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America’s Most Famous Residence

About two hundred years ago, when the United States was a brand-new country, people began to talk about where the president should live. Should the president live in the North or the South? Should the president’s house be a palace or a simpler house?

While Congress debated what to build and where to build it, our first president, George Washington, lived in three houses. The first two were in New York City. The third was in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Finally, Washington decided to compromise. He picked a patch of land on the Potomac River. Both Maryland and Virginia gave land for the new capital. The land was on the border of the North and the South and George Washington named the land the District of Columbia, in honor of Christopher Columbus.

A contest to find a builder produced a winning design from Irish-born architect James Hoban, who modeled his building after an Anglo-Irish villa in Dublin called the Leinster House. The cornerstone was laid on October 13, 1792, and over the next eight years a construction team comprised of both enslaved and freed African Americans and European immigrants built the Aquia Creek sandstone structure. It was coated with lime-based whitewash in 1798, producing a color that gave it the famous nickname we all use today. Built at a cost of $232,372, the two-story house took eight years to build. President John Adams and his wife, Abigail, moved into the slightly unfinished house in 1800, and every United States president since then has called it home.

Thomas Jefferson added his own personal touches upon moving in a few months later, installing two water closets and working with architect Benjamin Latrobe to add bookending terrace-pavilions. Having transformed the building into a more suitable representation of a leader’s home, Jefferson held the first inaugural open house in 1805, and also opened its doors for public tours and receptions on New Year’s Day and the Fourth of July.

The building’s South and North Porticoes were added in 1824 and 1829, respectively, while John Quincy Adams established the residence’s first flower garden. William Taft hired architect Nathan Wyeth to expand the executive wing in 1909, resulting in the formation of the Oval Office as the president’s workspace.

After Franklin Roosevelt entered the office, architect Eric Gugler more than doubled the space of what was becoming known as the “West Wing,” added a swimming pool in the west terrace for the polio-stricken president, and moved the Oval Office to the southeast corner. A new east wing was constructed in 1942, its cloakroom transformed into a movie theater.

A final major overhaul took place after Harry Truman entered office in 1945. With deterioration and structural problems mounting, most of the building’s interior was stripped bare as a new concrete foundation went in place. The Trumans helped redesign most of the staterooms and decorate the second and third floors, and the president proudly displayed the results during a televised tour of the completed house in 1952.

The White House is a place where history continues to unfold. There are 142 rooms, 35 bathrooms, and 6 levels in the residence with floor space totaling approximately 55,000 square feet. There are also 412 doors, 147 windows, 28 fireplaces, 8 staircases, and 3 elevators. The White House kitchen is able to serve dinner to as many as 140 guests and hors d’oeuvres to more than 1,000. The White House requires 570 gallons of paint to cover its outside surface and President Theodore Roosevelt officially gave the White House its current name in 1901.

The only private residence of a head of state open free of charge to the public, the White House reflects our nation’s history through the accumulated collections of its residing presidents and serves as a worldwide symbol of the American republic.

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