residence of the President and his family during their term in office.   Some of the rooms on the second floor of the White House are also maintained for their historical importance, such as the famous Lincoln Bedroom.

So, let’s get started on a tour of the second floor of the White House.

Second floor of the White House

As previously mentioned, the second floor of the White House is the private residence of the President and his family.  There are a total of 16 rooms on the second floor and must be accessed from a long main corridor.  There are several private bedrooms for the President and his family, several guest bedrooms with adjacent sitting rooms and there are 6 bathrooms, a large reception room, a more private living room and a small private dining room with an adjacent kitchen.  In general most of the rooms on the second floor are very large with 12 foot ceilings.  Each presidential family has made renovations or have redecorated the second floor of the White House to reflect their personal style.  Usually the President and his family will also bring personal items from their private homes to create an environment that is comfortable for them.

White House -  floor plan - second floor

Lincoln Bedroom –

One of the most famous rooms on the second floor of the White House is the Lincoln Bedroom.  President Abraham Lincoln did not use this room as a bedroom but as an office.  The bedroom that Lincoln actually used during his time in the White House was previously located on the northwest side of the second floor but during the extensive Truman reconstruction of the White House the room was converted into the current Private Dining Room and Family Kitchen.

During the time that Lincoln used the room as an office the walls had dark green wallpaper and there was a dark green carpet on the floor.  Hung on the walls of the room were various maps that were used to plan military strategy during the Civil War and newspapers, documents and mail were piled on the desk and tables.  The room holds great historical significance because it was used when President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1893.

The Lincoln Bedroom and adjacent sitting room are decorated in a Victorian style.  The main feature is the large bed is made of rosewood which measures eight feet by six feet and has an elaborate carved headboard which is currently displayed with a reproduction of the original decorative bed canopy.  The bed was believed to have been purchased by First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln but unfortunately there is no documented proof that President Lincoln actually used the bed.  The Lincoln bedroom is furnished with two sofas and three matching chairs but the most notable item in the room is the holograph copy of the Gettysburg Address that is on display on the desk, it is one of five copies that are signed by Lincoln.

Like many rooms in the White House, the Lincoln Bedroom has renovated several times by recent administrations but always in the distinctive Victorian style.  Currently the wallpaper on the walls is a cream colored diamond pattern and the lace, silk and velvet drapes used with the bed canopy were inspired by 19th century photographs.  A gilded window valance in a Rococo Revival style compliments the bed canopy and new gold draperies were also installed at the windows.

White House  - Lincoln Bedroom

Queen’s Bedroom –

The Queen’s Bedroom is located across the hall from the Lincoln Bedroom on the second floor of the White House.  The room received its name from the various royal guests, such as Queen Elizabeth II, that have stayed in the room.  In prior administrations the room was used as a bedroom for private secretaries and the children of the President, the room was previously known as the Rose Room.  Currently the Queen’s Bedroom is furnished in the Federal style with a bed that once belonged to President Andrew Jackson.

White House  - Queen's Bedroom

Treaty Room –

The Treaty Room is located next to the Lincoln Bedroom and is traditionally used as a private study for the President.  The room has been the setting for several historical events, such as the signing of the peace treaty to end the Spanish-American War on August 12, 1898 by President McKinley, in 1963 President Kennedy signed the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and on October 7, 2001 President Bush addressed the nation to announce the start of the Afghanistan War.

Currently the walls of the Treaty Room are painted an off-white color and the room is decorated with olive green velvet draperies and a Victorian crystal chandelier.  Until recently a large oil painting called “The Peacemakers” by George Healy hung in the Treaty Room, it depicted a meeting in 1865 during the Civil War between President Lincoln, General Ulysses Grant and General Sherman.  The painting was moved during the Obama administration to the Private Dining Room down the hall from the Treaty Room.

White House  - Treaty Room

Yellow Oval Room –

The Yellow Oval Room is located in the center of the second floor of the White House and has three large windows and a door that leads to the Truman Balcony.  A set of double doors lead into the President’s private bedroom suite.  During past administrations the room has been used as a library, office and parlor.  In recent years the room has been used for smaller intimate receptions and primarily for greeting visiting heads of state before proceeding down to the State Dinner.

Here are some interesting facts about the Yellow Oval Room – First Lady Dolley Madison was the first to decorate the room in yellow damask.  During the Harrison administration the first White House Christmas tree was placed in the room.  President Roosevelt was in the room when he learned about the Pearl Harbor attack.  After the Kennedy renovation of the White House the room was officially designated as the Yellow Oval Room.

The Yellow Oval Room is frequently redecorated by the presidential family but throughout the years the room’s main color scheme has remained various shades of yellow.  The furnishings are in the Louis XVI style with two comfortable sofas, several armchairs, a large Empire chandelier and a collection of antiques.

White House  - Yellow Oval Room

Truman Balcony –

The Truman Balcony is a relatively new feature to the White House and it completed in 1948 during the Truman administration. (hence the name!) When the balcony was proposed the intent was to provide shade to the South Portico and eliminate the awnings that President Truman felt were an eyesore.  The critics felt that the columns required to support the balcony would compromise the architectural style of the White House.  When the balcony was finished the critics changed their minds and felt that it actually improved the appearance of the south side of the White House.  Since the 1950s every President and his family have enjoyed the privacy of the balcony and it is used frequently for small informal gatherings.

White House - view from the Truman Balcony

West Wing

The West Wing is a three story Executive Office Building which is part of the White House Complex.  The West Wing contains the Oval Office of the President of the United States, the Cabinet Room and the Situation Room and the offices of the presidential staff.  The Press Briefing Room is adjacent to both the West Wing and the White White.

White House  - floor plan - West Wing

When the White House was first built in 1800 the President and his staff worked on the second floor.  During the Roosevelt administration, the presidential staff had grown so large that the rooms in the White House proved to be insufficient.  In 1902, the first West Wing was built on the grounds of the White House where the greenhouse and stables were formerly located.  In 1909, during the Taft administration, the West Wing was enlarged and took over the area of the tennis court.  At that time the first Oval Office was built in the center section of the new addition and was designed to duplicate the shape of the oval rooms of the White House.  In 1929, the next addition added a basement to the West Wing but unfortunately that same year an electrical fire severely damaged the building.  During the Franklin Roosevelt administration the West Wing was completely redesigned in 1933, more office space, a new Cabinet Room and the Oval Office was move to a different location in the building to allow for more privacy for the President.  Since this final renovation the Eisenhower Executive Office Building took over the space of the former State and War Department Buildings.

Special Note:  In the Roosevelt Room located in the West Wing there is a tradition that when a Democratic President is in office the portrait of Franklin Roosevelt hangs over the mantel and when a Republican President is in office the portrait is replaced by one of Theodore Roosevelt.

During the Franklin Roosevelt administration a swimming pool was built so that President Roosevelt could exercise as therapy for his disability related to polio, President Kennedy also used the pool several times a day to relieve the pain in his back.  During the Nixon administration, the swimming pool was covered over permanently and a new Press Briefing Room was built in its place and it is where the White House Press Secretary gives a daily briefings.

Oval Office –

The Oval Office is located in the West Wing and it is the official office of the President of the United States.  The room dimensions are approximately 35 feet by 29 feet and the ceiling height is 18 feet.  There are three large windows on the south side and on the north side there is a fireplace.  The east door opens out to the Rose Garden, the west door into a private study, another door opens to the office of the President’s secretary and the last door opens directly into the main hallway of the West Wing.

The tradition of the shape of the Oval Office dates back to when George Washington was first elected and he moved into the President’s House in Philadelphia.  He immediately requested that the straight rear wall of the reception room be rebuilt in a semi-circular shape to create a more hospitable room for entertaining.  When the federal government moved to Washington D.C. and the White House was specifically designed to incorporate an oval-shaped room.  There are actually several oval shaped rooms in the White House, the Blue Room on the State floor which was used for receptions and the Yellow Oval Room on the second floor.  When the West Wing was renovated in 1909 the Oval Office was built as the President’s office to replicate the shaped of the ones in the White House.

Every President will traditionally have the Oval Office redecorated at the start of their administration and will select the furniture, drapes and carpet to suit their needs and personal decorating style.  The President will also have access to a wide selection of historical artwork and decorative items they can select from the White House collection or can be loaned from museums.

In general, the room is usually furnished with two sofas, several chairs, a coffee table and side tables with lamps.  One of the main features of the room is the Presidential Seal ceiling medallion and the room is lite by light bulbs hidden within the cornice surrounding the room giving the ceiling a wonderful glow.  Another feature that bears the Presidential seal is the oval carpet used in the room.  President Truman had the first one made for the Oval Office and it was used by both President Eisenhower and President Kennedy.  Recently, most incoming Presidents will have their own carpet made to their specifications and when they leave office it will eventually be installed in their presidential libraries.

White House - Oval Office

Another item that an incoming President will select is the desk that they will use in the Oval Office.  There have been six different desks used throughout the years but the one used most frequently is the famous Resolute Desk.  The British frigate, HMS Resolute, had become stuck in the frozen ice of the Arctic and it was abandoned.  After it was recovered by an American seaman, it was refurbished and presented as a gift from the United States to Queen Victoria in 1856.  It remained in service by the British Navy until 1879.  After it was decommissioned, Queen Victoria ordered two matching desks made from the wood of the frigate.  The Queen kept one for her use at Buckingham Palace and the other was given to President Rutherford Hayes in 1880.  When President Franklin Roosevelt used the deck he ordered a panel carved with the Presidential Seal to make the fact that he was in a wheelchair less noticeable.  Of course, there is a famous photo of John Kennedy Jr. peeking through the panel when he visited his father, President Kennedy, in the Oval Office.

Resolute Desk 2009    Resolute Desk- President Kennedy and John-John

Here are some historical events that have been televised from the Oval Office – In 1962, President Kennedy addressed the nation about the Cuban Missile Crisis.  In 1974, President Nixon announced his resignation.  In 1986, President Reagan addressed the nation following the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster.  In 2001, President George W. Bush spoke to the nation on the evening of September 11.

This concludes the tour of the White House.  For more information please click on the other two posts of the three part series on the White House.  In Part One of the series I discussed the history and the construction of the White House.  Part Two gives a tour of the various rooms of the State Floor of the White Floor, such as the East Room and Blue Room.

White House Trivia

  • The White House has 6 different floors, the Ground Floor, the State Floor, the Second Floor (which is the President’s private residence), the Three Floor and two basement levels.
  • The White House has 132 rooms, 35 bathrooms.  There are 412 doors, 147 windows, 28 fireplaces, 8 staircases and 3 elevators.
  • It takes 570 gallons of “Whisper White” Duron paint to cover the exterior of the White House.
  • George Washington might have slept in a lot of different places when he toured the country after being elected the first President of the United States but he is the only president to have never slept in the White House.
  • The White House was the largest house in the United States until after the Civil War.
  • The White House has been known by many names, such as the President’s House and Executive Mansion.  It officially became known as the White House during the Theodore Roosevelt administration and all official government correspondence started to use the name.
  • The White House first had interior running water in 1833, a central heating system was installed in 1837 and electricity was first installed in 1891.
  • The White House Complex covers 18 acres and a crew of 13 full-time staff maintains the grounds and the gardens.
  • The White House was designated a National Landmark in 1960.
  • The famous portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart is the old furnishing in the White House
  • The White House appears on the back of the $20 bill.

(For information about the two additional presidential landmarks located in Washington, D.C. which were featured this month, please click on the links to the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument)

Travel – The White House (Part Two)

White House exterior 2

In honor of President’s Day, this post is about the White House (previously known as the President’s House) which has been the official residence of every President of the United States since 1800.  Part One of the three part series on the White House discussed the history and the construction of the White House.  Part Two will give a tour of the various rooms of the State Floor of the White Floor, such as the East Room and Blue Room.  In Part Three I will continue with a tour of the second floor of the White House where the famous Lincoln Bedroom is located and the Oval Office which is located in the West Wing of the White House and is the official office of the President.

The White House was constructed between 1792 and 1800 in the newly established Federal City (later known as Washington, D.C.) which was being master planned by Pierre Charles L’Enfant.  The White House is currently a three story building with two basements.  From the north side it appears as if the building has only two floors because the ground floor is hidden by a parapet and a raised former carriage ramp. The North Portico was added in 1830 and it blends perfectly with the Federal Style of the building, this is considered the main entrance to the White House.  From the south side all three floors are exposed and the façade has a distinctive Palladian style of architecture with the South Portico which is a bow shaped section that has a double staircase leading from the ground floor to a loggia on the State floor level with the Truman Balcony above on the second floor.

White House exterior 1

The White House is not only the official residence of every President since John Adams but it is also where the executive offices of the President of the United States.  Over the years, the executive offices have been moved into the West Wing of the White House allowing the President and his family to live “privately” in the rooms on the second and third floors while the main floor remains a series of State Rooms.  The State Rooms of the White House hold a collection of antique or reproduction furniture, historic paintings and decorative objects of art that have been acquired over the years.  These are the rooms that visitors will see on an official tour of the White House which are led by informed guides that explain the history of the building and the various occupants that have lived there throughout the years including the current and previous presidential administrations.  (For more information on the history of the White House, please click on the link to the Travel post White House – Part One)

A tour of the White House

The White House has six different levels: the Ground Floor, the State Floor which has the official State Rooms, the Second Floor which is considered the President’s private residence, the Third Floor which includes guest bedrooms and the solarium and two levels of basement rooms.  Two colonnades on either side of the main building lead to the West and East Wings.  In this post I will be discussing the State Rooms on the State Floor of the White House, some of the rooms on the Second Floor and a brief description of the West Wing which includes the Oval Office.

White House  - floor plan - State floor

State Floor of the White House

Entrance Hall –

The Entrance Hall is considered the main entrance into the White House and is directly accessed through the North Portico, although visitors taking a White House tour usually enter on the ground floor.  The Entrance Hall is a large formal foyer which measures 31 feet by 44 feet and is tiled with pink and white marble and is divided from the Cross Hall by a series of column.  The room is furnished with several pieces of early 19th century gilded Empire style furniture, a pair of carved mahogany French settees and a French pier table which was originally purchased by President Monroe in 1917.  Hung on the wall of the Entrance Hall are two presidential portraits, one of George H.W. Bush by Herbert E. Abrams and the other one is of John F. Kennedy by Aaron Shikler.  (Visitors on the White House tour will note that several portrait paintings of former Presidents and First Ladies can be seen throughout the White House and will be noted in the appropriate rooms described in this post)

White House - Entrance hall

The Grand Staircase is positioned directly across from the Green Room and during the extensive renovation of the White House in 1948-52 the stairway was enlarged and altered to open into the Entrance Hall.  The stairway has a beautiful English cut-glass chandelier and several presidential portraits hang on the walls – Harry Truman by Greta Kempton, Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon by J Anthony Wills, Herbert Hoover by Elmer W. Greene and Warren Harding by Bror Kronstrand.  The Grand Staircase is often seen on television during formal ceremonial occasions such as State Dinners.  Prior to the dinner, the President has a small gathering for the guests of honor on the second floor Yellow Oval Room and then they will descend the stairs and proceed into the East Room where the other guests are gathered.

Cross Hall –

The Cross Hall is located adjacent to the Entrance Hall and is basically a long open hallway which measures 18 feet by 80 feet.  The floor is tiled in gray marble and covered with a long red carpet trimmed with a gold border of laurel leaves and five-pointed stars.  The Cross Hall has several gilded chairs and settees upholstered in red fabric and set and these are set against the walls of the hallway.  This area of the White House is often seen on television when the President makes official announcements and speeches to the nation.

White House  - Cross Hall

East Room –

The East Room of the White House is a large room, 80 feet by 37 feet with a 22 feet high ceiling, where many official ceremonies, receptions, concerts and State Dinners have taken place throughout the years.  The room has been used by First Lady Abigail Adams to hang the laundry, Meriwether Lewis (the private Secretary of President Thomas Jefferson and leader of famous Lewis and Clark Expedition) used a portion of the room as his bedroom and President James Madison used the room for cabinet meetings.  Hanging in the East Room is the portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart which was rescued in 1814 when the British set fire to the White House during the War of 1812 and was returned later when the building was rebuilt after the war.  Also in this room hangs a portrait of Martha Washington by Eliphant Frazer Andrews.

In 1829, President Andrew Jackson finally completed and decorated the East Room with 24 mahogany armchairs and 4 sofas which were originally purchased by President James Monroe, currently they are upholstered in blue damask silk.  The room was finished with a plaster frieze and three medallions from which three large cut-glass chandeliers were hung, later these were moved to the State Dining Room.  The White House underwent a complete reconstruction during the Truman administration when it was determined that the building was structurally damaged and the rooms of the White House were completely rebuilt and redecorated in 1948 to 1952.  Later, during the Kennedy administration, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy had the White House extensively renovated, decorated and refurbished but very few changes were made to the East Room.  The floor, wall paneling and plaster work was renovated during the Reagan administration, new carpets were designed and installed during the Clinton administration and the East Room was repainted in a soft cream color  and new draperies were installed during the Bush administration.

White House  - East Room

The East Room of the White House has been used for many historical and important events; here is a list of some of those:

  • Eight Presidents that have died while in office have been laid in state in the East Room; William Harrison in 1841, Zachary Taylor in 1850, Abraham Lincoln in 1865, William McKinley in 1901, Warren Harding in 1923, Franklin Roosevelt in 1945 and John Kennedy in 1963.
  • There have been several weddings of President’s daughter celebrated in the East Room; Elizabeth (daughter of John Tyler) married William Waller in 1842, Nellie Grant (daughter of Ulysses Grant) married Algernon Sartois in 1875, Alice (daughter of Theodore Roosevelt) married Nicholas Longworth in 1906, Jessie (daughter of Woodrow Wilson) married Francis Sayre in 1913 and Lynda Bird (daughter of Lyndon Johnson married Chuck Robb in 1967.
  • President Dwight Eisenhower took the presidential oath of office in the East Room on January 20, 1957.  The U.S. Constitution requires the oath to be administered at exactly noon on January 20 and in 1957 the date fell on a Sunday and Eisenhower decided to take the oath privately and the following day a public inauguration was held.

Green Room –

The Green Room is located next to the East Room; the room is approximately 28 feet by 22 feet and can be entered from the Cross Hall, the East Room, the Blue Room and the South Portico.  The room was originally intended to be a small dining room and is currently used today for small receptions, formal teas and one of the rooms that that cocktails are served to guests before a State Dinner.

The room has traditionally been decorated in shades of green and throughout the years it has contained French Empire furnishings purchased by President James Madison, then heavily decorated with Victorian furniture and decorative items during the 1900s and eventually replaced with much simpler Colonial Revival furnishings.  After the Kennedy restoration, the Green Room was redecorated in the Federal Style with antique and historical pieces, the walls were covered with a moss green silk and the carpet was changed to a softer neoclassical one in shades of taupe, sage green and pink.  During the Nixon administration the room was renovated with period crown molding and ceiling medallions and decorated with new draperies in striped cream, green and coral silk satin, gilded cornices were installed above the windows to add height to the room and they were topped with hand-carved gilded American eagles.  Today the room is decorated with a darker shade of silk moiré wallpaper, the draperies were replaced with ones of a similar style in darker colors, the carpet was also changed and the current Duncan Phyfe sofa and chairs are upholstered in a rich coral color.

White House - Green room

Blue Room –

The Blue Room is located between the Green and the Red Rooms and is used for formal receiving lines, receptions and occasionally for smaller intimate dinners.  The oval shaped room is approximately 30 feet by 40 feet and has six doors that access the Cross Hall, the Green Room, the Red Room and the South Portico.  The original design of the White House had the Blue Room as the south entrance hall but during the Truman administration extensive reconstruction the Truman Balcony was built onto the second floor and it now provides shade to the South Portico and the interior of the Blue Room.  The Blue Room has the distinction of being the setting for the only wedding of a United States President during their term in office; Grover Cleveland married Frances Folsom in the Blue Room on June 2, 1886.

The Blue Room is traditionally decorated in shades of blue, and like the other State Rooms in the White House, it has been redecorated and renovated several times throughout the years.  After the Kennedy restoration, the Blue Room was furnished in the French Empire style with original gilded furniture and a marble-top table which was originally purchased during the Monroe administration.  The French chandelier made of gilded wood and cut glass returned to the White House during the restoration and it had previously hung in the President’s Dining Room on the second floor.  Two items of note are the French Empire style mantel clock by Deniere et Matelin and hung above the sofa on the west wall of the room is a presidential portrait of John Tyler by George Peter Alexander Healy.

Currently the Blue Room has beautiful sapphire blue fabric used for the draperies and the furniture upholstery which were done during the Clinton administration.  The walls are hung with pale yellow wallpaper imprinted with golden medallions and the upper border resembles a faux blue fabric drapery swag.  During the holiday season the Blue Room chandelier is removed to make room for the massive official White House Christmas Tree which is displayed annually with ever-changing themed ornaments.

White House - Blue room

Red Room –

The Red Room of the White House is located next to the Blue Room and the room has functioned as a parlor, a music room and a room for small dinner parties; currently it is used as a reception room.  The room is approximately 28 feet by 22 feet and there are six doors that lead to the Cross Hall, the Blue Room, the State Dining Room and the South Portico.  During the Grant administration the Red Room was used as a family living room and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt used the room for her meetings with women reporters, she was the first First Lady to hold regular press conferences.

Like most of the rooms on the State Floor of the White House, the Red Room has undergone many decorative changes during the previous administrations.  In 1902, the Theodore Roosevelt administration had the 1819 Italian marble mantel from the State Dining Room moved to the Red Room (the second one was moved into the Green Room)  During the Truman extensive reconstruction of the White Room, the room was completely dismantled and renovated with red silk damask wallpaper on the walls.  One item of note in the Red Room is the Louis XVI style mantel clock which was a gift to the United States from the President of France when the White House reconstruction project was completed.

During the Kennedy administration restoration of the White House, many antiques were acquired and the Red Room was one of the first rooms to be renovated in an American Empire style.  The room was decorated with red silk upholstered sofas and chairs,  new red silk window draperies, a new rug in shades of red, cream and sage green and a 1805 French chandelier made of gilded wood also hangs from the center of the room.  The room was also redecorated during the Nixon and Clinton administrations.  Currently the walls, draperies and upholstery is a darker shade of red with distinctive gold accents and the most recent addition to the room is a Charles-Honore Lannuier tall secretary desk that was a gift to the White House during its two hundredth anniversary celebration in 2000.

Red Room - after the Kennedy restoration

State Dining Room –

The State Dining Room is located next to the Red Room on the State Floor of the White House and it is used as a reception room and the room can accommodate up to 140 guests for luncheon or small dinner parties. In previous administrations the room has been used as an office, library and cabinet meeting room.  When in the interior of the White House was renovated in 1902 and the former grand stairway was removed from the west end the State Dining Room was expanded to the current size and the room dimensions are approximately 48 feet by 36 feet.

The State Dining Room has a very long dining table used with William & Mary style armchairs and several Queen Anne style side chairs, later during the Truman reconstruction the chairs were replaced with Chippendale style side chairs.  Hang from the ceiling is a large silver-plated chandelier and wall sconces; they were later given a gilded appearance during the Kennedy restoration.  Also displayed in the room are two large mahogany console tables which are painted ivory and features carved eagle supports.  One item of note is the original 1902 fireplace mantel which was restored during the Kennedy restoration and bears a very special inscription.  The inscription was taken from a letter President John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail back in 1800 during his first few days of living in the White House, it reads “I pray Heaven to bestow the best of blessings on this House, and all that shall hereafter inhabit it.  May none but honest and wise men rule under this roof.”  Known as the Adam’s blessing, the inscription was carved into the State Dining Room mantel by President Franklin Roosevelt.  Above the mantel hangs a portrait of Abraham Lincoln by George P.A. Healy which was formerly severely damaged but now fully restored.

White House - inscription by John Adams 1    White House - inscription by John Adams

Currently the State Dining Room walls are painted a stone color and the ceiling is painted a soft white color to give the appearance of plaster.  The room is furnished with the original long dining table and Queen Anne style chairs which are reupholstered in gold silk damask, new draperies in a colonial Revival floral print were installed at the windows and a rug with a floral medallion pattern covered the floor.  Another item of note that is frequently used in the State Dining Room on the long dining table is a beautiful mirrored centerpiece with seven sections that measures over 14 feet in length.  During formal dinners and afternoon luncheons the room is set with Chiavari chairs placed around smaller round tables covered with fine linens, glassware, silver and a variety of White House china can be used for the various events.

White House - State Dining room

This concludes the tour of the State Floor of the White House.  For more information please click on the other two posts of the three part series on the White House.  In Part One of the series I discussed the history and the construction of the White House.  Part Three continues with a tour of the second floor of the White House where the famous Lincoln Bedroom is located and the Oval Office which is located in the West Wing of the White House and is the official office of the President.

Travel – The White House (Part One)

White House drawing

In honor of President’s Day, this post is about the White House which is located at the famous address of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C.  The White House has been the executive offices and the official residence of every President of the United States since 1800, George Washington never lived in the White House and John Adams was the first president to occupy the residence.  Part One of series will discuss the history and the building’s design and architecture.  Part Two will give a tour of the White House and detailed information about the various rooms, such as the Oval Office, the Red Room and the Blue Room. Part Three will give a tour of some of the rooms on the second floor of the White House where the famous Lincoln Bedroom is located.  I will also discuss the Oval Office which is located in the West Wing of the White House and is the official office of the President.

The history of the White House

During the first months of his term in office George Washington, the first President of the newly formed United States of America, lived in two different houses located in New York City, NY from 1789 to 1790.  In December 1790, the national capital moved temporarily to Philadelphia, PA while the new Federal City (later to be known as Washington, D.C.) was being built.  Washington lived and worked in a house on Market St. for the remainder of his first term and also for his second term.  When Washington surprisingly decided not to seek reelection he happily retired to his Mount Vernon home in Virginia.  John Adams, the second elected U.S. President, moved into the Market Street house in Philadelphia until November 1800 when he moved into the newly built President’s House (later to be known as the White House) which was located in the nation’s new capital.

The White House was one of the most prominent buildings in the newly established national capital which was being designed by Pierre Charles L’Enfant.  In 1792, a commission had been formed to determine the best design for the new President’s House and nine proposals were received from prominent architects, including Thomas Jefferson who submitted his own design anonymously.  The final design selected was by an architect named James Hoban but unfortunately his original drawings from the competition no longer exist.  The cornerstone was laid on October 13, 1792 and construction quickly started on the house using a work force of mostly African-American laborers.  The exterior of the grand and elegant mansion was designed in the neo-classical Federal style and at the time that it was completed it was the largest residence in the United States.  Building supply shortages caused many alterations to the original plan and the construction took eight years to complete.  The sandstone walls, although sturdy proved to be very porous material and they were whitewashed with a mixture of lime, rice glue, casein and lead that gave the mansion its white appearance and eventually its famous name.

The President's House - North Portico engraving

When President Thomas Jefferson took office and came to live in the White House in 1801, the interior of the house was still not finished.  He quickly set about having improvements done on the house, such as indoor “water closets” (earlier version of toilets) and he built horse stables and servant quarters which were concealed by the East and West Colonnades.  In keeping with Jefferson’s inquisitive mind and various interests, he created a simple museum in the Entrance Hall of the White House containing plant and animal specimens and Indian artifacts and in the Dining Room he had a revolving cabinet built, these features were very similar to the way Jefferson lived in his beloved Monticello.  During Jefferson’s two terms in office he brought a sense of sophistication to the White House and he entertained frequently with lavish multi-course dinners served with the fine French wines.

The President's House - lithograph 1905

At the time of President James Madison, the United States was at war once again with Britain.  During the War of 1812, the famous story goes that First Lady Dolly Madison quickly gathered important historic documents and the massive painting of President George Washington before escaping as British troops came marching into Washington, D.C.  The end result was that the British set fire to many buildings within the nation’s capital and the White House was burned down leaving the interior rooms completely destroyed by the fire and only the exterior walls left standing.  After the war, the original architect of the White House, James Hoban, returned to supervise the reconstruction.  The restoration was completed in 1817 and at that time, President James Monroe had the interior furnished in a grand and regal style.

White House - War of 1812

Throughout the different presidential administrations over the following years, minor architectural and interior decorative changes were made to the White House.  In 1824 the South Portico was added and in 1829 the North Portico was added to the White House.  Additional changes followed in 1835 when interior running water and central heating were installed.  During the time of President Ulysses S. Grant, the interior decorations of the White House reflected the cluttered Victorian style, Tiffany glass windows and gaslight fixtures were added and eventually replaced by electric lights in 1891.

At various times during the history of the White House, major expansions have been proposed but never happened until the time of President Theodore Roosevelt.  In 1902, Roosevelt had removed all the previous garish Victorian décor and returned the White House to the original interior design in Federal style with some Georgian elements.  The first West Wing was built as an addition to the White House and for the first time this allowed a separate set of offices for the presidential staff and as a result the President and his family were given more private rooms on the second floor.  In 1917, President Woodrow Wilson had part of the attic renovated to include some additional guest rooms.  Ten years later, during the time of President Calvin Coolidge, in 1917 a heavy rain storm caused severe damage to the roof of the White House.  The roof and the attic were restored and the third floor was re-enforced with steel beams.  In 1948, President Harry Truman added the much debated balcony to the second floor of the South Portico.  Despite the initial controversy that the balcony was not architecturally pleasing to the appearance of the White House it has since become a favorite area for the Presidents and their family to relax and enjoy some private time or intimate entertaining.

All of the renovations and redecoration of the White House over the previous years actually left the White House in a extremely weakened condition. There is a famous story that shortly after the completion of the South Portico balcony in 1948 the piano of President Harry Truman’s daughter, Margaret, almost fell through the second floor.  This prompted a complete assessment of the building and it was found to be structurally unsafe and as a result the Truman family moved across the street into Blair House while the White House interior was completely demolished leaving only the outer walls intact.  Over the next three years the interior originally made with wooden beams that were now severely rotted were replaced and the floors were constructed using concrete and steel beams.  The reconstruction included many modifications, such as additional bathrooms for each of the bedrooms and two additional basements were also built to provide more offices, storage and a bomb shelter (remember World War II had recently ended and the security of the nation and the safety of the President were top priorities).  The grand staircase was also repositioned from the Cross Hall to Entrance Hall; visitors will recognize this area of the White House from the news coverage of the President and First Lady ceremoniously descending the staircase from the private second floor with the various visiting heads of states to begin Official Ceremonies and State Dinners.  The ever practical Midwestern President Truman had the original timber beams made into wood paneling for the China Room, Map Room, Vermeil Room and Library of the newly reconstructed White House.

White House - renovation 1    White House - renovation 2
 

White House - renovation Entrance Hall    White House - renovation East Room

Perhaps the presidential administration that has changed the interior design and furnishings of the White House most significantly was during the time of President John Kennedy.  Over the preceding years, much of the White House had become a mix of contrasting styles of antiques and furniture from several different decades and there was no cohesive decorating plan.  Mrs. Jacqueline Kennedy, who was known for her impeccable sense of refined decorating style, was appalled at the condition of State Rooms of the White House.  She put careful thought into preserving the history of the White House and as a result of this massive project the White House Historical Association was created to aid in the preservation and restoration of the formal State Rooms.

The first step in this ambitious plan of restoring the White House was to raise money to finance the project.  This was accomplished with the first comprehensive White House Guidebook being written and printed under the direction of Mrs. Kennedy and the first White House curator, Lorraine Waxman Pearce, and the guidebooks were sold to the public to help finance the project.  Next, Mrs. Kennedy scoured the large White House storage facilities to see what furnishings and decorations were available, some great pieces were found hidden there and these items were cleaned and refurbished.  Next, Mrs. Kennedy looked into the Smithsonian Art Museums for paintings and decorative items that could be used in decorating the White House; this proved to be a great resource and numerous items were loaned for the project.  Then, Henry DuPont of the renowned Winterthur Museum was enlisted to assist Mrs. Kennedy in collecting artifacts and furnishings that had previously been used in the White House.  This was a lengthy and tedious process but soon more hidden treasures were found and/or donated.  Also Mrs. Kennedy used many of her private social connections from wealthy philanthropists to fund the project.

In general, Mrs. Kennedy selected different periods in the early history of the United States and the World.  The themes selected were:  The Green Room had a Federal style, the Blue Room had a French Empire style, the Red Room had an American Empire style, the Yellow Oval Room on the second floor had a Louis XVI style and the President’s Study (later known as the Treaty Room had a Victorian style.  The rooms were furnished with appropriate antique period furniture and decorative fabric and room trim was based on period documents and reproduced for the different rooms.  The Diplomatic Reception Room has an interesting story of an 1834 “Vue de l’Amerique Nord” wallpaper which was acquired from a house that was going to be demolished, it was salvaged and then sold to the White House.

Blue Room - before Kennedy restoration - Truman admin.    Blue Room - after Kennedy restoration
 

Red Room - before the Kennedy restoration - Truman admin.    Red Room - after the Kennedy restoration

To promote the restoration project and gain public approval for the project, Mrs. Kennedy enlisted the help of Life magazine and an article appeared in the September 1961 issue.  Then, when the restoration was completed, Mrs. Kennedy appeared on February 14, 1962 in a special CBS program in which she gave a guided tour of the White House; President Kennedy also made a brief appearance on the program.

Eventually the Committee for the Preservation of the White House was formed in 1964.  Future renovation and changes to the White House State Rooms or the surrounding grounds required approval from the committee.  Here is a list of some of those:

  • President Lyndon Johnson  – The Children’s Garden was added to the White House grounds
  • President Richard Nixon – The indoor swimming pool was converted into a new Press Briefing Room and a one-lane bowling alley was built in the basement of the White House.
  • President Gerald Ford – An outdoor swimming pool was added to the White House grounds.
  • President George H. W. Bush – The White House exterior was extensively refurbished, 40 layers of paint were removed and the sandstone exterior walls were repaired and then repainted.
  • President Bill Clinton – In preparation of the 200th anniversary of the White House, many of the State Rooms were renovated and redecorated.  The White House also implemented a “Green Project” to reduce energy consumption and improved environment opportunities to use renewable resources.
  • President George W. Bush – The Situation Room (originally added to the White House by President Kennedy) was expanded and updated with the latest technology available.
  • President Barrack Obama – In 2009, First Lady Michelle Obama had an organic vegetable garden planted.  In 2013 solar panels were installed on the roof of the White House which were used to power the president’s private living quarters.

For additional information and a detailed tour of the White House including the various State Rooms, such as the Oval Office, the Red Room and the Blue Room, please click on the link to the White House – Part Two.  White House – Part Three will give a tour of some of the rooms on the second floor of the White House where the famous Lincoln Bedroom is located and I will also discuss the Oval Office which is located in the West Wing of the White House and is the official office of the President.

For information about the two additional presidential landmarks located in Washington, D.C. which were featured this month in honor of resident’s Day, please click on the links to the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument.