The White House, located at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., has housed all our presidents from President John Adams to the current president, Donald Trump.
The sitting president when the White House was constructed was President George Washington, but he never had the chance to live in it. The White House is a prominent structure that gets 6,000 visits every day.
Here are some more facts about the house that is currently being contaminated by Trump.
1. It Started With A Design Contest
In 1790, the Residence Act was passed by the Congress. This established that there should be a permanent national capital and that it would be built along the Potomac River.
The area, initially called Federal City, would need buildings and structures for the national government. Congress allowed 10 years for of all it to be built. A daunting task at best.
Then-Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson organized a design contest that was won by an Irish man, James Hoban, in 1792. Hoban was then hired to oversee the construction of the White House.
2. The White House Was Built By Slaves
In July 2016, a speech given by former first lady Michelle Obama gave quite a stir when she reminded us all that slaves built the White House. Here is the part of her speech that got people’s nuts in a bunch:
“That is the story of this country, the story that has brought me to this stage tonight, the story of generations of people who felt the lash of bondage, the shame of servitude, the sting of segregation, but who kept on striving and hoping and doing what needed to be done so that today I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves. And I watch my daughters, two beautiful, intelligent, black young women playing with their dogs on the White House lawn.”
When White House construction started in 1792 and given the site’s location, it is safe to assume that the labor force for the project was mostly slaves. The site was between slave states Maryland and Virginia.
In a book by Jesse Holland, Black Men Built the Capitol: Discovering African-American History, Holland stated that slaves helped dig the structure’s foundation. They were paid a mere 13 cents a day that was most probably pocketed by their bosses.
In 1800, former President John Adams resided the then unfinished White House. Holland covered in his book who among the former presidents had slaves:
“Starting with Jefferson’s administration, the majority of the White House staff from 1800 through the Civil War consisted of slaves. These slaves went with the U.S. presidents to work in the White House because at that time Congress did not provide money for a domestic staff for the president. Presidents who owned slaves—Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Andrew Jackson, John Tyler, James Polk, and Zachary Taylor— brought them to the White House.”
3. The White House Was Torched By The British
When the United States was 36 years old in June 1812, it declared war against Great Britain in a bid to take over Canada, which was a part of the British Colony. The United States wanted it to be a part of America.
Terrible loss and victories are to be noted on each side, but the biggest defeat the Americans had happened on August 24, 1813. The British army invaded the capital Washington D.C.
During that time, President Madison established a new military district and he had requested 2,000 U.S. Army soldier and 10,000 – 12,000 militiamen to be on reserve defense. However, these men were never rounded up because then-Secretary of War John Armstrong insisted that the British wouldn’t dare attack the capital.
He was direly wrong. While they were debating, the British got moving. They sent their main fleet sailing toward the Patuxent River on August 17. They sent a diversionary force along the Potomac River which was the most direct route to Washington.
About 4,500 troops made it to Benedict, Maryland by August 20. As the British got closer Americans panicked and just continued with their disorganized maneuvers.
Finally, on August 24, the British stopped at the still-under-construction White House. They piled up furniture in both the Senate and the House wings, threw in rocket powder and torched it. Within minutes, the White House was engulfed in flames.
4. The Fire Was A Good Excuse For A Name Change
Before the British Army torched it, the White House was actually called the “President’s House.”
Mysteriously, as the British began setting buildings on fire, a great storm started from the Northeast driving away the British. Some call this myth, some call it coincidence, but true believers call it fate. They believe the storm was started by powerful causes to save the capital.
After the storm, the President’s house was black because of the flame but it was not fully engulfed. The government painted it white and the People started calling it the White House. The first architect James Hoban was hired again to oversee the reconstruction.
People were getting used to calling it the White House, but not until 1901 was it officially christened that when President Teddy Roosevelt made it the official name.
5. Almost Every President Has Had A Pet – Some Quite Odd
Almost all the presidents had dogs, cats, fishes, horses and all the common pets, but some of the most notable pets that ever lived in the White House are:
- Apollo, President Zachary Taylor’s circus pony that he got for his daughter.
- President John Tyler’s wolfhounds that he got for his wife.
- President Henry Harrison’s goat and cow.
- President Martin Van Buren’s two tiger cubs.
- Poll, President Andrew Jackson’s swearing parrot.
- President John Quincy Adams’ alligator and his wife’s silkworms.
- Two bear cubs of President Thomas Jefferson.
- President Abraham Lincoln’s pig, goats, and turkey.
- President James Buchanan’s two bald eagles.
- President Calvin Coolidge’s goose, raccoons, hippopotamus, black bear, lion cubs, and donkey.
- President Warren Harding’s squirrel.
- President Woodrow Wilson’s tobacco-chewing ram.
- The White House’s last cow owned by President William Taft.
- President Theodore Roosevelt’s badger, lion, horses, wildcat, hyena, five bears, coyote, zebra, barn owl, kangaroo rats, and flying squirrels.
- President Benjamin Harrison’s opossums named Mr. Reciprocity and Mr. protection.
The more recent presidents all had dogs and cats all have their own fair share of photo highlights like these:
6. Lyndon Johnson Had A Shower Installed For His ‘Johnson’
We all know that a president’s job is harder that your average job. When you think of the presidents, you either remember how they were busy running the country or how they were engulfed in their own quirks.
The 36th president of the United States, Lyndon B. Johnson was obsessed with his genitals — a quirk that is hard to forget.
According to an excerpt from Robert Caro’s biography in The New York Review of Books:
“He early became fabled for a Rabelaisian earthiness, urinating in the parking lot of the House Office Building as the urge took him; if a colleague came into a Capitol bathroom as he was finishing at the urinal there, he would sometimes swing around still holding his member, which he liked to call ‘Jumbo,’ hooting once, ‘Have you ever seen anything as big as this?,’ and shaking it in almost a brandishing manner as he began discoursing about some pending legislation.”
“Even on the floors of the House and Senate, he would extravagantly rummage away at his groin, sometimes reaching his hand through a pocket and leaning with half-lifted leg for more thorough access.”
It doesn’t stop there. Days after the president and his wife moved into the White House, he immediately called a meeting with his chief usher J.B. West to talk about plumbing.
Apparently, the shower in his previous residence at the Elms had several nozzles that sprayed out water with a “needle-like intensity” and the water pressure was “equivalent of a fire hose.” One of the nozzles was positioned behind where the bather would stand to cleanse the buttocks while another one was positioned opposite it, designed to shoot at his genitals. Johnson wanted to have the same shower in the White House and he gave West an ultimatum:
“Mr. West, if you can’t get that shower of mine fixed, I’m going to have to move back to the Elms,”
The “shower crisis” took 5 years, a specially made water tank with a pump, 5 replacement showers and 6 body spray nozzles, not to mention the several setbacks they encountered.
According to Former Bloomberg White House correspondent Kate Brower’s book, “The Residence: Inside the Private World of the White House:”
“the pumps sprayed hundreds of gallons of water per minute, more than a firehose, and that still wasn’t good enough.”
After all the resources they wasted for the single “shower-crisis” the president remained unsatisfied. The shower itself met its end when Johnson left the White House and President Richard Nixon took over and reportedly, took one look and said “Get rid of this stuff.”
7. Could The White House Be Sold Or Rented?
Throughout our history, we have never been apprehensive about what will happen to the White House or the country in general.
That all changed when President Donald Trump became president and fogged out our futures.
Not saying that he will sell or rent the White House, but who knows what will happen? He’s a real estate mogul, right?
The website Zillow came up with a price if ever the White House was to be rented or sold. Please don’t let Donnie see this. According to Zillow, as of this writing, the White House is off the market, but if it is indeed sold, its value will be $399,683,822. It can also be rented for $2,159,429 a month.
8. The Water Supply Probably Poisoned Several Presidents
If we talk about Presidential records, then it is impossible not to tackle the ninth president of the United States, William Henry Harrison.
He held two records that people commonly believe are connected to each other. The first record is that he gave the longest inaugural speech, outside on a March day, and he did it without a coat.
It is a common belief that he caught pneumonia because of that resulting to his death on April 4, 1841, a mere 32 days into his presidency. Thus, giving him the second record of being the president who served for the shortest time.
New light may be shed on his death based on a modern day medical investigation conducted by Dr. Philip A. Mackowiak of the University of Maryland School of Medicine. The investigation concluded that it is most likely that Harrison did not die of pneumonia but of Typhoid fever which he got due to contamination of the White House water supply.
Mackowiak points out that the water supply in the White House most probably killed President James K. Polk in 1849 and President Zachary Taylor in 1850.
9. Secret Tunnels Are Hidden Under The White House
Rumors and legends exist within White house lore, and one of the oldest and most commonly told is that the House has tunnels and secret passages running underneath it.
According to the rumors, President John F. Kennedy used the tunnels to sneak out of the White House for his booty calls with Marilyn Monroe. We know these are just rumors, as there are accounts that tell us the truth about the supposedly torrid affair. But isn’t it exciting to think that the tunnels really do exist?
According to The Washington Post, “in the nation’s capital, underground is where it’s at.” Which makes sense, because the city has height restrictions for buildings. No structure is allowed to build vertically, so as to maintain the city skyline and highlight the highest focal point, the Washington National Cathedral.
Throughout the years, the Capitol needed to expand when the need for a Visitor’s Center arose. They didn’t have the choice to expand higher or wider, the only way to go was down. If you have been there, you probably noticed that the whole center is 3/4 the size of the Capitol, under it. Slightly unnoticeable, is the overall slope of the center. While you are busy reveling in the wonders inside the Visitor’s Center, your path is slightly sloping taking you underground. Think about the gentle slope of the continuous ramp in the Guggenheim Museum.
Here’s a guide if you want to visit the White House Visitor’s Center, just note that as of March 9, 2017, days after the Trump administration opened the Center, it was announced that non-U.S. citizens are not allowed to arrange tours.
Along with the Capitol Visitor Center, other amenities were also built underground beneath the White House, including a bunker, a florist, a laundry and even a bowling alley.
Having established that all the expansion the White House had to have is hidden underground, it is possible to imagine that there are tunnels that could allow Kennedy to sneak out to see Monroe for booty calls. According to the White House website, the only tunnels that were built under the White House are the ones that lead the president to safety in case of an attack and there are no tunnels that lead out of the confines of the White House grounds.
10. The White House Got A Face Lift And Tummy Tuck
During the Truman administration, in 1949, it was determined that the White House needed to have a major renovation. His official statement was that because “it wouldn’t pass the safety standard of any city in the country.” But it is also said that while he was bathing one day, he nearly fell through the floor as hundreds of dignitaries attended a ball below him.
During the renovations Truman conducted his daily business in an office underground, which was only accessible by a tunnel. He ran the country from that small underground office for three years until the construction was finished in 1952.
In 1987, a 50-yard tunnel was built that leads from the Oval Office to the basement of the First Family’s residence in the East Wing of the White House. Surely, this 50-yard tunnel won’t go anywhere near the outside of the grounds.
Another tunnel was built that leads from the basement of the East Wing to the basement of the Treasury Building which was built by FDR as an air raid shelter.
One passageway is also built to provide access between the White House and the Old Executive Office Building next door.
Other tunnels such as tunnels connecting the White House to the Capitol, Blair House, VP Residence, Camp David and the Pentagon are still unsubstantiated at this time.
It was mentioned in the previous item that the White House was renovated in 1949. After 22 other presidents resided in the historical house, the wear and tear finally took its toll and Truman had to make the decision to fix it for good.
When it was built, it wasn’t constructed to have electricity and indoor plumbing which were only added after the fact. These stressed the structure to its limits. There has also been a number of fires that did damage to the structure.
In 1813, the British nearly burned down the White House when they invaded it. After that, there was no renovation done, they only repainted the house.
Then on Christmas eve in 1921, a fire started in West Wing while there was a party. Herbert Hoover had to leave the party while his First Lady kept it going. He oversaw the removal of papers and documents from the Oval Office. The fire was put out and important papers were saved, but the fire gutted the West Wing including the Oval Office.
During the Truman administration, several incidents that nearly endangered people’s lives started happening inside the White House, one is when Truman himself nearly fell through the floor while taking a bath, and another is his daughter’s piano actually falling through a floor into the room below it.
This prompted Truman to decide that it was best to tear down the building, retain the shell and renovate the inside as close to the original as possible. It came to that point that trying to fix it will be more expensive.
It always feels fascinating learning about our history and the White House sure has its share of incredible stories.
Image via Wikimedia Commons.