|Editions | myCNN | Video | Audio | Headline News Brief | Feedback||
White House mansion turns 200
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- Gerald Ford called it the "best public housing" in the world while Harry Truman referred to the White House as a "glamorous prison."
Its current resident, President Clinton, summed up what most American presidents -- and their people -- think when he said recently of the White House: "I love this place."
The White House celebrates its 200th anniversary November 1, capping two centuries as one of the world's most recognized buildings -- weathering wars, a devastating fire and the big egos of those who have lived in it.
"On the 200th birthday, the White House is the most important and renowned building in the world, a symbol of liberty and hope for all people. It's a stage for all kinds of drama," said Hugh Sidey, president of the White House Historical Association.
Historians say the White House is important not only because of its architecture but because of the events recorded there, from the nuclear arms reduction treaty signed there in 1987 between Russia and the United States to the first national radio broadcast by Calvin Coolidge in 1925.
The stately mansion, at the heart of the nation's capital, is modeled on an Irish country house and is unusual in that it serves as both the president's home and office. It is also a museum that welcomes about 6,000 visitors a day.
White House historian William Seale said there was an aura and mystique surrounding the building, which symbolized a continuity of democracy not common to all nations.
"There have been times when it was attacked, but it always represented a peaceful transition of power," said Seale, who has written several books on the subject.
Operated like a hotel
The house is run like a five-star hotel, a community where its occupants are treated like kings and queens and get all the trappings of royalty along with the power.
First lady Nancy Reagan said that about a month after moving in she was surprised when an usher sent up a bill for their food, just as would happen in a hotel. The Clintons, too, receive a "grocery bill" periodically.
"Nobody told us the president and his wife are charged for every meal, as well as for such incidentals as dry cleaning, toothpaste and other toiletries," Mrs. Reagan said.
Guests are not charged to stay in the Lincoln Bedroom or any of the other guest rooms, but they are billed for such incidentals as sending out for a hamburger.
"A guest will be discreetly called into the usher's office, presented with a chit and asked whether he or she wants to pay with Visa, MasterCard or American Express," said Seale.
'Very little privacy'
Some other presidents, like Truman, felt claustrophobic in the White House, seeing it as a prison.
"There is very little privacy at all. The president can never really be alone. When you have lived a modern life and been free it can be hard to be locked up in that way," said Seale.
The White House has a lot of entertainment to offer, however, from a swimming pool, indoor movie theater and bowling alley to a running track installed for Clinton.
George Washington commissioned the house but never lived in it. It has had two major structural renovations in two centuries, first after British forces burned it during the War of 1812 and its blackened walls were painted white, and again during the Truman administration when it was declared structurally unsafe.
When the first inhabitant and the second U.S. president, John Adams, arrived by carriage at the White House, only half of the walls had been plastered, one of three staircases had been built and scaffolds still lay against basement walls.
It took another 30 years before running water was piped in and central heating was installed in 1835. Electric lights were introduced in 1891 and the West Wing office was built during Theodore Roosevelt's time.
Reenacting John Adams' move
As part of the anniversary celebrations, there will be a reenactment of the arrival of Adams to the White House November 1, and White House historians and scholars are due to hold a symposium in mid-November to celebrate the building.
"It was the biggest house in America when it was built but it's worth much more than that," said Sidey, a columnist for Time Magazine who has covered nine presidents. "It's one of a half dozen symbols of liberty in the world."
The White House is a symbol of the times. In World War I, Woodrow Wilson put sheep on the White House lawn to help with the home front effort and in World War II, it was suggested the trademark white walls should be painted in camouflage colors.
Each president has left their mark on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, but Seale said the facade of the building would be instantly recognizable to its architect, James Hoban.
Any changes are carefully checked but it is the public's wrath which is most effective in encouraging presidents to retain the character of the building. "The president could paint all the rooms pink if he so desired but he would have to face public scrutiny," said Seale.
Sidey says for him the best years in the White House were the Kennedy presidency when the gracious home was the scene of elegant soirees and music and literature "became part of the national diet."
Indoor pool filled in
"The darkest time was in the summer of 1974 during the Nixon period. Everyone was hostile to you and you would go to the White House and just feel miserable," said Sidey.
The White House is set on 18 acres of land, has 132 rooms, including 16 guest rooms, one main kitchen, a family kitchen and 31 bathrooms. Each president has left a mark, from John F. Kennedy who redesigned the Rose Garden to William Taft who converted the stables into a garage for the first official automobiles.
Clinton has overseen several restoration projects during his eight-year term.
The indoor pool built as therapy for Franklin Roosevelt's polio was covered over in 1969 under Nixon to make more room for the White house press corps.
Seale's favorite White House room is the East Room, not because of what it contains, because it is largely empty. "It is a state room, which is only furnished with people, and that is what the White House is really all about."
Copyright 2000 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
White House furniture has own political baggage
White House history
|Back to the top||
© 2001 Cable News Network. All Rights Reserved.|
Terms under which this service is provided to you.
Read our privacy guidelines.