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 oldest 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 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.