The White House - Preserving the symbol





After Roosevelt's long tenure, a new president faced a White House showing fifty years of quick alterations and structural neglect. A U.S. Army Corps of Engineers report made the week after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, had pronounced the White House a firetrap. Roosevelt had dismissed the report, saying that he had lived in old houses all his life and they all had aches and pains. When President Harry S. Truman moved to the residence in 1945 from a small apartment in Washington, the barren family quarters never looked more in need of help. There were deep cracks in the walls, and now and then the heavy chandeliers on the state floor swayed slightly, accompanied by a falling snow of plaster dust. In 1948, after a leg of the grand piano belonging to the president's daughter, Margaret, sank between two boards in the floor of her room, the president called in the Corps of Engineers.

Truman and his family moved to Blair House across the street—which had been rescued from demolition by FDR for use as a guest house—and the Corps went to work inspecting the White House. Not long after, the Corps ordered the house emptied. One engineer recalled crawling between the upstairs floor and the East Room ceiling and finding the plaster ceiling unlocked from its lath as much as eighteen inches—in other words, the eighty-five-foot ceiling was like a hammock, largely suspended between its two ends.

Major work was required to fix the structural problems. The original interior framing of the house was constructed of wood covered with wood lath, all dry wood that indeed made it a firetrap. It could be restored, its parts carefully pieced and repaired, but it would be of use then only as a museum. Truman wanted the White House to remain the home of the presidents. For this it had to be fireproof and bombproof. Many project designs were put forth. The plan that the president favored had been carried out on a historic building at Yale University, which had been gutted, its outer walls preserved. Truman was determined to undertake just this type of renovation, to save George Washington's original walls and otherwise empty the vessel, building a new, structurally sound White House without altering the historic facade.

Restoration was carried out between 1948 and 1952. The third floor, built during Coolidge's tenure in 1927, was retained; permanent steel legs were built through the old house and down to the level of cellars yet to come to support it. Underpinning for the outside walls of the house extended twenty-four feet into a new foundation, and a steel framework was constructed to support the reconstructed walls of the interior. At first an effort was made to preserve old doors and paneling, but as the job progressed, most of the material was discarded or made into souvenirs. Some old wainscoting was retained, along with some window surrounds and various other woodwork. Truman was intent that the project not be seen as a violation of the historic site. Once while making his daily inspection of the work, he came upon laborers preparing to enlarge a doorway to admit a bulldozer and dump truck needed to dig the new basement. He stopped them at once, ordering that the bulldozer and truck be dismantled outside and reassembled within to accomplish the task.

Toward the end of the work, Truman cracked the whip. He wanted to occupy the house before his administration was over. The work proceeded in haste and was completed by the spring of 1952. Inside the changes were subtle, but the house did have a more monumental feel due to generous use, relative to the original White House, of such materials as marble where plaster had been before. The rooms were stylishly furnished, mostly with reproductions of American antiques. The former First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, in her syndicated newspaper column "My Day," wrote that it reminded her of a Sheraton Hotel.

The reconstruction carried out under Truman could be dismissed as a desecration, but any judgment must be tempered by the fact that Truman was dealing with the White House, home and office of the world's most powerful leader. He saved the image and enough of the substance to lend the restored White House historical credibility. It was not an easy decision; not nearly as easy as his decision, in 1948, to install a balcony over the South Portico, with access from the family quarters; he did this to fire a volley at the Congress, which had refused to fund a new executive office wing. But Truman's view of history was sweeping, and he was conscious of the symbolic power of the White House, and committed to preserving that symbol. His decision in the renovations of 1948 to 1952 stands the test of time.



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