The White House is undoubtedly one of Washington, D.C.’s most recognizable landmarks. But while many Americans have seen it in person or on the back of a $20 bill, there’s still much to be learned about the history of this iconic building. From its massive renovations to the many rooms that were converted into entertainment venues, the White House boasts a rich history that makes it one of the most remarkable places in the nation’s capital.
When George Washington took office as the first President of the United States, the White House was just a concept. In fact, original proposals called for an even grander “President’s Palace” that would have been four times bigger than the White House we know today. Architect James Hoban later proposed a more modest neoclassical design based on the Leinster House in Dublin, and he was chosen to spearhead the project. Upon its completion in 1800, John Adams became the first President to call the White House home, and the building’s legacy has only grown from there. Here are six little-known facts about the White
The White House Has a Bowling Alley, Movie Theater, and Pool
The White House is not only a place to conduct government business; it’s also the first family’s home. Over the years, Presidents and their families have repurposed some of the building’s 132 rooms into entertainment venues to make their lives more enjoyable. One such room is the White House bowling alley, which Harry Truman opened in 1947 in the West Wing. While Truman wasn’t a frequent bowler himself, White House staffers formed the White House Bowling League in 1950. Those original lanes were closed by Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1955, but years later, Richard Nixon opened a new bowling alley directly underneath the North Portico.
Other notable spaces found throughout the White House include a 40-seat movie theater, which was converted from a former cloakroom in the East Wing. During Bill Clinton’s administration, a third-floor sitting room was repurposed as a music room, where the President practiced playing saxophone. The White House also has a storied history of swimming pools; the first White House swimming pool was built indoors for Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933, as he often swam for exercise in the wake of his polio diagnosis. In 1975, Gerald Ford commissioned the construction of an outdoor pool that he proudly showed off by taking a dip in front of reporters on July 5 of that year. This secluded escape is located just south of the West Wing, and remains open to Presidents and their families.
The Building Was Nearly Condemned in 1948
The White House wasn’t always treated with the same care and respect that it is today. In 1948, during the Truman administration, the building was deemed on the verge of structural collapse, forcing President Truman to move into the nearby Blair House (a building normally used as the President’s guest residence). Analysts determined that the White House deteriorated in part throughout FDR’s presidency, as the Depression and World War II caused Roosevelt to put off much-needed repairs.
Though Truman wasn’t pleased with the displacement, he also wasn’t in a rush to return to an unsafe building. The President authorized an extensive renovation that lasted from 1948 until 1952, which saw the digging of deeper foundations and the addition of a steel frame skeleton within the White House’s interior. Truman had previously installed a balconyoutside the presidential living quarters, which was completed in early 1948. While most of the White House had to be revamped, this balcony was one of the few elements left untouched, as it was built so well.
The White House Requires 570 Gallons of Paint Every Few Years
Keeping the White House so white is an expensive and time-consuming process. The building requires a new coat of paint every four to six years, and recently underwent an extensive recoating in 2019. The cost of this massive paint job is around $85,000, as workers use a special German-made paint by Duron. The specific shade — called Whisper White — is used for the preservation of historic buildings, and costs up to $150 per gallon.
While $20,000 for new paint may seem like a lot, it’s actually a small portion of the total annual maintenance costs needed to keep the White House up and running. The 2023 Financial Services and Appropriations Act set aside $2.5 million in annual funds for White House upkeep.
The White House Endured Two Massive Fires
On August 24, 1814, the White House was lit aflame by British troops as part of the Burning of Washington, an invasion during the War of 1812. The fire devastated the structure, and only two items were salvaged that still hang in the modern White House today: a full-length portrait of George Washington that was saved by First Lady Dolley Madison, and a small wooden medicine chest. The rebuilding process proved to be an arduous one, and Congress even considered temporarily moving the nation’s capital. However, in the end, the White House’s original architect, James Hoban, was tasked with rebuilding the President’s home, and repairs were completed in 1817.
Tragedy struck the White House yet again on Christmas Eve in 1929, as a fire swept through a storage area containing 200,000 government pamphlets. Aides were alerted to the blaze around 8 p.m., while President Herbert Hoover hosted a Christmas party downstairs. After being informed of the inferno, the President and his aides rushed to the executive offices to save important documents, the desk chair, and a presidential flag — just in time. More than 100 firefighters rushed to the White House, and despite working in freezing temperatures, they successfully put out the fire around 10:30 p.m. Though the building on the whole was still usable, the executive offices were heavily damaged and the press room destroyed, necessitating repairs that continued until the following spring.
The Building Wasn’t Officially Named the White House Until 1901
The White House was painted white in 1798 to protect the building’s sandstone exterior, and the press began colloquially referring to it as the “White House,” though it was just a nickname at the time. Throughout the 19th century, the building was formally known as the “President’s House” or “Executive Mansion,” two names that were used until Theodore Roosevelt took office in 1901.
On October 17, 1901, Roosevelt directed his secretary, George B. Cortelyou, to alert various cabinet departments of the building’s new name. Roosevelt’s bulletin mandated the change of “the headings, or date lines, of all official papers and documents requiring [Roosevelt’s] signature, from ‘Executive Mansion’ to ‘White House.’” The President believed that “Executive Mansion” was too generic a term used around the world. Roosevelt determined that by changing the name to the “White House,” the building would be instantly recognizable as the home of the President of the United States.
Jackie Kennedy Won an Emmy for Her Televised Tour of the White House
While President Truman worked to ensure the stability of the White House’s structure, it was First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy who revolutionized its interior. In 1941, long before she became a resident of the White House, Jackie toured the building with her mother and sister, and was dismayed by the lack of historical furnishings. Shortly after moving in with her husband in 1961, she made it her mission to overhaul the White House experience and create a more comfortable environment that also highlighted the building’s extensive legacy.
Enlisting the help of Americana collector Henry Francis du Pont, French designer Stéphane Boudin, and decorator Dorothy Parish, the First Lady began work on a massive restoration project. Her goal was not merely to redecorate but to showcase the history of the mansion and the country itself. From outfitting the Blue Room with French furniture that President James Monroe had ordered back in 1818, to redesigning the Treaty Room in a Victorian style, Jackie left almost no corner of the White House untouched. On February 14, 1962, Mrs. Kennedy led a guided tour of the building that was broadcast on CBS and NBC, drawing an estimated 80 million viewers and earning an honorary Emmy Award.