White House Design: All you need to know

[] The White House is the symbol of American democracy, freedom, and self-determination and is situated at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC.

The White House has been a symbol of the US government, American citizens and American history. It was President Theodore Roosevelt who gave it the name, the White House. It has several other names such as President Palace, President House and Executive Mansion. It was George Washington, the first president of the US, who chose the site for the White House in 1791. Since 1800, the White House has been a proud fixture in Washington DC, and has been the official residence of the President of the US. 

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The White House design is considered one of the most remarkable building designs in American history. The first plans for the White House designs were made by Pierre Charles L’Enfant. Many competitions were held where many architects submitted their plans. Later on, Irishman James Hoban was the architect for the President’s new official residence, and he migrated to the US from Ireland. 


Design and construction 

The White House design is inspired by the Roman Vitruvius architecture and that of Renaissance-era architect Andrea Palladio. But mainly, the White House design has been influenced by the upper floors of the Leinster House in Dublin. The design of the southern facade of the White House is a mixture of both Palladian and neoclassical architectural styles.

However, President George Washington was not happy with the first submission of the White House design, and ordered Hoban to increase two storeys to three and nine bay facades to eleven. 


Post Construction in 19th century 

For the rest of the 18th century, no changes were made in the White House design. In 1902, President Roosevelt recommended a major change in the White House design, which included shifting the President’s office from the second floor to the West Wing. 

The Oval Office was constructed as per the directions from the President. The office of the President is known as the Oval office because it has the shape of an oval. One of the main features of the office is its Resolute Desk, which is made up of wood from a British ship. The Oval Office is an important place since the elected President signs bills, meets with staff, and hosts guests and visitors there.

During the 1950s, the White House faced some serious structural problems due to the plague. This prompted President Harry Truman to make new changes to White House design, which involved the dismantling of everything except exterior superstructure. Since this renovation, no major changes have been made in the White House design. 

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Current White House Design 

The President’s official residence is 168 foot long and 152 foot wide and is 70 foot high on the south and 60 foot high on the north. It sits on 18 acres of land and has a floor area of about 55,000 sqft. 

As per today’s White House design, there are 6 rooms, 7 staircases, 132 rooms, 32 bathrooms, 28 fireplaces, 147 windows, 412 doors and 3 elevators. In spite of disasters, remodelings, etc. All the exterior walls, which were made of Sandstone, have been painted white. The sub-basements of the White House were not there in the original White House Design. The lower level floor is connected to the first floor of the east and west wings. The ground floor consists of 10 rooms, a hall and 6 toilets. 

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Known as the State House, the first floor of the White House is the place for formal receptions held by the state. The first floor includes bedrooms, 1 main corridor, along with 1 input. 

The second floor is the first family residence and consists of 16 rooms, the main hall and 6 bathrooms. The facilities for guest officers are located in the Blair House. 

The third floor is the recreational area for the President’s family, which includes a billiard room, a solarium, a workout room, and lounge music. 

The Oval Office and offices of employees closest to the President are located on the first floor of the west wing. The second floor of the west wing houses the President’s attendees and legal advisors. In contrast, the first floor of the east wing houses the first lady’s offices, the social secretary, and the calligrapher of the White House staff.  

The Rose Garden, as per White House design, is bordered by the Oval Office and the west wing. The mansion also has a covered swimming pool, which was installed for Franklin D. Roosevelt, and an outdoor pool installed for Gerald R. Ford. Other facilities include a tennis court, one-lane bowling alley, small movie theater, game room, and jogging track. 

Rumor has it that there are secret rooms in the White House, but there is only a secret passage built under the East Wing, which was constructed at the order of President Franklin Roosevelt due to the bombing at Pearl Harbor. Also, there are two tunnels under the White House, one connects to the Treasury Building while another is connected to South Lawn. 

South Lawn is the place where the President’s helicopter lands and takes off. It is the site where the annual Easter egg festival is organized. The gardens are used for White House meals. 

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Materials used in White House Design 

The walls of the White House are built with Sandstone from a stone quarry in 1791. It was considered ideal as it could be easily transported to the construction site. Timberwood from Maryland and Virginia was used for flooring. 

Enslaved laborers were employed during the construction of the White House. They worked with European craftsmen, white wage, and African-American laborers. More than 200 enslaved individuals worked to build the White House, and over 100 of them worked as household staff, like chefs, gardeners, maids, valets, etc. 

The White House was painted white as it would protect the exterior from moisture cracks during winters. It required 570 gallons of paint to cover its exterior superstructure. At that time, it had cost $232,372 to construct the President’s official residence and would require about $100 million to construct a similar structure today.

The White House gets its own separate budget approved for its restoration and repairs, which previously was about $1.6 million. 

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Effect of Transfer & Termination of Presidents on the White House Design

  • 1800

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The construction of the White House started in 1792, and it took eight years to complete. 

George Washington looked after the construction of the White House but never lived in it. John Adams, the second US president, was the first US president to ever live in the White House. His first day of residence was on November 1, 1800. 

Adams and his family lived on the second floor and also occupied the basement, which is now the ground floor and consists of spaces for all servants, including cooks, laundry, and others. The old housekeeper’s room is now the Diplomatic Reception Hall.

During this time, the House for Public Hearing, also known as East Room, was not finished and remained in this situation for years. The Grand Staircase in the north is now the State Dining Room. Some of the rooms on the second floor were only used for storage. 

  • 1801-1809

In March 1801, Thomas Jefferson moved to the White House. But, the construction was still unfinished. He ordered the construction of bathrooms on the top floor, which replaced the outdoor toilet. A museum in the entrance hall was also built based on wildlife and Indian artifacts. The private secretary was made to stay in the southern end of the unfinished East Room. The dining room, lounge for cabinets, and pavilion were on the east side, and the west side was for servants and stables. An arc built on the east side collapsed, which was later redeveloped with a different design but survived till 1859.

  • 1814-1817

Washington suffered a lot of damage to life and property. The White House was left to stand only on outer walls. In spite of the recommendations made by architect Latrobe, President James Madison appointed the original architect James Hoban and gave him the responsibility to restore it and return it to its original appearance. Under the leadership of President James Monroe, the restoration was completed and was decorated with a modern flair.

  • 1824-1830

Porches to the north and south were added in 1824 and 1829. The first flower garden of the White House was opened at the request of John Quincy Adams. Subsequent governments made minimal changes to the interiors through Congressional Appropriations. A library was added in the oval room on the second floor as instructed by President Filmore, and Arthurs Famomomoso hired decorator Louis Tiffany to decorate this area.

  • 1866-1872

After the incident of the Border Dispute of San Juan, the daughter of President Johnson ordered to redecorate the residence with bold geometric designs. Large glass houses were built on both sides of the White House with different kinds of flowers and plants, and a place to talk or read a book was also built.

  • 1873-1927

During this period, many architectural and decorative changes were made in the White House design. In 1891, gas lights were replaced by electric lights. In 1902, President Roosevelt made recommendations to remove the Victorian decor and replace it with Georgian elements. The first East and West wing was developed. On the third floor, in 1927, the original wood beams were replaced by steel beams. 

  • 1948-1952

In 1948, the South Portico balcony on the second floor was made at the suggestion of President Harry S Truman. It was discovered that the main body structure of the White House was very unstable. So, the structure was dismantled and rebuilt using concrete and original steel beams. Bathrooms were constructed in each room, and a grand staircase to the entrance hall was opened.

  • 1961-1963

President John F Kennedy had changes made to the decor and furnishings of the White House. Mrs Kennedy, the first lady, created the Historical Association White House to raise awareness regarding its heritage and declared it as a Museum. Mrs. Kennedy also ordered the transformation of the Prince of Wales suite into a private dining room. Since the 60s, the White House has been treated as a living museum, so limited architectural and decorative changes have been made.

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Debora Berti

Università degli Studi di Firenze, IT

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