This Week in History: Cornerstone of The White House

Construction of the White House began with the laying of the cornerstone on October 13, 1792 following the design by architect James Hoban.

By DANIEL BENSADOUN
November 5, 2010 13:59
3 minute read.
White House

White House 311. (photo credit: courtesy)

On November 1, 1800, John Adams became the first President of the United States to live in the Executive Mansion which was later renamed the White House. Over the following two centuries, the mansion underwent many changes which made it the famous monument that is today recognized around the world.

Construction of the White House began with the laying of the cornerstone on October 13, 1792 following the design by architect James Hoban. The main residence, as well as foundations of the house, were built largely by enslaved and free African-American laborers, as well as employed Europeans. Much of the remaining work on the house was performed by immigrants. The initial construction lasted eight years and reportedly cost $232,371 ($2.8 million in 2007 dollars). Although not yet finished, the White House was ready for occupancy on November 1, 1800.

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The original plans for the White House were submitted to the nation’s first president George Washington for approval. At first, Washington found Hoban’s design too small and demanded a 30 percent increase in size. Ironically, when Adams first moved in, he complained about the size saying that it was "big enough for two emperors, one pope, and the Grand Lama in the bargain." The first modification to the mansion was made when Thomas Jefferson moved in, the president after Adams. With the help of architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe, Jefferson laid out the design for the East and West Colonnades which are small wings that helped conceal the domestic operations of laundry, a stable and storage. These colonnades today link the residence with the East and West Wings.

In 1814, during the War of 1812 fought between the US and the British Empire, the White House was set ablaze by British troops, in retaliation for burning Upper Canada's Parliament Buildings. As a result, only the exterior walls of the White House remained, but had to be torn down and mostly reconstructed because of weakening from the fire. In the aftermath, President James Madison resided in The Octagon House while both architects Latrobe and Hoban contributed to the design and oversight of the reconstruction, which lasted from 1815 until 1817.

Surprisingly, like the English and Irish country houses it was modeled on, the White House was open to the public from its start until the early in the 20th century. President Thomas Jefferson held an open house for his second inaugural in 1805 and many of the people at his swearing-in ceremony at the Capitol followed him home, where he greeted them in the Blue Room. However, those open houses sometimes became rowdy when in 1829, President Andrew Jackson had to leave for a hotel when roughly 20,000 citizens celebrated his inauguration inside the White House. His aides ultimately had to lure the mob outside with washtubs filled with a potent cocktail of orange juice and whiskey.

While several reconstructions and modifications were made to the White House along the way, some changes had major impacts. In 1901, President Theodore Roosevelt and his family moved in to the White House and hired McKim, Mead, and White to carry out renovations and expansion, including the addition of the famous West Wing which houses the Oval Office as well as the president’s residence.

As a means of preserving the history of the White House, no substantive architectural changes have been made on the house since the Truman renovation. However, since the Kennedy restoration, every presidential family has made some changes to their private quarters of the White House, but the Committee for the Preservation of the White House must approve any modifications to the State Rooms.

Today, the White House includes six stories, including a two story basement and 55,000 ft² (5,100 m²) of floor space, 132 rooms, 35 bathrooms, 28 fireplaces, five full-time chefs, a tennis court, a single-lane bowling alley, a movie theater, a jogging track, a swimming pool and a putting green. The monument, which was ranked second on the list of "America's Favorite Architecture," receives about 5,000 visitors a day.


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