White house presidential office and residence, washington, district of columbia, united states britannica.com electricity water analogy

#####

The Taking of the City of Washington in America, wood engraving by G. Thompson, 1814. The work depicts the night of August 24, 1814, when British troops marched into Washington, D.C., and set fire to federal buildings, including the Capitol and the Executive Mansion (now known as the White House). Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (neg. no. LC-USZ62-1939)

During the 19th century the White House became a symbol of American democracy. In the minds of most Americans, the building was not a “palace” from which the president ruled but merely a temporary office and residence from which he served the people he governed. The White House belonged to the people, not the president, and the president occupied it only for as long as the people allowed him to stay. The idea of a president refusing to leave the White House after losing an election or an impeachment trial was unthinkable.

The inauguration of Andrew Jackson (1829–37), the “people’s president,” attracted thousands of well-wishers to the nation’s capital. As Jackson rode on horseback down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House, he was surrounded by a frenetic throng of 20,000 people, many of whom attempted to follow him into the mansion to get a better look at their hero. A contemporary, Margaret Bayer Smith, recounts what happened next: “The halls were filled with a disorderly rabble…scrambling for the refreshments designed for the drawing room.” While friends of the new president joined arms to protect him from the mob, “china and glass to the amount of several thousand dollars were broken in the struggle to get at the ices and cakes, though punch and other drinkables had been carried out in tubs and buckets to the people.” Said Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story, “I was glad to escape from the scene as soon as possible.” During his administration Jackson spent more than $50,000 refurbishing the residence, including $10,000 on decorations for the East Room and more than $4,000 on a sterling silver dinner and dessert set decorated with an American eagle.

In 1842 the visit to the United States of the English novelist Charles Dickens brought an official invitation to the White House. After his calls at the White House door went unanswered, Dickens let himself in and walked through the mansion from room to room on the lower and upper floors. Finally coming upon a room filled with nearly two dozen people, he was shocked and appalled to see many of them spitting on the carpet. Dickens later wrote, “I take it for granted the Presidential housemaids have high wages.” Until the Civil War, however, most White House servants were slaves. Moreover, the wages of all White House employees—as well as the expenses for running the White House, including staging official functions—were paid for by the president. Not until 1909 did Congress provide appropriations to pay White House servants.

Dickens was not the only foreign visitor to be disappointed with the White House. On a trip to Washington just before the Civil War, Aleksandr Borisovich Lakier, a Russian nobleman, wrote that “the home of the president…is barely visible behind the trees.” The White House, he said, was “sufficient for a private family and not at all conforming to the expectations of a European.” Subsequent changes to the building in the 19th century were relatively minor. The interior was redecorated during various presidential administrations and modern conveniences were regularly added, including a refrigerator in 1845, gas lighting in 1849, and electric lighting in 1891.

The White House was the scene of mourning after the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln (1861–65). While Mary Todd Lincoln lay in her room for five weeks grieving for her husband, many White House holdings were looted. Responding to charges that she had stolen government property when she left the White House, she angrily inventoried all the items she had taken with her, including gifts of quilts and waxworks from well-wishers. The White House since 1900

During the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, the mansion’s second-floor rooms were converted from presidential offices to family living quarters, not least because of the president’s six children. For them, one observer said, “nothing [in the White House] was too sacred for amusement and no place too good for a playroom.” Additional space was needed for the children’s exotic pets, which included raccoons, snakes, a badger, and a bear. To accommodate a growing presidential staff and to provide more office space for the president, the West Wing was constructed in 1902. More office space was made available with the building of the East Wing in 1942. (The East and West wings are connected to the main building by the east and west terraces.)

In 1948, during the presidency of Harry Truman (1945–53), the main building was discovered to be structurally unsound; during the next four years the entire interior was carefully rebuilt, though the original exterior walls were left standing. A second-floor balcony was likewise added on the south portico. The last major alterations to the White House were made in the 1960s by Jacqueline Kennedy, wife of President John F. Kennedy (1961–63). Renowned for her beauty and refined taste, she collected and displayed items of historic and artistic value throughout its rooms. She made the White House a centre of national culture and awakened public interest in its beauties by conducting a televised tour of the mansion in 1962.