There's not a lot of history in the White House, actually

gutted interior
Public Domain Abbie Rowe/ Truman Archives

President Trump is enjoying the White House. He is quoted in the New York Times:

“It’s a beautiful residence, it’s very elegant,” Mr. Trump said, deploying one of his highest forms of praise. “There’s something very special when you know that Abraham Lincoln slept there,” Mr. Trump said. “The Lincoln Bedroom, you know, was his office, and the suite where I’m staying is actually where he slept.”

Mr. Trump was referring to the White House master bedroom, which is now his own. “Knowing all of that, it’s different, than, you know, just pure elegance and room size,” Mr. Trump said. “There’s a lot of history.”

This is sort of correct; the Lincoln Bedroom was created after Bess Truman found some of his period furniture and put it together; it is used as a guest room. But there is not in fact a lot of history in any of the bedrooms, including the master bedroom; they are all fake, rebuilt during the Truman Reconstruction of the White House that took place from 1949 to 1952.

TreeHugger devotes a lot of space to architectural preservation, noting that the greenest building is the one already standing. What was done to the White House is not what anyone would call preservation today; it is a total reconstruction, saving little more than the exterior walls. That was actually considered preservation at the time. Remedial work was clearly necessary; according to the White House Museum,

collapsing beamAbbie Rowe/ Truman Archives/ old structure on verge of collapse/Public Domain

Not long after the Truman Balcony was completed, the main body of the mansion was found to be structurally unsound. Floors no longer merely creaked; they swayed. The president's bathtub was sinking into the floor. A leg of Margaret's piano broke through the floor in what is today the Private Dining Room. Engineers did a thorough examination and found plaster in a corner of the East Room sagging as much as 18 inches. Wooden beams had been weakened by cutting and drilling for plumbing and wiring over 150 years, and the addition of the steel roof and full third floor in 1927 added weight the building could no longer handle. They declared the whole house to be in imminent danger of collapse.

interior shell guttedAbbie Rowe/ Truman Archives/Public Domain

Congress (which was controlled by the Republicans) wanted to knock the whole thing down, which was the cheapest solution, but the Trumans wanted to preserve the exterior walls. But everything inside was gutted, the floors and walls completely removed so that they could dig down and install new foundations and two basements, including a new secret bomb shelter. According to the Truman archives,

interior guttingAbbie Rowe/ Truman Archives/Public Domain

By March 1950 the wholesale demolition of the interior was well underway, leaving only a web of temporary steel supports to hold the exterior walls in place. By autumn, the White House was just a cavernous hollow space, 165 feet long, 85 feet wide, and 70 to 80 feet high.

Lincoln BedroomAbbie Rowe/ Truman Archives/ Lincoln Bedroom area/Public Domain

The architect, Lorenzo Winslow, wanted to reconstruct the interior and had doors, trim, woodwork and even ornamental plaster carefully removed and stored, but it mostly didn’t happen, because of time and cost restraints; it’s simply cheaper to use new stuff than it is to fix up the old. According to the Truman archives:

Most of the material salvaged during the dismantling of the house was not reused as had originally been intended. Instead, replicas of wood and plaster trim and other architectural details were substituted, although many original lighting fixtures and other finishing ornaments were returned to the house after being restored.

So it is really all fake, new floors, walls and ceilings covered with new everything. Even the furniture was changed; “The reconstructed interiors were described as “stark” and by Eleanor Roosevelt as resembling a hotel.” According to a 1962 article in the Saturday Evening Post:

…all the mellow feeling of the old house gave way to a stark atmosphere of solidity. As one Washington columnist observed, “The White House is safe, all right, but it has completely lost its charm. That restoration took the heart out of the building. When those floors creaked, you knew Lincoln had been walking there before you. Now it has no more appeal than the Pentagon.”

Finisiing interiorAbbie Rowe/ Truman Archives/Public Domain

The Truman Library is more positive:

Where once the White House had nearly collapsed from its structural deficiencies, now 660 tons of steel strengthened the new concrete inner walls and floors. Although retaining much of its historical appearance, the interior of the house now sparkled with new paint, wall coverings, parquet flooring and tile.

Harry and BessAbbie Rowe/ Truman Archives/ Trumans return home after 3 years of renovation/Public Domain

The master bedroom itself has been redecorated so many times that it is pretty much unrecognizable, and one doubts that Trump would cover it in antique Chinese wallpaper like the Reagans did. But while Trump has the geography right (he is in the same spot) there is not a lot of history, the building inside is just 65 years old, younger than Donald Trump.

Tags: Ban Demolition | Preservation | Washington DC

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