Imagine the White House today with a sunken living room, Danish modern furniture and plywood paneling. The historic old building might have been redesigned in Mid-Century Modern had it not been for the preservation efforts of two architects born and trained in New England.
Few people realize the White House was in serious disrepair by 1948. President Harry Truman moved out for three years while the building was gutted to its exterior walls. Most of the original paneling and fixtures was quietly buried in a Virginia landfill.
The public was led to believe the Executive Mansion had been restored. Even Hillary Clinton thought she’d walked through hallways Lincoln walked. She was mistaken.
It could have been worse. The building might have been razed, if some members of Congress had their way. They wanted to build a modern new house for the President. (And remember, this was the 1950s.)
“People don’t realize how close they came to losing the White House,” said Robert Klara, author of The Hidden White House: Harry Truman and the Reconstruction of America’s Most Famous Residence.
Most people know how Jackie Kennedy restored the White House, but few know she was simply finishing the job Harry Truman started.
Franklin Roosevelt had neglected the upkeep of the White House during the Depression and World War II. The Army Corps of Engineers cautioned him about failing wooden supports, crumbling masonry and major fire hazards. Roosevelt ignored the warning.
After Roosevelt died in 1945, Harry Truman, his wife Bess and daughter Margaret toured the White House before moving in. They were shocked by the cracked, dingy walls and the furniture that belonged in a third-rate boardinghouse. “The White House upstairs is a mess,” wrote Margaret in her diary after their visit. “I was so depressed when I saw it.”
Shortly after the Trumans moved in they began to notice the White House ghosts. The floors heaved like the deck of a schooner. Half-ton chandeliers swayed, stretched and danced above the heads of guests oblivious to the danger. Draperies moved and groans emanated from the old walls.
Harry Truman eventually realized it was the sound of the mansion slowly collapsing.
In 1948 Truman was taking a bath on the second floor when his valet walked in and the floor buckled. Truman envisioned the tub falling onto the DAR tea party below, ‘wearing nothing more than his reading glasses.’
Then one day in June daughter Margaret was playing the piano in her sitting room when a piano leg plunged through the floor and through the ceiling of the family dining room below.
Abusing the White House
Franklin Roosevelt wasn’t the only president responsible for the disrepair of the White House.
The original architect hadn’t built foundations for the heavy interior walls, which sat on soft clay and gravel. The British burned the building in 1814, and scorched wooden beams were reused in its remodeling. Successive presidents had structural supports cut through to add indoor plumbing, gas lighting, electric wiring and heating ducts. Old water pipes, gas pipes and heating ducts were left in place, adding weight to the building.
In 1902, Teddy Roosevelt’s renovation and expansion of the White House took out a load-bearing wall. And in 1927, Calvin Coolidge added a concrete-and-steel third floor under a rebuilt roof, transferring weight to the unsupported interior walls.
Part of the problem was that work had to be done quickly because presidents were only guaranteed to live in the White House for four years.
By 1948, some said the White House was standing only from the force of habit.
By the time Margaret Truman’s piano leg fell through the floor, her father had quietly asked engineers and architects to investigate the White House’s condition. Truman didn’t want to publicize the sorry state of the building. Despite his dismal approval ratings, he was running for re-election. He knew the image of a collapsing White House was an apt metaphor for his plummeting popularity.
Harry Truman shocked pollsters by winning the 1948 presidential elections. After a summer of campaigning, the Trumans were ready to move back into the Executive Mansion. By then, investigators believed the White House was in imminent danger of collapse. They said it was too dangerous for the First Family to live in.
For the next three years, the Trumans lived in the Blair House across from the White House. It was dangerous there, too, because the house was so close to the sidewalk.
Demolition of the White House interior began without fanfare in December 1949. Fences were built around the building so the public couldn’t know what was going on inside them.
"It's surprising that people have no idea what happened to it," Klara said.
End of Part I of this story. Click here for Part II. Robert Klara will talk about the renovation of the White House at the New Haven Museum on Tuesday, Oct. 18, at 6 p.m., free of charge, and followed by a book signing.