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The White House, or the People’s House, has been a part of American history since George Washington, though he is the only commander in chief who never actually resided there.
The first president did, however, approve the design submitted by Irish-born architect James Hoban in an open competition for the classicly inspired mansion. It began construction in 1792 and was completed in 1800, one year after he ended his term as president.
This fact and others are provided by the White House Historical Association, a private nonprofit educational organization founded by former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy in 1961 with a mission “to enhance the understanding and appreciation of the Executive Mansion.”
1. How did the White House get its name?
Though most are taught that the White House was first painted white to cover the burning of the building by the British in 1814, it actually was given a lime-based whitewash in 1798 to protect its exterior stone from moisture and cracking during winter.
It was painted with white lead paint in 1818, and nicknamed “The White House” starting in the early 1800s.
In 1901, President Theodore Roosevelt officially named it the “White House,” though it was also called “President’s House” or the “Executive Mansion” previously. Roosevelt thought it was important to distinguish the official residence of the U.S. president from other “executive mansions” where governors of individual states reside.
2. When was the White House rebuilt and renovated?
The White House had to be rebuilt after just 14 years after it was built when British soldiers set fire to it during the War of 1812. Hoban, working with architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe, once again oversaw the reconstruction as President James Madison stayed in a temporary residence. The now-famous South and North porticos were added in 1824 and 1829, respectively.
Under Roosevelt, the West Wing was added in 1902, and during World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt added an underground bunker now known as the Presidential Emergency Operations Center. It is under the East Wing, which generally serves as office space for the first lady and her staff.
In 1948, President Harry Truman conducted a structural rehab to the White House interior, including a new steel frame, completed in 1952.
3. How big is the Oval Office and why is it oval?
The Oval Office is 35 feet at its long axis and 29 feet on the short axis. It is 18 feet tall and begins arching around 16 feet.
Although today’s Oval Office is from a West Wing expansion in 1909, the room’s distinctive shape was inspired by the Blue Room designed by George Washington. It can be traced to a formal social greeting known as “levee” that the first president used as a symbolic way to dramatize the office of the presidency. The levee, borrowed from an English court tradition, had guests assemble in a circle to be greeted by the president.
Instead of bowing and other gestures typical of a levee, President Thomas Jefferson ended the practice and replaced it with a simple handshake.
4. What is the Resolute Desk and where did it come from?
The history of the Resolute Desk, now in the Oval Office, goes all the way back to England.
In 1855, a whaler named George Henry found the abandoned ship the “H.M.S. Resolute” off Baffin Island in the Arctic. It was returned to the English and served the British Navy for many years after that. When the country decommissioned the ship, its oak timbers were used to create a desk weighing more than 1,000 pounds, which Queen Victoria gifted to President Rutherford Hayes.
The now famous desk has been used on the second floor of the White House, the ground floor, and, most notably, the Oval Office.
5. Is the White House haunted?
Abraham Lincoln’s ghost has reportedly been seen several times by prominent world leaders. Some first families have had fun with Lincoln’s ghost, pulling pranks on guests staying in the Lincoln Bedroom.
First recorded in a newspaper story from doorman Jerry Smith in 1903, former first lady Grace Coolidge, Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands all have claimed to see the ghost of the 16th president.