The White House - The modern white house

Leading figures in the design and architectural community sought access to the new president, Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt and his wife, Edith Carow Roosevelt, sought a house that would provide a more suitable background for the newly "international" presidency than the old Victorian mansion that the White House had become. Moreover, the Roosevelts had a big family, and as Mrs. Roosevelt's notes and sketches showed at the time, the area of the second floor that was allocated for their living quarters was not adequate to accommodate them. The offices on the second floor had to go.

By the summer of 1902 a renovation of the White House was in the hands of Charles F. McKim of the prominent Manhattan architectural firm McKim, Mead and White. McKim's advisor was the Washington architect Glenn Brown, who had sparked much of the public controversy against the Corps of Engineer's expansion plan. While McKim always insisted that the Roosevelt renovation was the work of his firm, all written sources make it clear that he and Glenn Brown did the designing. What they did was to rethink the White House and the manner in which it functioned.

They faced an old stone house with an interior largely of wood and plaster. Two stories and an attic rose above a basement that was beneath ground on the north and entirely out of ground on the south. The basement was for services, and housed dingy kitchens, pantries, a "meat room" where meat was stored, servants' bedchambers, a housekeeper's apartment, and storage rooms piled with discarded furnishings. On the main floor were the state rooms, East Room, and two dining rooms, with the three parlors in between; on the west side of it the greenhouses rambled, occupying more ground space than the house itself. The second floor held offices and living quarters, and the attic was a forgotten space, entirely isolated from the rest of the house when an elevator was installed in place of the back stairs in 1881, cutting off access.

The architects first declared the White House to be historic and thus sacrosanct. They did not want to expand it, but to bring it back in line with its original conception. By that standard, some spaces would be eliminated and new space would be found in the existing envelope. Plans to remove the greenhouses initially met with resistance from the Roosevelts, but McKim's gentle persuading as well as, perhaps, the intervention of a cousin, the novelist Edith Wharton, finally caused the president to assert, "Smash the glass houses!" Jefferson's west terrace would be retained. His east terrace, demolished in the Grant administration, would be reconstructed. The house and its wings would be repaired to look as they had originally, without Victorian additions.

An office building would be added to the end of the west wing to accommodate the thirty employees who had previously had their offices on the second floor of the White House. The entire second floor would thus be renovated as family living quarters, while the first or state floor would remain the official and ceremonial heart of the White House, with support facilities in a completely revised basement, now to be the "ground floor." A program of interior decoration was also planned.

Entrance to the White House was now to be through the East Wing, as it is today. Visitors would pass along the colonnade of Jefferson's reconstructed wing into the basement, now a "ground floor," its magnificent structural vaulting plastered smooth and painted white, giving it a monumental and dramatic character. Coatrooms, rest rooms, a modern kitchen, and offices were on the ground floor, which now featured a special entrance into the oval room named the Diplomatic Reception Room, which was located directly beneath the first floor's Blue Room.

President Roosevelt insisted that the White House renovation take no more than ninety days from inception to completion, and he planned to remain in the house while the work was being done. This last edict was quickly rescinded, and in a haze of plaster dust Roosevelt moved across the street to a rented row house. The work was completed in time for the first state dinner of the season, in December 1902.

It was a house transformed. Even in black-and-white photographs its attributes are clear. The interior of the state rooms was given a European flair, with the grand East Room made over in Louis XVI style, featuring parquet floors and white-painted paneling, and the State Dining Room refitted with dark-polished Georgian-style oak paneling. The parlor walls were covered in silk and arrangements of cream-colored English- and French historical-style furniture graced the rooms. Modern plumbing, heating, and wiring were installed; the upstairs now housed an abundance of bedrooms, and the gleaming bathrooms showcased nickel-plated faucets and white tile.

The new West Wing—the so-called Temporary Executive Office Building—made the greatest change in affording the family privacy and the office staff more room. Although the president was allocated work space there, the West Wing was intended for use primarily by the president's secretary and staff. Bill signings and important meetings in which the president was in attendance continued to be held in the White House proper, in the president's study on the second floor. Some congressmen refused to use the West Wing, thinking it inferior. In 1909 Taft doubled the size of the West Wing, building the first Oval Office, the shape chosen to reflect the most familiar—and distinctive—room in the main house.

Roosevelt's renovation prepared the White House for the twentieth-century presidency. Ever greater crowds, more numerous events, larger staff, and greater public attention to the residence were to characterize White House life from then on. Very little was done to change the house during the next half century. In 1927 President Calvin Coolidge presided over replacement of the attic; the roof was raised to accommodate a full third floor, while the outside facade of the house remained unchanged. The solarium or "sky parlor" was built over the South Portico at this time, and guest and service rooms were added to serve the second-floor family quarters, as the ground floor served the first, or state, floor.

Herbert Hoover's plans to double the size of the West Wing were laid aside when the wing was damaged by fire on Christmas Eve 1929. The nation was in the initial stage of the Great Depression, and Hoover decided that a reconstruction of the West Wing was more appropriate than an expanded building. Where Coolidge had delivered an occasional radio address from the West Wing, Hoover gave many such addresses, noting that they were being broadcast from his office. This was the first time that the general public became aware of the West Wing as a signifi-cant feature of the White House. Franklin D. Roosevelt (president from 1933 to 1945) carried the idea a step further by issuing cozy "fireside chats" (although these addresses were typically broadcast from the Diplomatic Reception Room, which had no fireplace.)

FDR's interest in the White House was great and change was undertaken soon after he became president. Roosevelt, who had been stricken with polio in 1921, had an indoor swimming pool installed at the White House for his exercise therapy; its construction was paid for largely by schoolchildren in New York State who donated dimes and pennies in the first wave of the fundraising effort for polio aid and research that became known as the March of Dimes. The pool was boarded over during the Nixon administration in order to accommodate the present press room. Roosevelt loved old houses, and had remodeled the family estate at Hyde Park and helped design Eleanor Roosevelt's Val-Kill cottage, both in the Hudson River Valley of New York. At the White House a National Park Service architect, Lorenzo Winslow, met with him frequently on projects. Together they designed the ground-floor library and would have overseen renovation of the West Wing had Mrs. Roosevelt not intervened to ensure that her friend and sometimes colleague Eric Gugler have the job. In enlarging the West Wing in 1934, Roosevelt doubled its size, but because the addition was mostly underground, the facade of the building was unchanged. Gugler designed the Oval Office that we know today.

Roosevelt had long wanted an extension of the East Wing to house a White House museum, but he was unable to raise sufficient funds. He continued to collect artifacts, and after the United States entered World War II in 1941, ordered the wing begun as an emergency action. Winslow designed it; Congress funded it, and the construction was conducted behine high wooden fences in utmost secrecy. Unknown to the public, the new addition included a bomb shelter, a grim series of concrete rooms several stories beneath the ground, with a presidential chamber in the center furnished with a cot and desk. Roosevelt is said to have refused to return to the room after seeing it once.

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