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12 Things You Didn't Know About the White House

Surprising Facts About America's White House in Washington, DC

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The White House is recognized around the world as the home of America's president and a symbol of the American people. But, like the nation it represents, the White House is filled with unexpected surprises.

1. The White House Has a Twin in Ireland

The Leinster House in Ireland may have inspired the design of the White House in Washington, DC.
The Leinster House in Ireland (cc) Thpohl/Wikepedia
The White House was designed by James Hoban, who was born in Ireland and had studied in Dublin. Historians believe that James Hoban based his plan on the Leinster House, the Georgian style home of the Dukes of Leinster in Ireland. Leinster House is now the seat of the Irish Parliament.
Learn More: The Leinster House

2. The White House Has Another Twin - in France

The Château de Rastignac in France
The Château de Rastignac, Photo (cc) Jacques Mossot, en.structurae.de
The White House has been remodeled many times. During the early 1800s, President Thomas Jefferson worked with architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe on several additions. In 1824, architect James Hoban added porticos based on plans that Latrobe had drafted. The elliptical south portico appears to mirror the Château de Rastignac, an elegant French house constructed in 1817.
Learn More: Our White House in France

3. Slaves Helped Build the White House

Washington DC Payroll Report, June 1795
Washington DC Payroll Report, June 1795, Photo © Alex Wong/Getty Images
The land that became Washington, DC was acquired from Virginia and Maryland, where slavery was practiced. Historic payroll reports document that many of the workers hired to build the White House were African Americans - some free and some slave. Working alongside white labors, the African Americans cut sandstone at the quarry in Aquia, Virginia. They also dug the footings for the White House, built the foundations, and fired bricks for the interior walls.
Learn More: Slaves Who Built the White House

4. The White House Was Also Built by Europeans

Stone Ornaments Above the White House Entrance
Stone Ornaments Above the White House Entrance, Photo (cc) Flickr Member "KRSPO"
The White House could not have been completed without European artisans and immigrant laborers. Scottish stoneworkers raised the sandstone walls. Craftsmen from Scotland also carved the rose and garland ornaments above the north entrance and the scalloped patterns beneath the window pediments. Irish and Italian immigrants did brick and plaster work. Later, Italian artisans carved the decorative stonework on the White House porticoes.

5. George Washington Never Lived in the White House

George Washington and architect James Hoban inspect the uncompleted White House
George Washington and architect James Hoban. Painting by N.C. Wyeth, WhiteHouse.gov
President George Washington selected James Hoban's plan, but he felt that it was too small and simple for a president. Under Washington's supervision, Hoban's plan was expanded and the White House was given a grand reception room, elegant pilasters, window hoods, and stone swags of oak leaves and flowers. However, George Washington never lived in the White House. In 1800, when the White House was almost finished, America's second president, John Adams moved in. Adam's wife Abigail complained about the unfinished state of the presidential home.

6. The White House Was the Largest House in America

Plans for the White House drawn by Benjamin Henry Latrobe in 1807
Plans for the White House by Benjamin Henry Latrobe in 1807. Library of Congress #LC-USZC4-1495
When architect Pierre Charles L'Enfant drafted the original plans for Washington, DC, he called for an elaborate and enormous presidential palace. L'Enfant's vision was discarded and architects James Hoban and Benjamin Henry Latrobe designed a much smaller home. Still, the White House was grand for its time. Larger homes weren't constructed until after the Civil War and the rise of Gilded Age mansions.

7. The British Torched the White House

White House on Fire, 1814
White House on Fire, 1814. William Strickland, engraver. Library of Congress LC-USZC4-405 DLC
During the War of 1812, the United States burned Parliament Buildings in Ontario, Canada. So, in 1814, the British Army retaliated by setting fire to much of Washington, including the White House. The inside of the White House was destroyed and the exterior walls were badly charred. After the fire, President James Madison lived in the Octagon House, which later served as headquarters for the American Institute of Architects (AIA). President James Monroe moved into the partially reconstructed White House in October 1817.
Learn More: War of 1812 Timeline

8. A Later Fire Destroyed the West Wing

View of executive offices of the White House after the roof burned on Christmas Eve 1929.
White House after the roof burned, 1929. LOC, Theodor Horydczak Collection, LC-H832-3044-x DLC
In 1929, shortly after the United States fell into a deep economic depression, an electrical fire broke out in the West Wing of the White House. Except for the third floor, most of the rooms in the White House were gutted for renovations.

9. Franklin Roosevelt Made the White House Accessible

Franklin D. Roosevelt in his Wheelchair
Franklin D. Roosevelt.Photo 73113:61 by Margaret Suckley, FDR Presidential Library/National Archives
The original builders of the White House didn't consider the possibility of a handicapped president. The White House didn't become wheelchair accessible until Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office in 1933. President Roosevelt suffered paralysis due to polio, so the White House was remodeled to accommodate his wheelchair. Franklin Roosevelt also added a heated indoor swimming pool to help with his therapy.
Learn More: About Franklin D. Roosevelt

10. President Truman Saved the White House From Collapsing

Work on the South Portico, ca. 1950
Work on the South Portico, ca. 1950. Image #71-298, Truman Library/National Archives
After 150 years, wooden support beams and exterior load-bearing walls of the White House were weak. Engineers declared the building unsafe and said that it would collapse if not repaired. In 1948, President Truman had the interior rooms gutted so that new steel support beams could be installed. During the reconstruction, the Trumans lived across the street at Blair House.

11. The White House Has Been Called Many Names

White House Christmas Card, 1978
White House Christmas Card, 1978. WhiteHouse.gov
The White House has been called many names. Dolley Madison, wife of President James Madison, called it the "President's Castle." The White House was also called the "President's Palace," the "President's House," and the "Executive Mansion." The name "White House" didn't become official until 1901, when President Theodore Roosevelt officially adopted it.

12. The White House Wasn't Always White

Front Entrance to the White House in Washington DC
Front Entrance to the White House. U.S. Government Printing Office
The White House is constructed of gray-colored sandstone from a quarry in Aquia, Virginia. The sandstone walls weren't painted white until the White House was reconstructed after the British fires. It takes some 570 gallons of white paint to cover the entire White House. The first covering used was made from rice glue, casein, and lead.
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