The First Fixer-Upper: A Look at White House Renovations

Rude visitors, sinking pianos and dismayed presidential residents

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

This year marks the bicentennial of the public reopening of the White House after the War of 1812, when the British burned the executive mansion and sent President James Madison fleeing. Though the grand house has legions of devotees today, its occupants haven’t always loved the place.

The problems began in the 1790s, as the Founding Fathers struggled with the question of how grand such a residence should be for an elected president in a popular government. Was the building to be a government office with sleeping arrangements, a private home, the people’s palace or all of the above? Frequent name changes reflected the confusion: President’s Palace, President’s House and Executive Mansion. The president made its official name the White House only in 1901.

As President James Monroe discovered after Congress appropriated $20,000 in 1817 for White House furniture, decorating the executive mansion is never cheap or without controversy. The entire budget was used up just in furnishing the oval saloon (now called the Blue Room). Monroe offered his own furniture, but disputes over his claims for reimbursement led to a series of congressional investigations.

As American politics became more open and democratic, some voters felt that they should enjoy certain rights to the house. During the presidency of Andrew Jackson (1829-37), souvenir hunters once cut up some curtains as keepsakes. As a visitor during the administration of John Tyler (1841-45), Charles Dickens saw people spitting (presumably tobacco) on the carpets.

After decades of use, the Monroe-era chairs became so shabby that a journalist in the 1840s said they would “disgrace a house of shame.” In 1861, Mary Todd Lincoln started a badly needed renovation—and was viciously attacked in the press for exceeding the $20,000 refurbishing budget by almost $7,000.

But the building’s problems remained. Four decades later, Theodore Roosevelt authorized the famed architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White to remake the White House’s interior structure. Their work included moving the president’s office to a newly built west wing. For décor, Roosevelt favored the Roman imperial style, including classical columns, as well as moose and elk heads.

Years of neglect and careless alterations came to a head in 1948. Harry Truman’s daughter, Margaret, was playing the piano in her room when a piano leg broke through the rickety floor. Some structural engineers declared the only remedy was a complete rebuild, but a compromise left the four outside walls intact. Besides the expanded parts of the building, what visitors see today is a 1950s version of architect James Hoban’s original 18th-century blueprints.

Truman deserves credit for not abandoning the White House’s iconic architecture, and in 1952 conducted a celebratory television tour of the makeover. But he had filled many of the empty rooms with fake antiques from the upscale New York department store B. Altman.

In 1960, Jackie Kennedy burst into tears while touring the run-down family quarters before her husband’s inauguration. But she soon set about restoring the house’s historic integrity, along with many of its lost objects. She played a key role in making the executive mansion a living museum, now overseen by the Committee for the Preservation of the White House and supported by a trust.

Yet for all its quirks and foibles, the house has retained its understated grandeur. There’s still no better address in America than 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

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