The Country's First Fixer-Upper
The White House, at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, took eight years to build and has been the residence and workplace of every president since John Adams in 1800. It was referred to as the Executive Mansion until Theodore Roosevelt changed the name to The White House in 1901.
During the War of 1812, the British burned the building and sent President Madison fleeing. It was rebuilt over five years, then President Monroe moved in and caused a minor scandal--when the $20,000 appropriation for furniture wasn’t sufficient, he moved his own furniture in and disputes over his claims for reimbursement led to congressional investigations.
In 1861, Mary Todd Lincoln undertook a badly needed renovation—and was attacked in the press for exceeding the refurbishing budget by $7,000. Four decades later, Theodore Roosevelt authorized an architectural firm to remake the interior, which included moving the president’s office to the newly-built West Wing. If you’re wondering, the East Wing is used for the First Lady’s office today.
Years of neglect came to a head in 1948, when the building’s exterior walls and interior beams were found to be close to failure. President Truman had interior rooms completely dismantled and a new steel frame constructed inside the walls. In a reflection of his humble upbringing, he subsequently filled many empty rooms with fake antiques.
In 1960, Jackie Kennedy burst into tears while touring the run-down family quarters before her husband’s inauguration. She 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 funded by a trust.
In a bow to conservation, President Carter had solar panels installed on the roof of the building, but they were removed by the next occupant, President Reagan. President George W. Bush had panels reinstalled and President Obama added more panels during his term in office.
The White House cost around $235,000 to build and is estimated to be worth nearly $400 million today. For all its quirks and foibles, the White House has retained its understated grandeur. There’s still no better fix-up in America than 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
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