The symbol of America
The White House, the official residence of the President of USA, symbolises the power of the world’s sole superpower. Nishka Rathi writes about this great mansion by the Potomac.
THE White House is a historical monument that has been housing the most prominent and influential world leaders – the Presidents of the US. It was conceived as a palace and though it was finally built on a smaller scale its influence on world history has always been significant.
The White House is more than just a residence for the President of USA. Through the last century, the high strobe limelight of world power shifted from Great Britain to the United States of America. On the world stage the voice of USA is heard and White House seems to have come equipped with a sound box – news reports stating “the White House said…..” have endowed it with a voice of its own.
White House started off as a residence for the head of a newly-independent country and has witnessed innumerable changes, not only in its power, but its architectural history as well.
The starting point
Washington, DC, is one of the world’s few planned cities. It started out as a sleepy little village with only a few buildings. But it was fated to become the capital of the newly-independent country and the seat of its government.
George Washington, the first American President, lived in three houses at that time. The first two were in New York City and the third was in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Finally, Washington decided on a patch of land on the Potomac River. The land was on the border of the North and the South and so would please both sides without disappointing either. Incredible as it sounds but in 1790, there were no western states.
George Washington named the land the District of Columbia, in honour of Christopher Columbus.
Benjamin Banneker and Andrew Ellicott made maps of the land and Pierre Charles L’Enfant decided where to put the roads. The architect of the White House was chosen in a design competition. Interestingly, Thomas Jefferson submitted one proposal anonymously – it was not approved. James Hoban, an Irish American, was named as the architect.
L’Enfant’s 1791 plan had a grandiose scheme for the President’s House. He envisioned a vast palace, a house five times the size of the one that would eventually be built.
Hoban’s design was not quite as spectacular as Washington wanted it so the first President specified some changes. He widened the windows from a nine-bay facade to an 11-bay façade. He further added a grand reception room, elegant pilasters (rectangular columns that are attached to a wall and that is used for decoration or support), window hoods, and stone swags of oak leaves and flowers.
Despite being the moving force behind the place, 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. His wife Abigail never liked the cold rooms and the unfinished feel. She also insisted that the laundry be dried inside the house as it ‘was not seemly’ that it be aired in public.
Why is it called the White House?
White House was formerly known as the Executive Mansion or the President’s House. The building was not white earlier; it was first made so with lime-based whitewash in 1798 to protect the porous stone from freezing. As the practice continued it earned the nickname the White House till 1901, when Theodore Roosevelt made it official.
The White House reflects classical inspiration sources especially from the Palladian style. Hoban is said to have been inspired by the upper floors of Leinster House in Dublin, which later became the seat of the Oireachtas (the Irish parliament). Several other Georgian-era Irish country houses have been suggested as sources of inspiration for the overall floor plan and the bow-fronted south front. These are cited in the official White House guide, and in White House Historical Association publications.
The principal façade of the White House, the north front, is of three floors and eleven bays. The ground floor is hidden by a raised carriage ramp and parapet, and gives the appearance of two floors.
The windows of the four bays flanking the portico, at first-floor level, have alternating pointed and segmented pediments, while at second-floor level the pediments are flat.
The mansion’s southern façade is a combination of the Palladian and neoclassical styles of architecture. It is of three floors. The ground floor is in the Palladian fashion. At the centre of the façade is a neoclassical projecting bow of three bays. The more modern third floor is hidden by a balustraded parapet.
The War of 1812 between the US and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland saw the burning of the White House.
President James Madison’s personal server, the slave Paul Jennings, was an eyewitness to it. He later purchased his freedom from the widow Dolley Madison. He published his memoir in 1865, wherein he described how he saved certain paintings and valuables from being destroyed in the fire. In 2009, President Barack Obama held a ceremony at the White House to honour Jennings.
Extensions and alterations
There have been many alterations and extensions to the original plan of the White House. Due to crowding within the executive mansion, President Theodore Roosevelt moved all the offices to the West Wing in 1901. Then President William Howard Taft expanded the West Wing and created the first Oval Office. The third-floor attic was converted to living quarters in 1927.
Under President Harry S. Truman the interior rooms were completely dismantled and a new internal load-bearing steel frame constructed inside the walls.
Today, the White House Complex includes the Executive Residence, West Wing, East Wing, the Eisenhower Executive Office Building—the former State Department, which now houses offices for the President’s staff and the Vice President—and Blair House, a guest residence.
The White House is at least two centuries old and in the tradition of all old houses has collected a fair dusting of spirits along with antiques. Even Winston Churchill was not spared the sight of the ghost of Abraham Lincoln. He refused to sleep in the Lincoln bedroom ever again. Well, his reaction was considerably better than that of Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands. She fell into a dead faint when she heard a knock on the door and opened it to find Lincoln standing there.
The ghost of Dolley Madison, wife of James Madison, also appears in the Rose Garden, which she planted. There is a ghost of President Andrew Jackson too.
Jacqueline Kennedy, wife of President John F. Kennedy oversaw the last major extensive and historic redecoration of the house. Different periods of the early republic and world history were selected as a theme for each room: the Federal style for the Green Room, French Empire for the Blue Room, American Empire for the Red Room, Louis XVI for the Yellow Oval Room, and Victorian for the president’s study, renamed the Treaty Room.
Since the Kennedy restoration, every presidential family has made some changes to the private quarters of the White House, provided the changes are approved by the Committee for the Preservation of the White House.
The White House is not only a residence it houses the memories and aspirations of a nation. Its design and façade are now as much a symbol of USA as the star spangled banner.