This week marks the 222nd anniversary of an American icon: the White House. Here’s a look back at its remarkable history.
On October 13, 1792, the White House’s cornerstone was put in place in a quiet ceremony. Since then, the president’s house has survived an attack, a near condemning, a second fire, and an effort to build a rival White House! So there’s also a lot you might not know about the really interesting history of America’s most famous residence.
Here’s a look at 10 factoids you can use to impress your friends and liven up any conversation about the White House.
1. Another city built its own version of the White House. Yes, Philadelphia wasn’t happy that the new city of Washington was getting the president’s executive mansion. During the 1790s, the city built its own presidential palace as a way to tempt George Washington and others from leaving Philadelphia, which was the acting capital. Washington refused to use the “palace” and stayed elsewhere in Philadelphia. That location is two blocks south of the National Constitution Center.
2. George Washington never lived in the White House. Don’t look for Washington’s ghost on your next White House tour. The mansion was in the city named for Washington, and he had a big role in the executive residence’s creation. But George passed away in late 1799, about one year before John Adams became the first president to live in the building.
3. Very little of the original White House remains. Those pesky British burned the original White House in 1814 after U.S. forces set fire to Canada’s parliament. The famous Gilbert Stuart painting of George Washington was saved by a fleeing Dolley Madison and some exterior stone walls survived the fire.
4. There was a second big fire at the White House. A blaze on Christmas Eve in 1929 gutted parts of the West Wing and Oval Office during the Herbert Hoover administration. Hoover left a Christmas party to personally direct the firefighting efforts, helped by Ulysses S. Grant III, a city official. Hoover also briefly entered the Oval Office during the fire, but he was whisked away by the Secret Service. The blaze was started by a blocked fireplace flue.
5. The suffragettes stayed at the White House for two years. The heated fight over the right of women to vote reached a fever pitch in 1917, as suffragettes picketed at the White House gates in an attempt to get President Woodrow Wilson’s attention. Led by Alice Paul, the picketers stayed in front of the White House for two years, with more than 200 arrests. The pressure helped in the successful effort to pass the 19th Amendment.
6. It was Teddy Roosevelt who created the West Wing. The West Wing was expanded under William Howard Taft and Franklin D Roosevelt, but it was Teddy who got the facility built. Thomas Jefferson had started the ball rolling with the idea 100 years earlier, but things take a long time to build in Washington. Teddy had some conservatories leveled and the “temporary” office building established, to be connected to the main White House using a colonnaded gallery. President Taft added the Oval Office to the West Wing.
7. The White House was nearly condemned in 1948. President Harry S. Truman was forced out of the White House as his living quarters to the Blair House after officials decided the aging White House was close to collapse. Apparently, the repair budget under the FDR administration was ignored, even as more White House staffers were added to payrolls. When Truman tried to upgrade the White House, engineers discovered it was structurally unsound and close to falling down. The project was completed in 1952.
8. There was a 1950 attack on the president’s house. While Truman was staying at the Blair House, two Puerto Rican nationalists attempted to storm the Blair House and kill Truman while he was napping inside the residence. After a 38-second gun battle, one assailant was dead, and a White House police officer was mortally wounded. They were apparently emboldened by the idea that the Blair House was less secure than the White House. The officer who died in the attack fatally shot the assailant as he stood 30 feet from the president’s bedroom window. Truman had moved to the window just before the assailant was killed.
9. You can buy your own White House, for just $4 million. That may sound like a lot of money, but it’s a steal when the real White House is worth about $110 million (or as much as $286 million by another estimate). The replica White House is in McLean, Virginia, and it has just 14,000 square feet of space, compared with 55,000 for the real White House. It does have a full-sized Oval Office and replica Lincoln bedroom. The original owners used plans from White House I to build the facility from scratch. You will need to bring your own helicopter and pets.
10. The White House is missing its cornerstone. Any anniversary of the White House wouldn’t be complete without the story of its missing cornerstone. On that fateful day in October 1792, a group of freemasons met at a Georgetown tavern and paraded to the proposed site of the president’s mansion. In a ceremony, they placed an inscribed cornerstone to mark the start of the House’s construction. They then marched to an inn and made a toast to the event. And another, and another. In fact, they made 16 toasts! So no one really documented where the stone was. President Truman tried to find the stone during the renovation period, but no one has seen it since 1792. One theory is that is imbedded between two stone walls near the Rose Garden.
George Washington is best remembered as a military leader, Constitutional convention delegate and the first President of the United States. But there was a lot more to Washington than a few legends and talk about his teeth.
Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Edward Larson appears at a free National Constitution Center live event on Monday at 12 p.m. talking about his new book, which highlights the often overlooked chapter of Washington’s career between the war and his presidency.
Here are few facts about Washington, the private person, that show more about this multidimensional character who led the Founding Fathers at a crucial time.
1.Washington was the richest president ever
Research from the website Wall Street 24/7 in 2010 listed Washington as the wealthiest president of all time, based on what his assets would be worth today: more than $500 million. Washington had significant land holdings and at least 800 slaves. But he also had some debt problems during his lifetime.
2. So how did Washington acquire his fortune?
Washington was appointed as a surveyor, due to his family connections, at a young age – which gave him the opportunity to buy land. His marriage to Martha Dandridge Custis increased both their fortunes. He also diversified from just planting tobacco on his properties into other lucrative businesses.
3. Washington lost two stepchildren and didn’t have children of his own
Martha Washington, a widow, had two young children from her first marriage, Martha and John. George and Martha married in 1759, but didn’t have children of their own. His stepdaughter died at the age of 16 due to a seizure and his stepson died just after the siege of Yorktown in 1781, where he contracted a disease at the military encampment.
4. His success in business led to his success in politics
As a wealthy landowner, Washington had serious problems with the Stamp Act and other restrictive British trade and commerce policies. Washington eventually joined the Virginia Assembly in 1769 and he chaired a meeting that asked for the First Continental Congress.
5. Washington had to surrender during a battle
Leading a group of troops from Virginia, Washington was forced to surrender at the Battle of Fort Necessity in July 1754 after he made a mistake in positioning the fort. The French let Washington and his troops march away after Washington signed the surrender terms.
6. Washington was a military hero at the age of 22
Washington served bravely at the British defeat at the Fort Duquesne in 1755, although the British forces were routed. Virginia then put Washington in charge of its forces, but the British army wouldn’t grant him a commission. Washington commanded a regiment that finally captured Fort Duquesne in 1758, but he then resigned from the military and went home to Mount Vernon.
7. Did Washington did turn down pleas to become a king?
After the Revolutionary War concluded, a meeting was held in Newburg, New York, where military officers voiced concerns about their back pay and there were grumblings by some that Washington should become a king. Washington diffused the crisis by making a speech that convinces his troops he would get their pay from Congress. But there was never a formal plea from the troops for Washington to become a monarch.
8. Was Washington really a moonshiner?
Washington made a style of whiskey we could consider “moonshine” today, except that he paid taxes and had a license. So we would consider him a distiller, since moonshiners don’t pay taxes. At one time, Washington’s distillery produced 11,000 gallons of whiskey in one year. As president, Washington sent military forces to western Pennsylvania to end the Whiskey Rebellion, when farmers refused to pay excise taxes.
9. And what’s the deal with George growing hemp?
Like other farmers, Washington grew hemp as a cash crop, but it’s not what you think. The hemp wasn’t smoked for pleasure. It was used to make rope, paper, and other products. Washington also grew corn and wheat. He was actually quite an agricultural innovator; he introduced the concept of crop rotation. Washington, the farmer, introduced the mule to America when he bred donkeys from the King of Spain and the Marquis de Lafayette with his own horses. He had 57 mules at Mount Vernon at the time of his death.
10. Technically, Washington didn’t retire after he was president
He came out of retirement in 1798 when war with France was a possibility. President John Adams asked Washington to take command of the nation’s military and put together a force to fight the French. The following fall, Washington retired again to private life after the situation calmed down.