An American Home

The White House is more than just a symbol of America's political power.

By Amy Leinbach Marquis

“The White House… is a living story of past pioneering, struggles, wars, innovations, and a growing America… a symbol of freedom, and for the hopes and accomplishments of her people.” –President Dwight D. Eisenhower 

In 1861, when a Union militia was called in to protect the White House as tensions rose around the nation’s capital, soldiers spilled from one elegant room into another, begging for food in the kitchen. In a starkly different landscape almost a century later, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth chatted privately with the Roosevelts in a well-dressed reception room—marking the royal family’s first visit since 1860. And on a summer day in 1964, the American quest for equality hit a powerful new stride when Lyndon B. Johnson sat down in the East Room to sign the Civil Rights Act.

But ordinary things happen in the White House, too. Despite the constant glare of media, the daily influx of visitors, and the stress that typically clings to those in charge of running a nation, the White House is also a refuge, a place where presidents can reconnect to the things that make them ordinary and human. Ulysses S. Grant ended each day feeding treats to his horses in the stables. Richard Nixon spoke to the portraits of past presidents in a quiet attempt to channel their wisdom. John F. Kennedy discovered a new interest in roses.

The White House, home to America’s finest leaders and stage for its most critical moments, has evolved dramatically since its construction began in 1792. When John Adams moved into the new building in November, 1800, there was no running water, and the telephone hadn’t yet been invented. The East Room was a mere unfinished shell, where Abigail Adams hung laundry from clotheslines. Small dirt roads connected the sprawling mansion to a city center dominated by open, rolling terrain, with views that cascaded toward the Potomac River, interrupted only by trees and grazing livestock.

But that serene landscape changed dramatically two years into the War of 1812, when the British set fire to several government buildings—including the White House. The only object saved, thanks to Dolley Madison, was an immense portrait of George Washington hanging in the State Dining Room. (It’s the oldest item in the White House today.) Three years later, James Monroe moved back in. By 1830, the north and South Porticos had been constructed, and a century later the east Wing was created. The West Wing was rebuilt and expanded in 1934.

But changes go beyond architectural, as the character of the White House is constantly evolving from one president to the next. John Adams planted a magnolia tree, now 200 years old, with branches that fill tall windows on the dining room’s south side. Franklin D. Roosevelt converted a long cloakroom into a small movie theater. Brand new bowling lanes were all the rage during Harry Truman’s administration. Dwight D. Eisenhower added a putting green outside the Oval Office. And President Clinton made good use of a new jogging track encircling the South grounds’ driveway.

President Woodrow Wilson’s addition—a flock of sheep on the White House lawn—reflected a more austere era. It was World War I, a time of scrimping and saving to support troops overseas, and the sheep replaced costly lawn equipment. The flock also produced enough wool to bring in $53,000 at an auction benefitting the Red Cross.

The imprint of each great leader still hangs in the air. It’s a powerful sensation, one that Jacqueline Kennedy reveled in. “I love the Lincoln room the most,” she said. “When you see that great bed, it looks like a cathedral. To touch something I know he had touched was a real link with him.”

Decades later, a young, new senator named Barack Obama had a similar experience: “As I stood in the foyer and let my eyes wander down the corridors,” he later wrote, “it was impossible to forget the history that had been made there—John and Bobby Kennedy huddling over the Cuban missile crisis... Lincoln alone, pacing the halls and shouldering the weight of a nation.”

Today, the public can enjoy similar experiences on self-guided tours scheduled up to six months in advance through their Congressional representative’s office. The White House and the surrounding President’s Park, which features Lafayette Park, Sherman Park, and the Ellipse, are all part of the National Park System. Although rangers don’t offer interpretive tours inside the building, Park Service staff care for the grounds, and twice a year, you can tour the gardens for free. The Park Service also offers in-depth interpretation at the White House Visitor Center, where visitors can view a video, explore exhibits, and glimpse a collection of more than 30,000 objects, including antiques and original artwork.

When President Obama and his family move into the White House this January, they will choose items from the collection to decorate their new home, gently shaping each room to their liking as they settle into traditions that began more than two centuries ago. It’s just one small way they’ll make this historic house their own.

Amy Leinbach Marquis is associate editor of National Parks magazine.

This article appears in the Winter 2009 issue.

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