That Dump, The White House

Responding to questions about why he spends so many weekends at Trump-branded properties, our president explained he did so because, “That White House is a real dump.” President Harry Truman held the same opinion. He complained that ghosts roaming throughout the building interrupted his sleep. What he heard was moaning and creaking from sagging floors and unreinforced walls.

Just prior to Truman’s victory in the 1948 election, architectural and engineering investigations determined the White House to be unsafe and. Wartime damage, including the British arson in the War of 1812, poorly-thought-out renovations, additional new technologies and the addition of a third floor on top of an inadequate foundation, put the building in danger of collapse. In 1949 the Truman family moved to the Blair House across the street for the three-year reconstruction.

The entire interior, except for the third floor, was gutted. Exterior stone walls were left in place and repainted. The project involved excavation for a basement, a new foundation, steel and concrete structure skeleton, replacement windows, new heating, ventilation, air conditioning, plumbing, electrical and communication systems. The project was scheduled for twenty-two months and a cost of $5.4 million. ($55.5 million in 2017 dollars.) Post-war inflation and labor shortages escalated the cost to $5.7 million and construction extended a few months.

Truman held down further cost overruns by furnishing the renovated mansion with reproductions rather than genuine historical period pieces. When Jacqueline Kennedy toured the White House, after the 1960 election, she was appalled by the tacky décor. Engaging expert assistance and asking for donations of money and historical pieces, she embarked on her mission to make the public areas of the building representative of and a monument to American history. She shared her success with the nation on Valentine’s Day 1962, giving a tour of the White House to the CBS television network.

That was more than fifty years ago. With the good taste of the White House’s current resident, perhaps it’s a good time for a fresh renovation.

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