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Well, summer’s over and it’s back to work, and the Obama’s have returned to a freshly decorated and refurbished Oval Office.  And very nice it looks too.  New carpet with the seal of the President woven into it, in as I understand it, the only place in the world outside of the Hall of Presidents in Disney World Florida that is allowed to have this.  There are a couple of inscriptions running round it from stirring speeches of the past.  Uplifting, so they are.  One says “Government of the people by the people and for the people” from Lincoln’s speech at Gettysburg and the other “The welfare of each of us is dependent fundamentally on the welfare of all of us” by Teddy Roosevelt. 

It’s very different from George Bush’s day when there was a rug designed by the sainted Laura including stripes, which George always said suggested the optimism of a sunrise, but just gave everyone else a migraine.

The White House has been the home of the Presidents since the 1790’s, and as I have noted, 27 of its 43 inhabitants have been related to each other, and the First Ladies too!  It’s really very much the oligarchs family home.  The Adams, Harrisons, Roosevelts, Bushes and all their relatives have found a happy home here.  The Roosevelts in particular often had the second and third floors filled with the passing flotsam and jetsam of their families and friends some of whom lived there for years.  So its worth theoligarchkings taking a tour of its history which is as strange as the families who inhabit it.

For what you see is not what you might imagine.  It’s certainly not the eighteenth century country plantation owner’s house it began life as.  Historically it’s a sham and a facade.

Built in the 1790’s the house has seen some punishment and any number of refits rebuilds and revamps.  At times it’s been positively parlous.

Enemy fire had burned it down in 1814.  Blame the British again perhaps, but it gave the world the magnificent picture of Dolly Madison rushing through the flames to save the portrait of Washington at the expense of her own jewels.

The West Wing burned down on Christmas Eve 1929.

By the time of Franklin Roosevelt the rooms were poky, the plumbing eccentric to say the least, the floors bowed, creaked and sagged like a ship at sea, and the kitchens were so antiquated that the major domo of the day, J B West was constantly in fear of poisoning everyone.  Limited electric light and power meant they still used paraffin lamps in parts of the house.  There were no modern phone systems or telecommunications in the house (although there was a military bunker under the lawns) and all in a sweltering southern heat, this was the White House of the War Years.

It was the Trumans who finally brought the White House you tour today into being.  And it was only because it was when they were tenants that finally, at last, the ceilings began to give under the weight of the chandeliers.

So an examination took place in that campaign summer of 1948 whilst the Trumans toured the States in a railway carriage.   While he was away the Presidents bath sank into the Red Room ceiling and a leg of a piano went straight through a floor.  Investigations revealed that there were actually no supports whatsoever for the interior walls.  They simply stood on soft clay footings.  These in turn bore the full 180,000 pounds of weight of the building.  The collapse of any one of these walls would have brought the entire building down.  To make matters worse these walls had all been made less structurally sound by new doors being punched into them over the years.

Beams had split in the State Dining Room.  Old burnt timbers from the War of 1812-14 were still in situ.

On top of these walls lay the heavy old lead pipes from an 1840’s water system.  Victorian gas lighting pipes and an ancient set of central heating pipes, all added weight increasing their instability.

Further examination showed that these walls were further compromised by builders having shovelled any wood-shavings into the gaps rather than take the rubbish off site.  One spark and the entire White House would have been ablaze.

And these old walls also had to bear a third floor and a slate roof.  It was a wonder it was still standing.

Amazingly the engineers and the Committee actually considered either knocking the entire place down and building using anything salvageable, or starting over building in new materials.  Luckily Truman decided “simply” to gut out the interior.  All that was original were the exterior walls and those doors, panels, decorative items which that could be scavenged from the building.

Upstairs, downstairs, no stairs at all…

They underpinned the inner walls; removed everything inside; inserted a steel frame; build two new basements; fireproofed all the new floors; modernised the plumbing, kitchens, A/C and electrics.  Truman even moved the Grand Staircase.

Thereafter the White House has always been a showcase for design trends, from the Eisenhower’s mumsy tastes, through Jacqui Kennedy’s chic French influences, to today’s brisk business-like approach.

Further Reading: Upstairs at the White House: J B West pub W H Allen 1974

Copyright David Macadam 2010

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